Counter-Strike Hands-On Impressions

We spend some time with the first console iteration of the wildly popular online shooter.

There's no greater anomaly in the world of gaming than Counter-Strike. What began as a grassroots mod, literally created in a dorm room, has become the most widely played PC action game on the Internet--in just a few short years. This Christmas, Microsoft and Valve will bring the experience to console gamers for the first time via Xbox Live. Microsoft stopped by our offices today with the latest build of the game, and we played a few rounds against--and were summarily beaten by--the game's skilled bot AI. Early indications are that Counter-Strike Xbox is both faithful to the original blockbuster and a fully featured game in its own right.

During our demo, we chatted with Counter-Strike co-creator Jess Cliffe, one of the two guys who conceived and executed the original concept way-back-when. Avid fans will know him as the voice of Counter-Strike. He told us that perfecting the controls, mechanics, and overall feel of the Xbox version is of paramount importance to the development team, and, indeed, the gameplay felt fairly fluid and precise in the build that we played. We got to play on three maps: Dust and Italy, which should be eminently familiar to longtime CS players, and Vostok, a snowy demolition map made especially for the Xbox game (of the 20 maps that will initially be available, seven are Xbox-exclusive). The two old maps played very much like their PC counterparts, though they looked a lot more detailed. Cliffe pointed out that the Xbox version uses 24- and 32-bit textures instead of the 8-bit palettized ones found on the PC. From our brief time with it, Vostok also seemed to be a well-made and CS-like map, with plenty of cover to duck behind and a mixture of tight passageways, balconies, and open courtyards. More maps should be available, via Xbox Live updates, sometime after release.

In terms of actual gameplay, Counter-Strike played quite similarly to the original. The controls are modeled after Halo, so just about any Xbox owner worth his or her salt should adapt to them quickly. For those who are wary of the "mouse-look" function being mapped to the right analog stick (as it is in almost all console-based FPS games), Counter-Strike gives you a lot of room to tweak the look sensitivity to your taste. It also provides a "fast look" option that acts a bit like mouse acceleration: The longer you hold the stick in a certain direction, the faster your viewpoint will move. These options help give the control a snappy, responsive feel that seems somewhat analogous to that of the PC version. Of course, the player movement speed is quite fast, as it is on the PC, and, on the whole, the game plays quite like its forebear.

Finally, the bot AI in Counter-Strike for the Xbox covers a wide range of skill levels and seems pretty adept from our initial impressions. On the easiest setting, it'll move out into plain view, hesitate before taking shots, and allow you to sneak up from behind. In other words, it's perfect for new players. We then tried playing against bots set to the "professional" skill level but were quickly put in our place by combatants who effectively used cover and managed to pick us off with well-placed shots from a considerable distance. Cliffe told us that some of the work on the game's AI was actually outsourced to an independent developer, and it shows--as it seems that the bots will challenge even the most skilled PC Counter-Strike player.

From what we saw today, Counter-Strike on the Xbox is earning the prestige associated with its name. It's come a long way, both visually and mechanically, and when we get more hands-on time we'll bring you more coverage. Counter-Strike is currently slated to ship in November.

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