Counter-Strike: Condition Zero Preview

We've got new details on this unique first-person shooter from the makers of Half-Life: Opposing Force.


At the recent Game Developers Conference we caught up with Randy Pitchford, president of Gearbox Software, the company that's now polishing up the forthcoming Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. As you probably know, the original Counter-Strike began as a multiplayer mod for Half-Life but later became a phenomenon: Its intense action, original gameplay, and real-world context of antiterrorist warfare made it a fantastic game. And the fact that you could download it for free made it incredibly popular.

Yet even Counter-Strike's biggest fan would readily admit that the game has some serious problems. Matches played over the Internet are often plagued by cheaters, and since the game has no single-player component to speak of, Counter-Strike is extremely intimidating for new players to get into. The central goal of Counter-Strike: Condition Zero is to address both of these problems. We got an extensive look at Condition Zero in action and came away impressed with the game's innovative solutions on how to make Counter-Strike better than ever. While we've been skeptical about the idea of a single-player Counter-Strike game, in reality Condition Zero is going to be much more than that.

Some of the visual upgrades that Condition Zero will receive include enhanced character models.
Some of the visual upgrades that Condition Zero will receive include enhanced character models.

Counter-Strike: Condition Zero will use an enhanced version of the same engine that's used for Counter-Strike. This thing is seriously getting on in years by now, but you wouldn't know it by looking at Condition Zero. The designers at Gearbox have added some great new graphical touches like alpha blending, which allows for the use of foliage and weather effects in Condition Zero's new maps. High-resolution textures and far more detailed character models (along with some new animations) also help make the game look much better than the original. Visually, the difference between Condition Zero's visuals and those of Counter-Strike is a lot like what Gearbox did to make Half-Life: Blue Shift improve the appearance of the original Half-Life.

Doesn't Counter-Strike need a bigger graphical overhaul by now? Perhaps, but the decision to use the same engine in Condition Zero isn't just a cheap way to minimize development time--it's to ensure that Condition Zero retains the fast pacing and distinct feel that millions of Counter-Strike fans associate with the game. To translate Condition Zero to another engine would be to risk compromising the game's near-perfect action. Besides, Condition Zero isn't being billed as a sequel--it's more of an update. It's not just a single-player game.

Condition Zero is being designed to provide a complete Counter-Strike experience, so the single-player portion is just part of it. But the game's 20 new maps will be playable in either the single-player or the multiplayer mode. These maps will span six different real-world hotspots, which will pit counterterrorists against militant groups in South America, the Middle East, Western Europe, the former Soviet Union, Asia, and even the United States. There will actually be two types of single-player modes in Condition Zero. Optionally, you will now be able to experience the classic Counter-Strike gameplay by playing with and against computer-controlled bots, which simulate the team-based action of the original. But the main single-player campaign of Counter-Strike: Condition Zero sounds even more exciting. It's not just a series of linked, scripted missions like what you'd find in the single-player mode of just about any shooter. It's an open-ended, dynamic campaign that draws from some unexpected influences. It sounds like it's going to be a lot of fun, and you'll find out all about it next.

Zero Times Infinity

Gearbox's Randy Pitchford cites that console games such as the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series and the driving game Gran Turismo 3: A-Spec are what influenced Condition Zero's single-player mode--not shooters. Pitchford, who's worked on successful shooters such as Duke Nukem 3D and Half-Life: Opposing Force, wanted to do something different with Condition Zero, recognizing that a bunch of linked single-player missions probably wouldn't be much fun. At best, they wouldn't be very different from what you'd find in any other tactical shooter, and because of the realistic damage modeling in Counter-Strike, they'd probably force you to do a lot of saving and reloading.

Enemy AI will behave realistically, and take advantage of any weaknesses in your tactics.
Enemy AI will behave realistically, and take advantage of any weaknesses in your tactics.

The solution was to use a single-player structure similar to what's found in some of the best recent console games: an open-ended goals system where you're free to revisit the same levels to accomplish multiple different objectives. You don't necessarily have to accomplish every goal in a level to proceed--you just need to accomplish a certain number of goals before the next level can be unlocked. This allows for a nonlinear experience as well as plenty of replay value, since you'll later return to older levels but with new equipment and new strategies.

There are three categories of goals in each level, and depending on which category you choose, four different goals will be available for the mission--that's 12 total goals per level, times 20 levels, which equals a whole lot of different goals. Regardless of what your mission objectives are, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero will still play a lot like Counter-Strike. You'll have a strict time limit during which you'll try to accomplish your objectives. If you fail, you can just try again. If you accomplish some objectives but not others, you can just try again. If you accomplish every objective, you can try one of the two other sets.

This gameplay style worked extremely well for console games such as Super Mario 64 and the Tony Hawk's Pro Skater series. In those games, the vast, open-ended levels needed to be learned and explored. Since the original Counter-Strike is much the same way--by now, players have grown intimately familiar with each of that game's various maps--Condition Zero is partly just trying to encourage this behavior. You'll be rewarded for reattempting a level multiple times. As such, the single-player mode will also help get you primed and ready for when you're fighting in the same locales in multiplayer.

A US Navy SEAL lays suppressive fire from a ledge.
A US Navy SEAL lays suppressive fire from a ledge.

Some mission objectives in the single-player mode will be what you'd expect from Counter-Strike: hostage rescuing, bomb defusing, elimination of terrorist forces, and so on. Others are more unorthodox: You may have to hold a position for a certain amount of time against waves of enemies. Or you might be charged with having to finish the level without reloading your weapon or complete it with a 50 percent or greater accuracy. Gearbox is including plot-focused scenario objectives, as well as arcade-style skills tests in Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. Above all, these are designed to be fun challenges.

You'll always play as the good guys in the single-player mode. The game casts you as a squad leader in an international antiterrorist unit that comprises elite members from the world's most prestigious military agencies, such as the US Navy SEALS, the British SAS, the Russian Spetsnaz, and the French GIGN. You'll begin by going through a training program that teaches you the ropes--in context, as squad leader, you'll actually only be testing your training program to make sure it'll be useful to your squad members. Throughout the game, your artificially intelligent squad will follow your orders and will also automatically support your actions. Read on to find out about Condition Zero's squad AI, as well as the new equipment you'll find in the game.

Squad Tactics and New Gear

Condition Zero will have true squad AI. Your squadmates will take one another's actions into account and won't just act autonomously. You'll hear them radioing each other with important bits of information. They'll try to regroup if they get split up, they'll use covering fire and sweeping tactics when they advance into new locations, and they'll listen to your orders. The members of your group will be taken from a pool of more than a hundred unique characters and will be rated differently in categories like small arms, demolitions, tactics, and awareness. You'll earn money as you accomplish various objectives, and you'll be able to spend that on enhancing your team members' skills and on purchasing new equipment.

The riot shield and new smoke effects are some of the other enhancements to Counter-Strike.
The riot shield and new smoke effects are some of the other enhancements to Counter-Strike.

The enemy AI is designed to be an excellent match for your own forces. Gearbox is using a waypoint system to determine where and how your enemies will move about each map, but if you set up choke points or kill zones, the AI will catch on to this and take alternate routes. It's designed to learn quickly and act as unpredictably as you'd expect from such an opponent. Gearbox is also making sure that Counter-Strike's realistic damage doesn't make the game needlessly frustrating. The AI won't be supernaturally accurate and generally won't be able to shoot you right off the bat. You'll just have to make your own shots count.

Gearbox's Randy Pitchford states that of all the changes and additions in Condition Zero, the biggest investment of time and effort went into developing the game's AI. Gearbox hired on experienced bot programmers to do this and has even designed the AI so that character behavior can be easily customized by tweaking parameters in a text file. Want a tougher challenge? Make your foes more accurate. Want to work on flushing out an overly defensive opponent? Tell the AI to hang back and hold position. There's a lot of flexibility in Condition Zero's AI, and Pitchford hopes this will come across in the single-player game and that the highly accessible AI system will also be a lot of fun to mess with for some players. Above all, the intent is to create a very gradual learning curve for the game so that someone who's never played a shooter before can experience some initial success, while later on, the game should provide a realistic challenge even for veteran players.

Your squad mates will watch your back, not riddle it with bullets.
Your squad mates will watch your back, not riddle it with bullets.

Condition Zero will introduce a number of new weapons to Counter-Strike's existing arsenal. Some of these include the French-made FA-MAS, a submachine gun that can fire in full-auto or highly accurate three-round burst modes; the M-60, a well-known machine gun that's unmatched in its ability to deliver suppressing fire; and the Galil, an Israeli-made assault rifle. Some of the more unusual additions include a ballistic shield, which you can equip in conjunction with a simple semiautomatic pistol. You either fire the pistol with the shield at your side or put the shield in front of you as a defensive barrier. It almost totally obscures your vision, and you can't move as quickly with the shield up--but it'll absorb most small arms fire, letting you protect yourself as well as any other squadmates nearby. Condition Zero will also include a few new explosive weapons, such as a Molotov cocktail, a tear gas bomb, and a disposable LAW rocket--intended for use against armored targets but nonetheless effective against flesh-and-blood enemies.

So what about the cheating problem? Gearbox thinks it's come up with a solution, thanks to a technology that Valve Software has been working on for the last year. Next, find out about this technology, as well as how Condition Zero will stick to its roots--namely, about how some parts of it are going to remain free.

Geared for Success

At the Game Developers Conference, Valve Software unveiled its Steam technology, basically a broadband software delivery platform. Using what Valve calls Steam-powered applications, you will reportedly be able to install and start running software faster than if you were to install it off of a CD-ROM. While Steam may have a significant impact on traditional notions of software distribution, another of its practical uses will be that it can help put a stop to cheating in online games.

Randy Pitchford succinctly explained that, by using Steam, an online game can continually update itself undetectably. The designers of Condition Zero are planning to use this feature to stay one step ahead of the cheaters. Ever noticed how cheating in Counter-Strike tends to go away for a little while after a new version is released? By using Steam, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero will effectively be updating itself constantly, preventing cheaters from getting a lock on the code but at the same time ensuring that all players are running the same code.

Valve's Steam technology should alleviate the cheating problem that currently plagues Counter-Strike.
Valve's Steam technology should alleviate the cheating problem that currently plagues Counter-Strike.

Some of Condition Zero will be available as a free download for current Counter-Strike players. The Steam-powered solution to the cheating problem will be integrated into the existing game. Likewise, the 20 new Condition Zero maps, as well as the new equipment, will all be made available for download. However, if you want to play with the high-definition graphics, and if you want Condition Zero's single-player mode, then you'll need to get the full retail version.

Condition Zero sounds like the best of two worlds. Hard-core Counter-Strike players won't even have to pay for much of what it has to offer. That'll help ensure that thousands upon thousands of players are still playing the game online at any given moment, and hopefully Valve's Steam technology will indeed help mitigate the rampant cheating problems that have plagued the game in the past. Meanwhile, the retail release of Condition Zero promises to introduce Counter-Strike to a whole new audience. For one thing, the engine enhancements make the game look at least comparable to other currently available shooters, yet the game will run equally well as it already does, which means even those with low-end systems should get great performance.

But the best part about Counter-Strike has always been the gameplay. If Gearbox successfully implements the AI as it intends to, then the prospect of playing Counter-Strike against computer-controlled bots should be a real draw for some people. They'd be able to experience the fun of Counter-Strike without any of the pressure that's often found in multiplayer matches. They'd also be able to enjoy Counter-Strike without a fast Internet connection or without any Internet connection at all. Moreover, Condition Zero's original single-player campaign mode is an innovative twist on conventional single-player shooter gameplay. At a time when most single-player shooters are highly scripted, and more like amusement park rides than like arcade-style challenges, Condition Zero will try to reintroduce a skills test into single-player shooter gameplay. If Gearbox pulls it off, you'll find players competing for best times and comparing their high scores, or trying to accomplish seemingly impossible feats against the computer AI.

Meanwhile, Counter-Strike in its pure, original form will live on. Since it's already one of the greatest multiplayer shooters ever, Gearbox has no intentions of trying to reinvent the wheel with Condition Zero. But it's adding a lot of new maps done by some highly experienced mapmakers, new equipment that should add some satisfying strategic twists, and new gameplay options that should make the game accessible to everybody. Sounds like a win-win situation.

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