Half-Life: Counter-Strike is one of the most unusual PC game releases in months. The hugely popular mod for Valve Software's Half-Life has been available for free download for well over a year, and you can still download it for free off the Internet now that it's been through beta testing and has reached version 1.0. And if you don't have the exceptional Half-Life, the new retail edition of Counter-Strike is a chance to get a stand-alone version of this outstanding multiplayer mod. The retail package also includes stand-alone versions of other multiplayer mods and game modes that normally require Half-Life, the best of which are also available free off the Internet: Team Fortress Classic, Opposing Force Multiplayer, Firearms, Redemption, Ricochet, and Wanted. Counter-Strike itself is a superb game that fully deserves top billing in this release.
Counter-Strike divides players into teams of terrorists and counterterrorists in four game modes: rescue/hold hostages, bomb target/defuse bomb, escape from/guard an area, and assassinate/guard a VIP. None of these ideas are particularly original, but they're well implemented, and they strike an effective balance between realistic stealth and frenzied action. The thematically varied maps maximize tactical possibilities with alternate routes, multiple levels, and abundant cover. Games are played in short rounds, and when you're killed, you sit out the round as an invisible observer; there are no deathmatch-style respawns. This creates a strong social aspect, because with "dead" players chatting, there can be an enormous sense of tension for the remaining players stalking each other. Another big impetus to stay alive is that the more successful you and your team are each round, the more money you earn for buying bigger and better weapons. Unfortunately this can lead to a huge imbalance in firepower when one team wins a few consecutive rounds.
One of Counter-Strike's biggest appeals has always been the selection of weapons. In addition to a knife and assorted grenades, there's a wide variety of accurately modeled pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, and sniper rifles. Three new weapons have been added to version 1.0: the H&K UMP .45, FN Five-Seven, and the SIG SG-550, though the retail version of the game uses invented names for all weapons.
Each weapon has unique characteristics, so mastering them all and learning which is best for different situations is a lot of fun, and it adds replay value. For instance, high-caliber weapons can penetrate thin walls and doors, which makes lugging a heavy belt-fed machine gun worthwhile when the enemy has been doing more hiding than fighting. Guns also have varied kicks, which makes full automatic fire a "spray and pray" affair - as in real life, short, controlled bursts are best for accurate fire. Effective weapon ranges are well simulated, so shotguns are brutal in close quarters and useless in large open spaces. Location-specific damage modeling means that shots to the head are more likely to get an instant kill.
Another part of the weaponry's appeal is the superlative sound effects. The guns sound remarkably realistic and powerful, which makes them viscerally fun to shoot. Equal care is given to other game sounds, like explosions, injuries from weapons or falling, glass shattering, and so on. Another good feature is the various audio messages you can send to teammates. They cover a whole range of warnings, status reports, and requests for backup. The only problem is that they all use the same voice, regardless of your team.
The Half-Life graphics engine may be dated now, but Counter-Strike has always used it to its fullest potential. The maps are visually appealing, and they have imaginative texturing and dramatic (though sometimes too dark) lighting effects. The updated character models in version 1.0 now use Valve's model-blending technology, along with even better skins than in the past, which makes for great-looking player graphics. Best of all are the firearm models and skins, which are some of the best you'll find in any shooter.
Counter-Strike is an online-only game that has experienced the mixed blessing of its immense popularity. You're guaranteed to find plenty of available game sessions online at any hour. However, cheating and even verbal abuse have long marred the gameplay in Counter-Strike. The game is not in any way newbie-friendly, despite the inclusion of a simple offline tutorial. You'll have to leave your ego at the door when you encounter the countless veteran players you'll face online. Fortunately, the abundance of experienced players means you can quickly learn the tricks of the trade through observation. It should also be noted that while Counter-Strike does require tactical thinking and teamwork, it's still a fast-paced shooter at its core. So not only are lightning-fast reflexes necessary to excel, but so are a fast connection and a low ping.
Still, despite its weaknesses, Counter-Strike is undeniably influential, and has already helped inspire countless similar mods and games. It's easy to see why: Counter-Strike has a simple yet effective design that's brought to life with superior maps and vivid graphics and sound. The end result is utterly exciting and addictive. Counter-Strike is a model of its kind and a thrilling action game.