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Half-Life: Counter-Strike (PC) artwork

Half-Life: Counter-Strike (PC) review

"What happens when game modification tools are landed in the hands of a few amateurs, whose game design plan borders on sadistic and deplorable? A nearly unprecedented, sweeping proliferation of lamentably poor ideas within an entire game genre. Call me an iconoclast, but there are a number of mainstream games that don’t deserve the frothing praise they get, and Half-Life: Counter-Strike is the most egregious offender of the pack. It’s not so much its failure to be an enjoyable game that entitles..."

What happens when game modification tools are landed in the hands of a few amateurs, whose game design plan borders on sadistic and deplorable? A nearly unprecedented, sweeping proliferation of lamentably poor ideas within an entire game genre. Call me an iconoclast, but there are a number of mainstream games that don’t deserve the frothing praise they get, and Half-Life: Counter-Strike is the most egregious offender of the pack. It’s not so much its failure to be an enjoyable game that entitles Counter-Strike to this dubious honor (though in no way do I intend to downplay that), but rather the undeniable influence that it has had on the genre; an influence that is profoundly negative. With the over-saturation of realistic and semi-realistic shooters on the market, you might easily have Counter-Strike faithfuls telling you what a joke it would be to call yourself a real First-Person Shooter player if you haven’t played the alleged king of tactical shooters.

And if for some outrageous, inconceivable reason you embark on a relentless pursuit of the prestigious “real First-Person Shooter player” title, I implore you to rest easy – the joke’s on them. If Counter-Strike was actually intended to be an enjoyable game, then the result is a disaster of massive proportions. But if the real intention was to create a game as loathsome as humanly possible, then Counter-Strike is a resounding success. The fruit of the development team’s “labor” is fit for no honorable throne, the one for tactical shooters not withstanding. To call Counter-strike “tactical” is an even bigger joke; the kind of joke that got tired years ago, and was never actually funny in the first place. You see, ‘tactical’ is one of those fuzzy labels in gaming that’s thrown around to the point where its meaning becomes horribly obscured. Granted, Counter-Strike obviously doesn’t follow the footsteps of unrealistic, over-the-top shooters like Quake, so if we really wanted to put Counter-Strike under some sort of sub-classification, the only apt term that comes to mind is “absurd.”

Even if the premise behind Counter-Strike doesn’t seem that way. Counter-Strike allows any sedentary couch vegetable to jump into the seasoned combat boots of a constipated-looking, but fervent terrorist or overly trained counter-terrorist. Armed to the teeth with a comprehensive selection of the latest in small arms, you and your fellow squad mates are completely equipped to accomplish whatever the powers that be demand, whether it’s planting an explosive or rescuing helpless hostages. And you know what? This premise is fine, but unfortunately, only Counter-Strike’s superficial aspects are fine. Underneath this acceptable, relatively understated surface is one of the most genuinely detestable games the genre has ever had the displeasure of seeing. Round-based gameplay; the money system; flash grenades – these are all trademark Counter-Strike gameplay elements, and no matter how tame they may seem, they’re actually some of the worst and most counterproductive ideas ever conceived.

Now picture, if you will, a game of half-court basketball between two players, in which the skill disparity is conspicuous. Forgive me and please stay with me; I am not digressing – this is far more relevant than it may seem. Now to get back on track, who do you think will win? My bet is on the better of the two players – he already has the skill advantage and needs nothing more. But by altering a seemingly small rule, that better player actually does get something more. That rule would be that once someone has made a shot, instead of giving the ball to the defender who just failed (loser gets ball), giving it back to the player who just made the shot (winner gets ball). Now even betting on the outcome becomes a ridiculous idea – once the more talented player gets a hold of the ball, he becomes nearly unstoppable. With the more talented player receiving it again and again, not only is his victory practically ensured, but the less talented player has nearly no chance of enjoying himself or improving his game. For a more succinct analogy, it’s like stealing from the poor and giving to the rich – a very deplorable act indeed.

Tragically enough, that’s exactly happens in Counter-Strike, and it’s all thanks to the patented money system. Your single resource in Counter-Strike, the weak American dollar, is the key to equipping yourself with whichever weapon suits your purpose, as well as an array of both useful and unnecessary secondary equipment. Some may think it’s a nifty idea, and others would say it’s a benign feature that has no overarching effect, but both notions are absolutely false – the money system is singularly hostile to balance and fun. As each game progresses, the winning team accrues money at a much faster rate than the losing team. Some servers tinker with the allocation of funds, but this barely helps; it doesn’t fix problems, because the money system is simply a problem in itself. It’s on servers with default settings however, that it works to full effect, ensuring that the winning (and probably more skilled) team is furnished with the best high-powered rifles, Kevlar vests, and grenades money can buy, while the losing team bravely fights against all hope, clothed in naught but their rugged uniforms and brandishing nothing but woefully inferior submachine guns. The money system’s existence is such that on any given server, at any given second, Counter-Strike is horribly unbalanced.

And would you believe that the infamous money system isn’t the only example of Counter-Strike’s engendered bias towards better players? The notorious round system, touted for its supposed realism and suspense, works to a similar, but much more inconspicuous and long-lasting effect. Rather than using the tried-and-true system of having players continuously re-spawn after death, Counter-Strike relegates slain players to a spectator mode. Here they must stay, until either all players on one team are dead or an objective is accomplished. Not only is this absolutely boring for players of all levels, but it ensures that less skilled players are given little, if any chance to close the gap separating the skilled and the unskilled. Some may say they can learn by watching, but just like how you can pick up a few new moves by watching people play basketball, it’s absolutely no substitute for actual practice. So besides favoring the talented over untalented, Counter-Strike constantly keeps the disparity as wide as possible. The fact that this exists directly within the game’s construction isn’t merely stupid – it’s obscene. The obscenities extend far beyond that – they pervade nearly every aspect of the game.

So if you manage to suffer through spectating without being bored to tears, the next round begins, and you must purchase a new weapon before hopelessly throwing yourself against the other team once again. Bringing up Counter-Strike’s buy menu would elicit nothing other than “what do I choose?”… upon first glance. It’s quickly revealed that very few of these weapons are practical choices, which are usually beyond, or barely within the financial reach of a losing team. And soon operating the cumbersome buy menu becomes reflexive and mechanical, because buying anything other than what’s within the small range of practical equipment is a waste of money. And whether you’re skilled or unskilled, rich or poor, you can’t afford to waste money. You have an objective to complete and little time to waste; stay focused, battle-hardened combat veteran.

But to say Counter-Strike is a heavily objective-driven game would be a libel. Technically, “kill the enemy” is an objective in itself, but if you look at it that way, Doom is objective-driven. No matter how you look at it however, Counter-Strike is only marginally more objective-driven than the genre’s accepted father. Planting bombs and rescuing hostages are both quickly forgotten when killing the other team is simply a much more feasible alternative. That’s right – it’s an alternative. In actual objective-driven games, killing enemies is something you do while attempting the mandatory objective. The only time when objectives become important in Counter-Strike is in the rare case that killing the other team actually seems less feasible – in other words, when a losing team is poorly equipped. Even in this case, a tremendous team effort is required, about equivalent to the effort necessary to simply kill the better equipped team. So while it would seem that the objectives counteract the severe imbalance caused by the money system, they don’t.

Even if you somehow manage to look past all of this (And I think it would take an act of God to do so), one problem remains that wounds this crippled game beyond recovery: not only is the actual combat much too dull – it’s simply much too absurd. For a game that’s seen as spearheading the realistic, tactical shooter, Counter-Strike actually fosters and infinitely rewards players for both absolutely lame and unrealistic tactics. Mid-combat jumping plays a surprisingly prevalent role, and if playing in a public server is any testament, then knowing how to use the game’s main sniper rifle as a powerful, all-range weapon that kills in one hit is a key aspect of becoming a good Counter-Strike player. In fact, the only satisfaction from killing an enemy is not having to spectate yet. Above all however, the flash grenade has got to go; whatever strategic value it has is completely overshadowed by the sheer amount of fun deprivation it causes.

The only way to avoid depriving yourself of fun would be to avoid Counter-Strike entirely. Superficially it looks like a good game – the weapon and character models belie Counter-Strike’s amateur nature – albeit, a game that’s many years old. And the worst tragedy here isn’t Counter-Strike itself – it’s that with Counter-Strike’s huge success, many retail and modification developers use it as a model, and this, my friends, is a truly sad state of affairs.

For the sake of the genre’s future, I beg – please stop this madness…

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Community review by radicaldreamer (October 23, 2004)

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