"The Bomb Has Been Planted"

My friend Jon plays board games. Of the hundreds of games he plays, there is one – Advanced Squad Leader – that has the distinction of simply being referred to as the game. For many years the first person shooter Counterstrike was my _ the game_. It has recently been re-released for the Xbox and I’ve been playing it lately. It’s rapidly becoming the game once again.

Counterstrike is a team-based first person shooter: “terrorists” versus “counterterrorists.” Cops and robbers, with objectives. In any given mission, either the terrorists want to blow up some site and the CTs want to prevent them, or the terrorists are trying to hold hostages and the CTs are trying to rescue them. The game was made before 911, so “take a bunch of hostages and then kill them, along with yourself,” didn’t make it into the mission objectives list. And in perhaps the only nod to how the world has changed, the “terrorists have taken over a 747” map is not included in the game. I can’t say I blame them for that particular change.

“Enemy Spotted”

Desert EagleCounterstrike was revolutionary when it was released. Many of the innovations it introduced (or at least popularized) have since rippled through to other games in the genre, such that it’s easy to forget how stale and rigid the FPS genre was at the time; perhaps the only game that comes close to being as innovative as Counterstrike was the Team Fortress mod, albeit its creative impulse moved in a different direction.

What are the attributes that make Counterstrike what it is?

“Hold This Position”

When I heard the game was being released on the Xbox, I rolled my eyes and dismissively waved my paw. Shooters are meant to play with a keyboard and mouse – there’s no way that using two joysticks can even come close to the precision one gets with a well-tuned mouse. I eventually caved in and picked it up because a number of my friends were playing every night, and I wanted to play with that group.

I was right: it’s nothing like playing with a mouse. It’s completely different. And, to be perfectly honest, it ain’t that bad.

It is different. All of my elite keyboard and mouse based skills are meaningless here, of course. The game has a slightly slower pace than on the PC – aiming takes a bit longer, and it’s no longer possible to just whip the mouse around and change directions in an instant (there’s actually a control to do exactly that, but it is practically unusable, along with the ‘move quietly’ control, which is currently my biggest gripe with the game.) Weapon purchasing and selection is easy and intuitive. The core of the game is exactly the same as the Windows version.

One thing that goes a long, long way towards making up for the loss of the mouse is the consistency of the experience. Yes, it’s a bit of a burn that I can’t aim as well as I used to, but I know that everyone is using the same controller – everyone shares that handicap. Since the game is going through the Xbox Live service, my confidence that the people I’m playing with aren’t cheating is extremely high (except perhaps for this guy). And everyone has headsets. Oh, the joy of the headset.

Yeah, yeah, I know. “You could buy a headset for your PC!” But you know what? I didn’t. Neither did anyone else. Everyone using Xbox Live, for the most part, has the headset, and it brings a new dimension to the game. There’s something gloriously ominous about hearing someone on your squad say “Uh oh, they’re in the–” and then break off as he is brutally cut down in a hail of gunfire.

AK-47You can play team vs. team, of course, but the game ships with the ability to have you battle against “bots,” or computer controlled opponents. The AI on the bots is pretty good on the higher levels; they seem to know to work as a team. In other words, If we’re playing 2 humans against 2 bots, the humans almost always win even against the best bots. If we’re playing 8 humans against 8 bots, the bots routinely clean our clocks. They have the basics of Counterstrike-specific tactics down, too – they use grenades intelligently, will camp near the bomb after they have set it, and will go back to the hostage rescue point to ambush you if the CTs penetrate their defenses on the way in. I like the humans-vs-bots mode because, again, it introduces an innovative new feel to the game; an aggressive, violent, player vs. player game morphs into a somehow more cooperative experience. I don’t know why that is – maybe it’s all in my head – but that’s how it feels to me.

My criticisms of the game are few and far between. Probably the most annoying aspect is that your options for configuring scenario selection are fairly primitive; you’ve basically got a choice between “randomly choose between all available maps” or “keep playing this map over and over.” Load times between maps are higher than I’d like, but that was true in the Windows version of the game as well. Some of the best maps – notably the “Assault” map – are missing in the Xbox version; that’s compensated somewhat by the presence of some new, superb Xbox-only maps.

If you have an Xbox and you like (online) first-person shooters, you should get Counterstrike.

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