Sunday, March 28, 2004

Counterstrike : Condition Zero - First impressions

My CD of Counterstrike : Condition Zero arrived in the post from yesterday. I'd had it on preorder since October, so I was quite glad to finally get my hands on it. I must admit that after reading the Steam forums, I wasn't quite as eager to load up the game as I should have been. However, I duly cleared 1 Gb of space for the game and installed it.

At first I had numerous problems, not with the game but with my computer. Zonealarm Pro will insist on bringing up a dialog for each application that wants to connect to the internet, which makes the window focus switch away from the game itself. I couldn't ALT-TAB back into the game or kill the task properly, so I had to reboot. I have this problem with all Half-life-based games.

After that problem was solved, I spent a few seconds tuning the standard Half-life style options to my liking and started a campaign. I've never been very good at CS or any other FPS - on my public server I used to score more than my deaths on a good day, about the same as my deaths on an average day, and about zero on a bad day. I decided to start on "normal" difficulty level.

The game consists of a series of challenges. Each challenge, if successfully completed, earns you points to spend on your team. For the first round you're lucky if you can buy three level 1 bots to help you. As you complete each map, you get an extra point and, periodically, the next "level" of bots is opened up to you.

Aside from their "level", each bot is assigned a value for Skill, Coop and Bravery. Skill is obviously how well they shoot, etc. Coop is how well they will take your orders and work together. Bravery is how much they will charge in or whether they will run and hide somewhere. When you pick your level 1 bots you have to weigh up if you want a lot of maverick bots running around who can kill or less skilled bots who aren't afraid to charge in with you.

The game is split into groups of three maps. Each map has it's own challenges and you can't move onto the next without completing them. The challenges usually set you two or three criteria, e.g. You must rescue a hostage, you must kill three of the enemy, you must win a round in under 90 seconds. You play Counterstrike as you would online but with your bot buddies. Generally you keep playing until you have fulfilled all the criteria and you have won a certain number of rounds.

The maps also set a limit as to the round score, that is you must not go less than 2 rounds below the enemy score and to win you must win at least three rounds and win 2 more rounds than the enemy. You keep playing rounds until you either fail by losing too many rounds or you complete all the rest of the challenges set to you.

When you win a round you get another "reputation point" to spend on your team, which could mean an extra level one bot or upgrading one of your bots by one level, for example.

For once, the game can't "give away" it's ending from easy mode. Most games become dull if you start playing them at Easy level because you know where most of the enemy are going to be or how to solve the puzzles. In CS:CZ, the easy level is exactly the same as the Normal, Hard and Extreme levels but sets easier challenges. You may have to win a round within 90 seconds rather than 60 for example. This lets you ease into the game nicely without spoiling it for you.

The difficulty range is set quite well. A total CS newbie will struggle through the Easy level but just enough to show them that it's possible to complete everything if they get enough practice. Normal suited me just fine and was a challenge to complete. Hard should satisfy the hardcore gamers lust for brutal play and for Extreme you might as well go download an aimbot now.

The longevity of the title is increased by it's smooth difficulty curve and by it's freeform "Custom game" mode where you can try and play any sort of game with the bots from 1 vs 1 pistols only to 16 v 16, they can only have sniper rifles. Also the multiplayer aspects, although identical to Steam CS, will make sure this title is played at least as long as Steam is alive.

The graphics are, to most people, disappointing. I was reading the material for CS:CZ before it came out and could see that it was only going to be a Halflife mod, which means that it can't do any more than the original CS. However, considering that, it looks better than I expected. The maps are all retextured versions of the originals, but with slight changes. For example bomb site A on de_dust2_cz actually incorporates more crates on the upper level to camp behind. The retexturing improves the look immensely and the dust maps take on a much more "Persian" feel, with tiled wall, marble floors, cracked and crumbling masonry.

Sounds are pretty much identical to the original but the bots always keep you informed of their progress through short sound samples. You can also you your standard communication commands to get them to do things, like "Fall back", "Get out of there, it's gonna blow!" and even "Report in". The lower-level bots tend to be a bit dumb. They feel like their reactions have been deliberately slowed by half-a-second. It's common to find them to walk round corners and face each other off for a second or two before either of them fire.

As the bots progress, they get better and better and the higher level bots are quite a challenge. The bots also follow your orders quite well, but only if their Coop rating is quite good. Sometimes they'll still run off on their own but saying "Follow Me" or "Stick Together, Team" will give you a following big enough for your purposes. The bots also tend to react to "Need Backup" quite well, rushing to your aid, and they also announce everything they do.

It can be quite useful to have a bot go to the opposite bombsite to warn you if they see anyone and if they see the bomb carrier or the planted bomb. Sometimes the AI slips up slightly, though. Apart from the fairly-major problem with hostages, they quite good and worth the money for CS:CZ alone. If you have a mission involving rescuing hostages, the bots can sometimes run off and kill everyone on the enemy, meaning the round ends and you don't get credit for any hostages in tow.

This is an annoying bug, not necessarily the AI's fault, but especially when you need to rescue lots of hostages. I found that a good workaround was to get a hostage and then keep issuing the "Cover Me" command to stop the bots running off and finishing off the enemy before you can get the hostages home. It doesn't always work, but it's a good tactic.

The AI also has silly niggles. If the bomb is planted the bots are aware of this and will try to look at both bomb sites to ascertain where the enemy has hidden it. Unfortunately, this can mean that even though a bot has just walked through bombsite A unscathed, they will retrace their steps just to check, leaving you one or two men down in the critical firefight by the planted bomb. They also have a nasty habit of standing in your line of fire if you're a sniper, but that's not really any different to playing with real people.

Performance wise, the programmers seem to have done quite a good job. If you can run CS, you'll run CS:CZ at an almost identical speed. I did have a slight problem during installation in that, after taking 1Gb and installing itself in a standalone directory, it then insists on having to be copied to the Steam directory if you want to play online. This means that you need around 2-2.5 Gb for this game alone. My Half-Life based games on my computer occupy about 15 Gb between them!

Also, it doesn't install into Steam automatically. You have to select the CS:CZ icon on your Steam list, click "Buy Now" (which I imagine is a little scary for a computer novice to attempt) and then select "I already own this title". Steam will then copy the CS:CZ files into it's own directory and upload your CD key to Steam so that you can play online. Don't forget that you can only allocate your CS:CZ key to one Steam account!

The deleted scenes component of the game is basically just a cleanup of what one developer of the game inherited from the previous one. It's quite nice of the publishers to include this as a bonus. Unforunately, the original CS:CZ idea was for a normal Half-life mod along the lines of Blue-shift, but with Counterstrike weapons and a few "bonuses" thrown in, like a blowtorch and a fibre-optic camera. These extras are gimmicky and can only be used in scripted areas, taking away the free-form nature of the Counterstrike game. I'm quite glad that the idea was scrapped and that CS:CZ was sold in it's current form.

Online play is the same as CS but with the new maps. People are already loading these maps and some conversions of them into their normal CS servers which misses the point. You buy this game for the bots and offline play, not for the maps. The standard Dedicated Server packages for CS:CZ allow server admins to add the bots to their servers without any downloading or (much) configuration.

Overall, the game is fun and challenging. £16.99 from means that it's in the "mod/expansion" price range, at least in the UK, and that's exactly what you get... a worthwhile mod with good bots and fun online play with a snippet of the programmers mindset from a few years back. Complaints might include longevity, with only a few maps more than CS, but the bots should provide the average gamer which a few weeks of spread-out gaming, not to mention the Deleted Scenes plus masses of online and offline practice potential.

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