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Counter-Strike: Condition Zero

Counter-Strike, homebrew PC game gone mega-online-success, sees its highly anticipated sequel on Xbox Live. Expect to lose your job, your friends, and your desire to play anything but Condition Zero.

If you've played online PC games in college or visited a gaming cyber-café over the past three or four years, there's a good chance you've seen the military-minded first-person shooter Counter-Strike. Currently the most-played online game in the world, Counter-Strike quietly debuted as a free hobbyist-created patch for the single-player sci-fi hit Half-Life on the PC, steadily winning over Quake and Unreal converts for over a year before Valve packaged and sold a stand-alone retail version.

Using confined urban battlefields based on international military conflicts, combatants in the Americas, Europe, Australia and Asia form two teams of eight for skirmishes with a sizeable cache of modern firearms. The premise of Counter-Strike is straightforward: two opposing teams face off on a map and battle over goals such as keeping and rescuing hostages, or planting and defusing bombs. Weapons are modeled after their real-life counterparts, meaning that death visits frequently and abruptly. Once killed, players must sit out for the rest of the round while they watch their teammates carry on the task.

Putting aside the timely theme of terror and counter-terror, a concept that wasn't quite so obvious when the game debuted in 1999, several other facts better explain Counter-Strike's continued popularity on the PC.

First, even when compared to other heavy-hitting networked first-person shooters, Counter-Strike's perfect balance of accessibility (easy controls, low system requirements on the PC) and pseudo-realism (high stakes gameplay) makes the game instantly addictive. Counter-Strike was so finely tuned and balanced, it effectively managed to transcend the Half-Life engine from whence it came.

The opportunity to mimic real life is another big draw. Some players stick to roles such as snipers to get "cheap" kills blasting enemies from afar. Others, to the chagrin of military officials, prefer to play as terrorists--an option conspicuously missing from the government's own tactical shooter, America's Army. Though the terrorism theme broadly sets up the action, the lack of a structured storyline and one's related ability to customize the experience are key to Counter-Strike's success. Players can create new backdrops for their battles, while Valve itself has released patches featuring additional weapons and items.

But that was life on the PC. Valve's sequel, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, is scheduled for holiday release in 2003, and developer Ritual Entertainment has made some aggressive changes to the old formula for Xbox. Most significant is the fact that Condition Zero now supports single-player gameplay, a feature lacking from its PC counterpart. Although the option doesn't exist to play as a terrorist in single-player, the 20-plus solo missions will be self-contained. During these offline missions, the A.I. will use "bot" technology which allows not only for unpredictable enemy behavior, but also life-like teamwork among the friendlies.

As if to make up for the delay of Halo 2, Microsoft is ensuring that Xbox owners will get the best version of Condition Zero, with two exclusive solo missions, five extra multi-player maps, and two exclusive close-range weapons (the syringe and machete). Moreover, Microsoft promises the Xbox version will look significantly better than its PC cousin by taking advantage of Xbox hardware. Xbox Live support also guarantees real-time voice communication, a feature that's critical for a team-based game like Counter-Strike. Finally, with Xbox Live's closed, proprietary network, it will be much more difficult for players to cheat online, a problem that has plagued the PC version for years. Valve has announced that they will supply free, periodic updates to the game via Xbox Live, giving longevity to a game that's already an online legend.

Although there are certainly skeptics who can't fathom playing the game without a mouse and keyboard, Xbox Nation is confident that a superior version of Conditon Zero, alongside Halo 2, will finally seal the elusive success of Xbox Live.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in Xbox Nation.

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