Every single time I’ve sat down to write this review, I’ve always thought “best research it some more by playing a round or two”. It’s usually 2am by the time I’ve finished, and for the update, 4am. We also make no apologies for having taken all the screenshots after death- stand still in this game and it’s curtains for that round. In addition, CSS is an online game - there wouldn’t have been remakes of the classic Prodigy and Train maps back in November when the game was shipped together with Half-Life 2, which have contributed to making the game even better.
That’s nothing new though. Counter-Strike’s move to the Source Engine has ushered in better animation on the hostages, who finally look like human beings, and everything’s much more physical - allowing weapons and scenery to get scattered, windows clearly broken, and falling from ladders more painful than before. The welcome benefit of this remake is that even if you have the very basic weapon in each class (which were rubbish in the old v1.6), you have a better chance of taking on someone with superior equipment. Either this, or you could pick something you’re comfortable with and practice until you’re a real threat with it, even though you might have other items in your arsenal. You’re now allowed two flashbang grenades, which unfortunately work as well on your own side as the enemy. For the counter-terrorists in a DE (bomb prevention) map, the humble defuse kit and therefore speed of defusal, can decide the difference between victory and defeat. You can now pick up fallen kits and grenades from the dead - the former giving CTs a chance if they’re delayed on the way to the bomb, the latter being useful to either side.
It’s a simple pair of scenarios in Counter-Strike; either prevent the terrorists from bombing a site, or succeed. In CS maps you must rescue all the hostages, or stop the counter-terrorists from doing so. In both storylines, the basic team deathmatch option of wiping out the opposing side is also available. The VIP escort mode has been dropped, along with the other terrorist character skins. CSS takes the most popular elements of what went before and revs them up, and while you expect good graphics, it was a surprise to see readable lettering on the terrorist bomb’s IDE cable, and animated numbers as you arm or defuse it. That’s the level of attention to detail with which Valve remade these maps and the game, and we couldn’t change the subject without mentioning the lighting effects in the new version of Prodigy, which ape the Doom III “swinging lights” trick and sparking bare wires.
When it was launched we hadn’t seen the 10,000 server-strong peak as we did in its heyday four years ago, but that all changed a few weeks later, as is the nature of online games when updated - we’ve seen 13, 500 servers for CSS when it was reloaded. Neither could we have predicted players happily forking out for server costs if they enjoyed a game as much as this- which they are doing globally in their thousands, both on a casual and organised clan basis. Only the redesigned CT character models have put a strain on less than new computers throughout all the Steam updates but to really enjoy single-player HL2, you needed 1Gb of RAM. That level of memory will be more than enough for CSS, with a processor standing at 1.2GHz. Although we’ve torture tested a PIII/733 and received above average performance, the faster the better as always with PC Games.
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In the Half-Life 2 review we remarked that 3D Shooter fans would find out what it was like to get hooked on a game, in the manner of Championship Manager players. CSS is an even better comparison, because you’re much more likely to dig your heels in and hope for improvement throughout multiple rounds on one map (much like a football match which your team is losing). This is where your time will disappear. The game’s enjoyable, but when you’re stuck on a losing streak, it’s also cruel to continually get beaten and you keep thinking “next round” or “next map” - even when the next map can be half an hour to an hour away. In the longer-timed games, generally you’ll be able to cram in 15 rounds if they’re short sharp confrontations. This also depends on the number of players in the server as well, on average it’s 16, but the larger servers and maps can see 32, and these play more like Unreal Tournament than Counter-Strike- but are still great fun. The bots have also received a tweak, so depending on the server, these will present a real and sometimes unreal challenge, as there’ll be no lag to slow them down. The “Zombie” mod can see up to 16 bots with knives versus four human CTs, making for fast paced hunting, but of course this is best enjoyed on the larger maps.
The only limit to the fun is whether you like or hate the maps on the server rotation. For me, the Aztech map, which had three versions prior to Source, is all played out and I tend to skip servers if it comes up. Some other people will only play the two Dust maps and rotate their server endlessly based on them. Thankfully there are so many servers, that it’s a rare occasion when you’re stuck for a game. The only other gripe is that after some automated updates, it will take a while for the game to remember your favourite servers or you have to search and bookmark them all over again. In that case, it’s best to at least remember the server names or even write the IP addresses down in order to find them as quickly as possible.
There's not much left to say. If you want a fast-moving multiplayer experience but not so ultra-real that you end up in Tom Clancy country, Counter-Strike, as part of this great retail bundle, remains a classic in its own right and has been taken to a higher level. Bundled together with Half-Life 2, it's still the best value we've seen for months. Although the 5-CD version has dropped in price, we say stick with the DVD for £14 per game (£28). If you want to be cutting edge, have a broadband connection and lots of time, you might even want to buy it over Steam as thousands did before HL2 arrived in boxes. Although one of the graphical updates is slightly more demanding on your processor, the fact that you might only need a memory upgrade for overall good performance is a tribute to the great programming and the wish to keep things close to the original. If you just bought HL2, then just load this up and get going, so you can take a break from headcrabs and zombies.