Counter-Strike: Condition Zero Review
Few games have had a development cycle as rough as Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. What started off as a single-player version of the original online smash hit turned into a soap opera of fired developers, false starts, and other debacles that made this game almost as much of a joke as Duke Nukem Forever. Let's not even get into the fact that the announcement of the game going gold resulted in a delay of its release by almost six months.
The sad part is simply that Condition Zero didn't even have much hype to live up to. The original plan was to make a story-based single player campaign based upon the fairly well-established Counter-Strike gunplay, and then to spice up the multiplayer game at the same time. While this has been delivered to some extent with CS:CZ, the game presents little else to entice players.
This is the same old Half-Life engine we've seen for the last five years with a couple of new special effects that are almost as old as the underlying technology itself. While I can go on about how Condition Zero is a great buy for those who want a new game on a slow computer, players will soon find out that this is actually is an old game with only a couple of new elements. Detail textures are now in the engine, and some fairly decent rain effects were added as well; while both of these effects look fairly decent, these graphics still aren't going to wow anybody.
Many of the classic maps were retextured with art that has more definition, it doesn't seem to have any more personality than the old art. One could even argue that messing with the classic look of these maps might have actually been a bad idea. Of course we still maintain the stability of the original Half-Life engine, and so far everything seems mostly bug-free.
The only exception I see to this is Steam. Steam is Valve Software's streaming download technology that is being used for all their future products. The release of Steam and the conversion of their online games to it (classic Counter-Strike included) went badly for Valve, as their network couldn't handle the load of players trying to all get on it at once. Months later, Steam has improved, but it's still got bugs that many players are simply not willing to deal with. They might be willing to deal with these problems when they have to use it to play Half-Life 2 in a few months, but maybe not for CS:CZ. Of course, this isn't a review of Steam - it's a review for a game that runs on Steam. Nevertheless, it is an integral part of the technology and it does have its problems.
Condition Zero has added a new element to the game: AI-controlled bots. These bots have distinct personalities with names and voices, and these characters can be chosen by the player when going into a mission. Here, Turtle Rock & Valve have done an excellent job streamlining the interface. The multiplayer interface is also excellent, with server selection and options popping up as windows on top of the game itself. None of that interface is new to those who have already used Steam, but this is the first retail product that includes this interface.
CS:CZ's controls are excellent, and they'll feel right at home for veteran CS players. The practice you get against bots can be directly applied to online play, since the single player action is so similar to the multiplayer game.
Turtle Rock did make an effort to give the game at least a bit of a facelift, but it's just not enough. Many maps look different, but they don't play any different: they couldn't really help this because Turtle Rock needed to maintain compatibility with the original CS. The recently released v1.1 patch did add new player models and weapon skins to the game, but neither the new animations nor the models really look any better than the old ones in my opinion.
While the detail textures and weather effects go that small way to adding a bit of graphical flair to the game, the new graphics are still old and ugly. It's probably the best that Turtle Rock could do considering the fact that the engine is pretty much the oldest one that's still in use for retail games today.
Just about the only real difference between this and the original CS revolves around the bots added to the game. You progress through six "tours of duty", each with three maps, where you can pick which AI bots to add to your team. They're loosely rated on three statistics: skill, coop, and bravery. And these settings do mean something if you watch the bots in action, but in the end, it just doesn't amount to a very interesting game.
Turtle Rock did attempt to spice up the normal CS gameplay by adding requirements that you must meet during each match. In some missions, you'll need to get a certain number of kills with a specific weapon or maybe rescue some hostages. The thing is, these requirements are just not diverse enough to be fun after about an hour of gameplay, and they start becoming a burden before long. Pick the right guys, and your team is likely to mop up the terrorists - leaving you trying for round after round to rescue the required number of hostages before the enemies are all dead. Other times, the game will make you use sub-par weapons just to get some kills. We all know that Counter-Strike's weapons are far from balanced, and it's no surprise that the same problem exists here.
The bots are generally pretty good, though. They know the routes throughout the maps well and work together as a team nicely. They communicate over the radio in a mostly intelligent fashion - much the same way a real player would over the CS voice communication system. The problem is that the first hour or so of gameplay doesn't show this. Instead of having the AI simply make bad tactical decisions or throwing their aim completely off, the way Turtle Rock decided to make the bottom-tier bots stupid is by having them duck and stare blankly into a wall. It's not exactly rewarding to kill a sitting duck like this when it's a terrorist, and if it's one of your teammates doing this, it's frustrating.
While the bots might add something for those who are looking for a semi-decent offline experience, it's not going to be enough for those who spend hours a day on CS servers. While they may find an actual challenge playing against the bots, there's no social element at all. And despite the idea that the average CS player may not care much about a social element, doing the same matches against bots on the same maps isn't going to last long.
The game does ship with a "Deleted Scenes" component which serves as evidence of this game's irregular development cycle. These were originally made by Ritual Entertainment and were going to serve as the single player campaign - then Valve decided to scrap it and hire Turtle Rock to make something that played more like the multiplayer game. "Deleted Scenes" include new maps and missions that were designed with a story in mind, but these should have stayed deleted. The maps are ugly as sin, the couple of new weapons are badly designed, and the story is just plain dull. It plays out like a bad action movie done even worse than Hollywood could imagine, because at least a movie studio can cough up $80 million to get some good-looking explosions.
When it comes to online play, this is exactly the same game as the original Counter-Strike. Of course, the players have doomed themselves to this sort of mediocrity because everyone knows that if CS:CZ wasn't fully compatible online with the original game, it would fizzle out and fail rather quickly. The problem is this: how do you sell a new product to a player base that hates change? Every new patch for the original Counter-Strike has been more hated and maligned than the previous patch, but at least it was free - that was the only way players would swallow changes like this.
If Valve asked CS players to pay to change to a new game, then it would be an instant and complete failure, especially considering how many people play it because it started out as a free fan-made Half-Life mod. Valve picked the safe route this time by keeping Condition Zero's online mode compatible with the original game, but the cost is that we get almost nothing new.
So what do we see that's different? The graphical facelift is here, and we can now drop single player bots into online matches. Both of these have their uses, but I don't think it's a stretch to say that this isn't enough to satisfy those paying full price for a better online experience. In the end, the only way CS:CZ is worth it is if you really want to have bots to play against. Otherwise, you can get pretty much the same multiplayer experience cheaper by either buying the original CS, or for free by downloading the mod version of CS and using a Half-Life CD key on Steam.
One thing you can count on is the player element. Get onto a Counter-Strike server, Condition Zero included, and you'll quickly find out that players are immature and petty. If they've got a microphone, you'll be in for a real treat as they cuss and whine at each other in their pre-pubescent voices. And don't get me started on the cheats and hacks that continue to persist. Of course, it's not all doom and gloom; get in on some good servers with competent administrators, and you can have a fun time with mature players. It's just too bad that with Counter-Strike, this is by far more the exception rather than the rule.
The first version of CS:CZ shipped with the same old sound effects that the original game had, but they've been cleaned up in the most recent v1.1 patch. They do sound better, but they're not really different, and I think Valve & Turtle Rock probably made the right decision here in staying mostly true to the classic sound effects.
The voices that bots use do sound fairly good, and the terminology they use is mostly the same that has been used by players online for years now. It's good to see that there's no attempt to reinvent the wheel in at least some areas of the game.
Counter-Strike: Condition Zero can be summed up like this: if you really like the idea of having some bots to play against in Counter-Strike, then you might enjoy it. The quick facelift and single player mission goals are underwhelming, and the multiplayer mode is the same old game many veteran players have been tired of for a couple of years now. Simply put, the price tag is too high for what amounts to little more than a patch for a four-year-old game.