‘Then someone threw a flashbang through the window and I was blinded.’
‘But I spun round and fired at the door’, Chris mimed a rifle, staring down the sights he loosed an imaginary burst. ‘And I caught this guy in the head. So I grabbed the hostages and ran outside using a smoke grenade as cover.’
‘It has smoke grenades?’
I listened on, chewing an apple, a look of bored scepticism masking my burning envy, as Chris from school continued to relate his antics in a recently discovered Half Life mod called Counter-Strike.
He made a habit of this, partly to wind me up as my computer was nowhere near able to run the thing, and partly I guess to simply relive the excitement in an act of verbal gaming onanism. For a period of months, most lunchtimes I’d be told about Counter-Strike.
As a kid who – I’ll admit it readers, cus you’re all such a nice, fluffy lot – was quiet, scrawny and quite into SAS books, hearing about Counter-Strike’s real-life weapons, hostage rescues and last second bomb defusals juiced the eager Tom Clancy lobe of my young brain. It gave me that once rare, now impossible, feeling; it made me think ‘if I am ever able to get this working, I’ll never need another game ever again’.
When I finally got my hands on a meaty 400MHz processor, Counter-Strike was straight on the hard drive. And it was good. So, so good. It made all other games feel like a pair of safety-scissors. ‘Here’s a shitload of weapons and equipment’, CS says, ‘some probably aren’t right for the job but they’re here – take whatever can afford, big boy.’ Then it looses you into an environment where a single stray bullet can end your game, taking you out of the fight to think over your inadequacies or just terrible bad luck.
The uninitiated would watch CS and think ‘well, that’s nothing – you’re just repeating the same few minutes over and over. Spawn, buy weapons, attack/defend, win/die, repeat.’ Yes, this is absolutely the case, but it’s absolutely the point. CS encapsulates this moment of brutal, high stakes close quarters combat; the point when two highly trained, heavily armed entities crash against each other like kevlar-coated waves. Each round was a distillation of the greatest action movie set-pieces or the most exciting engagements recorded in all those SAS books I’d squandered my summers reading. It’s a moment that bears repeating.
To a point.
Of course, I eventually got bored of Counter-Strike – play something enough and you inevitably will – but there was something else about CS that was different. After a break from a year or two’s gleeful shootery, I returned to check out the Source upgrade and only played for maybe two hours at most.
There was something about its identity that had fundamentally changed, moving away from the game that attracted me in my youth.
Play CS today and you’ll probably see what I mean.
At least half the servers seem to be hosting maps like these. I’ve nothing against them, I can’t say I’ve found any particularly fun, but experimentation with map design and mechanics is all gravy – as long as there’s an alternative.
What’s the alternative? A regular old game of CS, right? A good selection of maps, rotated regularly; sensible server sizes, nothing fancy?
Well, this isn’t really on offer. If, like me, you aren’t a huge fan of dust2 or office, and if you preferred some of the more unique (by which I mean: actually interesting and characterful) maps like militia or prodigy, your enthusiasm will soon be washed away in a torrent of servers titled ‘dust2 24/7′ or ‘Office Only’. And many are augmented with the UT voice bellowing HEADSHOT! and RAMPAGE!!!!, or some other audio gimmick, all adding about as much fun as would grafting an incensed cat onto your shoulder. Add a community that always seems reluctant to approach the game as a team and there are few servers on which to enjoy a conventional game; I didn’t find any of these, after three evenings’ searching, that rotated their maps beyond two.
The game I used to love is dead. This once noble soldier wears a death-mask disfigured by a glut of repetitiousness and his corpse has been impaled, through the arse, upon a jagged spike called ‘achievements’. Counter-Strike now has achievements. If ever there was a game whose character least suited this most unpalatable, emersion-breaking of gaming fads.
If you’re asked to describe Counter-Strike you’ll likely say something along the lines of ‘an online, team-based, tactical FPS that combines realistic damage and weaponry with bomb-planting and hostage-taking scenarios.’ This is what CS is known for, but it really isn’t what CS is any more if you browse the server lists and play it casually. On one side it’s a parade of custom games, on the other an almost e-sport-like obsession with the blandest maps cum frag factories.
CS continues to be popular so there are people enjoying whatever it is the game has become. Call me a wanky romantic but Counter-Strike today seems soulless.