Half-Life: Counter-Strike is one of the most unusual PC game releases in months. The hugely popular mod for Valve Software's Half-Life has been available for free download for well over a year, and you can still download it for free off the Internet now that it's been through beta testing and has reached version 1.0. And if you don't have the exceptional Half-Life, the new retail edition of Counter-Strike is a chance to get a stand-alone version of this outstanding multiplayer mod. The retail package also includes stand-alone versions of other multiplayer mods and game modes that normally require Half-Life, the best of which are also available free off the Internet: Team Fortress Classic, Opposing Force Multiplayer, Firearms, Redemption, Ricochet, and Wanted. Counter-Strike itself is a superb game that fully deserves top billing in this release.
Counter-Strike divides players into teams of terrorists and counterterrorists in four game modes: rescue/hold hostages, bomb target/defuse bomb, escape from/guard an area, and assassinate/guard a VIP. None of these ideas are particularly original, but they're well implemented, and they strike an effective balance between realistic stealth and frenzied action. The thematically varied maps maximize tactical possibilities with alternate routes, multiple levels, and abundant cover. Games are played in short rounds, and when you're killed, you sit out the round as an invisible observer; there are no deathmatch-style respawns. This creates a strong social aspect, because with "dead" players chatting, there can be an enormous sense of tension for the remaining players stalking each other. Another big impetus to stay alive is that the more successful you and your team are each round, the more money you earn for buying bigger and better weapons. Unfortunately this can lead to a huge imbalance in firepower when one team wins a few consecutive rounds.
One of Counter-Strike's biggest appeals has always been the selection of weapons. In addition to a knife and assorted grenades, there's a wide variety of accurately modeled pistols, shotguns, submachine guns, assault rifles, and sniper rifles. Three new weapons have been added to version 1.0: the H&K UMP .45, FN Five-Seven, and the SIG SG-550, though the retail version of the game uses invented names for all weapons.
Each weapon has unique characteristics, so mastering them all and learning which is best for different situations is a lot of fun, and it adds replay value. For instance, high-caliber weapons can penetrate thin walls and doors, which makes lugging a heavy belt-fed machine gun worthwhile when the enemy has been doing more hiding than fighting. Guns also have varied kicks, which makes full automatic fire a "spray and pray" affair - as in real life, short, controlled bursts are best for accurate fire. Effective weapon ranges are well simulated, so shotguns are brutal in close quarters and useless in large open spaces. Location-specific damage modeling means that shots to the head are more likely to get an instant kill.