It's fitting, in a way, that Valve and friends have had a second crack at Counter-Strike: Condition Zero - the single-player version of everyone's favourite team shooter. After all, the original multi-player phenomenon was years in both the making and the tweaking. So why should the single-player version be any different?
This is the final final version, apparently. You'll remember that we put the first version of the , awarding it 65%. And although some magazines were keen to excuse its obvious faults, we were clearly the only periodical to call it correctly. Why else would Valve have decided to overhaul the whole game, relegating the sub-standard mission-based experience (the subject of the original review) to a bonus section called 'Deleted Scenes'? Talk about admitting defeat.
For the purposes of this review, then, forget everything you know or thought you knew about Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. The bottom line is that in its present form (and who's to say it won't change again before release?) this is literally a single-player version of Counter-Strike, with both your team-mates and opponents existing as cleverly-coded AI bots.
Tackled by the talented Turtle Rock Studios, it's the invention of the Official Counter-Strike bot that makes this game possible. Furthermore, it's the quality of the bots that makes it supremely playable. As many FPS developers have discovered, it's notoriously difficult to achieve human-like behaviour in AI-controlled players (including, as it has to, the potential for camping and sheer stupidity as well as the obvious requirements for skilled play). But with this official bot, Turtle Rock have pretty much nailed it.
'Pretty much', because there are still a few rare inconsistencies and oddities about the bots' behaviour - particularly at the medium skill setting. Witnessed examples include an enemy running straight past me in a tight corridor of 'Prodigy'; close enough to have to move out of the way to avoid me, but never once opening fire. Plus, it's an all-too regular occurrence to see terrorist and counter-terrorist stumble into one another - only for both parties to pause for a full second (presumably while the AIs calculate exactly what they should do) before the shooting starts.
Still, there's a lot for these bots to remember in their tiny little minds, what with concocting strategies for bomb-planting, hostage guarding and camping choke points. And at these tasks, they excel. You really can drift off into that paranoid Counter-Strike state of mind that sees you crawling around a level trying to second-guess terrorist positions as if they were human.
The atmosphere is helped along by ostensibly intelligent chatter from your fellow counter-terrorists. As well as coming out with useful statements of intent ("I'm going to camp bomb-site 'A'") and even more useful progress reports ("The bomb's been planted at 'B'"), they'll also respond positively or negatively to your orders. These are chosen via a numbered menu and remain identical to those found in the current online CS. Requests for them to 'Stick Together' or 'Follow Me' can therefore be made, but whether they're adhered to or wilfully ignored by your select troops remains a product of their statistics.
This all-too-human element of uncertainty contributes much to Condition Zero. By injecting the possibility of misbehaviour into the proceedings, Turtle Rock have ensured that insecurity haunts your every movement. Without being able to predict your own team's actions, you feel exposed and vulnerable. It's undoubtedly been a difficult balance for the developers to get right, but to be over-critical would be churlish. These AI team-mates can be stupidly brave as well as brazenly stupid. Just like the PCG crew, and just like every other Counter-Strike player I've ever played against.
Sadly, the game's structure struggles to live up to the excellence of the bots. The 18 levels are split up between six 'Tours of Duty' - each of which provides three well-known maps with their own specific goals. In Italy, for instance, you'll be tasked with leading by a clear two rounds during the match, as well as killing six terrorists yourself, wasting one with a sniper rifle, and rescuing four hostages. Should the terrorists get a clear two rounds ahead at any point, or the main match timer run out before all your objectives are complete, it's game over... albeit only to replay the match straight away. Aside from that, it's pretty much Counter-Strike as we know it.
Many CS staples remain the same. The Buy menu, weapons and items will mostly be familiar, as will most of the level design, including the unreal, movie-set look of the scenery (although some levels have been tweaked, weather effects added, and textures in particular look better than ever, if still a little outmoded in the Doom 3/Half-Life 2 scheme of things). Once all Tours of Duty are completed, all that remains is either to replay them on harder skill settings (and 'expert' really is monstrously difficult), or else move on to those aforementioned 'Deleted Scenes'.
Of course, true multi-player remains the highlight of any Counter-Strike release, and Condition Zero lets you use the official bot to make up the numbers on either counter-terrorist or terrorist sides. By selecting the 'Custom Game' option, you can quickly and easily set up matches on any map with as many or as few AI protagonists as you like. It's good, flexible stuff. Regardless of the bots' superior AI, though, the magic's not entirely there since it's obviously not the same as playing against human opponents. (On the plus side, at least you're safe from the cheating, relentless profanity and lag which haunts some servers).
Like Marmite then, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero is not for everyone. Those well versed in CS's charms should stick to the existing free online game, while anyone tempted by CS:CZ's Deleted Scenes alone should instead investigate the far more polished counter-terrorist thrills of Soldier of Fortune II, based as they are on a 3D engine that doesn't quite qualify for its bus pass yet. In fact, and quite bizarrely, Condition Zero seems far better suited to new players; those looking for a more gentle introduction to the maps and tactics of CS before tackling the far more uncompromising world of human opponents out there. A mixed bag, then, and hardly worth the years we've had to wait, but far better than Valve's initial official effort at getting the game finished.
Counter-Strike: Condition Zero is out now