From humble beginnings to insane popularity, then from shoddy ports to masterful execution. This is the history of the little shooter that could.
A lot of credit is thrown at 2007 first-person shooter Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare for dragging the once World War II-obsessed shooter space into contemporary battles, but the reality is the seeds were planted much earlier. Counter-Strike (or CS for short, as it's often known), a game that started off as a 10-megabyte mod for the original Half-Life, defied the Quake and Unreal trend of the time of physics-defying breakneck-paced shooters with an emphasis on realistic (comparatively, at least) combat.
Minh “Gooseman” Le and Jesse “Voice of Counter-Strike” Cliffe (those iconic CS radio commands are Cliffe) released Beta 1.0 of Counter-Strike in 1999. While rough around the edges, the game featured four maps, nine weapons and the now iconic mode that saw Counter-Terrorists rescuing hostages defended by Terrorists in maps designated with a ‘cs_’ prefix. Beta 4.0 saw the introduction of the equally popular Bomb Defusal mode (maps designated with a ‘de_’ prefix), alongside the original version of one of the most popular shooter maps ever made: Dust.
Dust was built by a 16-year-old Dave Johnston; he would later go on to build its beloved successor: Dust2. By the time Le and Cliffe pushed out Beta 6.0, Counter-Strike had found its sweet spot, with polished weapons, tight map design, and the squashing of lingering bugs. Beta 6.0 introduced the Assassination (aka VIP) play mode, that would prove marginally popular during the early life of Counter-Strike, alongside the destined-to-be-cut Escape mode.
Easy to learn hard to master before getting AWPed in the head
The Counter-Strike gameplay formula was - and still is - deceptively simple. Regardless of the team objectives of the core mode, both teams start in what was originally referred to as the “molasses period” but is more popularly known as “freeze time”. This start-of-round phase allows players to buy a variety of weapons and items to increase both lethality and (potentially) survivability. From here, one team is tasked with defending one or more objectives from the other team whose job it is to attack or rescue them. In Counter-Strike, headshots are deadly, the time-to-kill is low, weapon recoil patterns are fixed, and rounds are won by obliterating the other team or completing the objective.
Along the way to refining this honed formula, though, things sometimes got silly.
For instance, in the final core beta release old-school fans may recall the vehicular antics of de_jeepathon 2000: a map that included driveable vehicles. A driveable APC was later added to the popular cs_siege map in an update that also included the iconic headshot death icon. In terms of driving, there was no way to accelerate. Cornering was nigh impossible. Netcode issues made for jerky movements. Still, it was a tonne of fun. That said, given the honed nature of the rest of the Counter-Strike offering, it was an unnecessary addition that was never going to survive into final release.
"... the time-to-kill is low, weapon recoil patterns are fixed, and rounds are won by obliterating the other team or completing the objective."
By this stage, Valve had announced a partnership with Le and Cliffe, and Counter-Strike had its first official release in November 2000. Le and Cliffe were hired by Valve, and Valve purchased the Counter-Strike IP. Counter-Strike was also released as part of the Half-Life: Platinum Collection, bundled alongside the core Half-Life game, Team Fortress Classic, and the Opposing Force expansion.
The incremental patches for the retail release of the first version of Counter-Strike, released between August 2000 and its final 1.6 version in September 2003, added new weapons, maps, and introduced balancing changes that set the stage for the game’s competitive scene. Popular beta tactics such as jumping while firing submachine guns were nerfed, and sniper rifles had their crosshairs removed when firing from the hip.
In the same patch, the infamous Arctic Warfare Police rifle (or AWP for short) was balanced to remove the one-shot-kill ability below the waist. Later patches would see the toning down of ‘bunny hopping’ - an advanced movement exploit that facilitated incredibly speedy map traversal. The final 1.6 release of Counter-Strike saw the introduction of two new weapons - the IDP Defender and Clarion 5.56 - and a controversial equipment item: the tactical shield.
Still, despite the debate around the tactical shield, highly skilled CS 1.6 players long considered the original game to be a superior version stacked next to what came after.
Set Condition Zero throughout the game
Counter-Strike 1.6 was ported to the original Xbox in 2003, and while that was mostly ignored by the PC community, the Xbox release became a testing ground for the first instance of AI-controlled Counter-Strike bots. The next core Counter-Strike game, Condition Zero, had a rocky development cycle that resulted in a game that paradoxically favoured single-player over multiplayer. During development, Condition Zero jumped from the now-defunct Rogue Entertainment to Gearbox Software (eventual makers of the Borderlands series) to the now-defunct Ritual Entertainment then finally to Turtle Rock Studios (creators of Left 4 Dead). Condition Zero reportedly shipped as a mix of Gearbox’s version of the game alongside 12 campaign missions recovered from Ritual Entertainment’s single-player-heavy take on the IP.
Supposedly, the original intention was to release Ritual’s campaign-focused Condition Zero alongside a multiplayer game built by Turtle Rock. Condition Zero wasn’t particularly well received by fans and critics, but the game still enjoyed post-launch love, including the release of six additional missions through Steam.
Speaking of Steam, Doug Lombardi, VP of marketing at Valve, admitted to us that one of the biggest challenges of the original Counter-Strike was keeping everything up to date. Between server and client (player) patches that had to be manually applied, the player base would often be divided every time a patch dropped. To solve this, Valve dreamed up a digital network that would automatically keep servers and players up to date: Steam. That digital network, whose original intention was automated patching, quickly grew into a multi-publisher platform that’s worth billions.
Just eight months after the launch of Condition Zero, the 2004 release of Counter-Strike: Source was intended as a Source engine HD remake of the ancient-looking original game built on GoldSrc engine. Valve didn’t anticipate the backlash from some of the CS community, though, which had players returning to CS 1.6 (as it became known) because of Source’s apparently comparative lower skill ceiling.
While the massive speed and jump distances of CS 1.6 bunny hopping was a thing of the past, Source still had the potential for advanced movement, including a type of bunny hopping. Long jumps achieved via strafe jumping and smaller, speedier hops (particularly on ramps or descending jumps) meant there was still room for trickier movement patterns to get the drop on enemies, reduce the size of your avatar’s hitbox, or get out of a sticky situation faster.
eSports and beyond
In 2004, the E-Sports Entertainment ESEA League also started the first professional Counter-Strike league, which some have credited as a major factor in the series’ continued popularity and success. This was the beginning of a budding competitive scene that would see an ever-growing following across titles, between champion teams, and to the $1 million prize-pool tournaments of today.
While the community had its preference of either CS 1.6 or Counter-Strike: Source, Valve continued to support Source for years to come. In 2006, for instance, Valve experimented with Dynamic Weapons Pricing that saw items priced based on their demand the previous week. It was to be a short-lived experiment.
While Source was still the main CS game supported, Valve licensed the Counter-Strike IP to make a series of spin-offs aimed at Asian markets. The first was Counter-Strike Neo, an arcade adaptation of CS 1.6 in a futuristic setting with a campaign, mini-games, and seasonal events. Nexon would later build free-to-play spin-offs heavy on micro-transactions. Counter-Strike Online was released in 2013, and followed up by Counter-Strike Online 2. Later in 2014, Nexon also released the free-to-play zombie-themed Counter Strike Nexon: Zombies. Surprisingly, all of these games were built on the original GoldSrc engine.
All systems GO
While this was happening, in April 2011 Valve announced it was working with Hidden Path Entertainment on the next core game in the series: Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. What started as a Counter-Strike: Source port for Xbox Live Arcade eventually launched in August 2012 for PC, Mac as well as on consoles for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 consoles. Valve’s intention was to support cross-platform play between PS3, PC, Mac, Linux platforms, but Sony’s console was ultimately not added to this cross-platform list because of differences in update-frequency between platforms.
Because of the division over Source at the time of release, Valve invited professional competitive players from both the CS 1.6 and Source player base to play-test the game and offer feedback. Ultimately, it was a clever move that means Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is easy to pick up and play, but also offers impressive longevity for those seeking a competitive challenge.
Global Offensive (or CS: GO, as it’s known) added new modes, and weapons such as area-denial firebombs: Molotov cocktails for Terrorists and Incendiary Grenades for Counter-Terrorists. The classic modes were offered in casual and competitive modes, to attract newcomers and reward higher-skilled players with appropriately matchmade peers. These classic modes were complemented by Arms Race and Demolition modes, both of which riffed off the popular Gun Game mod for the original Counter-Strike wherein players work through a predetermined order of weapons that automatically switch after two kills.
Deathmatch mode mixed things up again with 10-minute rounds and a score-based system that offered a variety of bonuses for the use of particular weapons. In all three of these new modes, players spawned immediately after death, instead of the single-death-per-round approach of the traditional modes. These modes proved to be a triple threat: fun, accessible and, most importantly, they assisted with learning a variety of weapons and map tactics.
Since launch, the addition of Steam Workshop support for player-created mods, and the introduction of cosmetic micro-transactions, has resulted in a game that still receives regular updates and enjoys a popular player base today.
In many respects, Counter-Strike has come a long way since that 10-megabyte mod for the original Half-Life. At its core, though, what was honed in that beta period for the original Counter-Strike formed the foundation for everything that came after, both in terms of gameplay mechanics and popularity. It comes as little surprise, then, that Counter-Strike 1.6, Counter-Strike: Source and Counter-Strike: Global Offensive are still ranked among the most popular games played on Valve’s mammoth Steam platform.
If you want a chance to play Counter Strike; Global Offensive with the best of the best, be at PAX Australia 2016 and check out the Join the Republic Community Challenge!