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Half-Life redux

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on May 27, 2005
(Issue 2321, The XP XPerience)

A few years back, the biggest story about online gaming was Half-Life. Or more specifically, the various multiplayer Half-Life mods.

The publishers of Half-Life, seeing the huge following the multiplayer versions of Quake and Quake II had generated, went one step further and released a whole development pack so that anyone with a hint of artistic talent could now come up with their own interpretation of Half-Life multiplayer.

The result was dozens and dozens of Half-Life mods, everything from contemporary military environments (Front Line Force) to World War II (Day of Defeat). But by far the most popular of the Half-Life mods was CounterStrike, a cops vs. terrorists simulation. With several options (rescue the hostages, plant a bomb), CounterStrike became the most successful independent game mod ever – so successful that the Half-Life publishers bought CounterStrike from the volunteer team that built it and released it in a retail CD versions.

So with Half-Life 2 out for almost a year, built around an entirely new engine, the question isn't so much whether the single-player game will succeed (it was a best-seller on advance sales even before it was released last summer), but will the new engine lend itself to the mod community.

It's still too early to really tell; a year isn't long enough for volunteer designers and programmers to come out polished, finished mods.

But Counter-Strike was ported over to the new engine and ships (as "CounterStrike Source") with the Half-Life 2 game – implicit recognition of the necessity of popular multiplayer mods to continue game sales long after something new and more exciting is on the shelves. After all, plenty of people who would never have plunked down $49 to buy Half-Life when it was new were willing to pay $19 two or even three years after it was released to get into the CounterStrike phenomenon.

Current status

Right now, you're going to find more CounterStrike games running on Half-Life 1 than you are the new version. Still, once I installed CounterStrike Source and went looking for servers, there were hundreds up and running, with quite a few having good ping, or connection speeds (meaning not too many jumps over the 'Net).

While there are thousands, maybe tens of thousands of original CounterStrike games running, there are still enough CounterStrike Source games to keep any gamer busy.

While CounterStrike Source ships with most of the same maps as the original CS, the graphics are much improved due to the new Half-Life engine. Particularly in the weapons.

But my guess is that as more and more maps are created by the CounterStrike community for the HL2 engine, we'll see more improvements. It's only been a few months since CS Source was released – by the end of the summer, my guess is there will be many more. (If you go to FilePlanet, and check out their HL2 section, you will find new maps there.)

The most important thing is that the gameplay seems noticeably smoother in CS Source than in the original. The artificial intelligence of any "bot" players you may choose to use in your own CSS server are much higher than in any other multiplayer game I've seen (including Battlefield 1942); your team of bots tends to stay together and work together. Heck, set their difficulty level high enough, and it's more effective than having a bunch of human newbies on your team (if not as much fun).

More HL2 mods

Just as CS wasn't the only mod, nor even the first mod, for the original Half-Life, must the most popular, so CS Source isn't the only HL2 mod.

There is another popular mod named Plan of Attack, which is a small-unit military sim that sounds from its description to be similar to Frontline Force. Also sounding somewhat similar to the FireArms mod for HL is Forts – in which you defend a fort you build (although in FireArms, you didn't have to build the fort – just defend it).

Another mod for HL2 is called Substance – but it is a remake of the single-player HL2 game supposedly made more difficult.

And of course, there is the Half-Life 2 Deathmatch mode – which is the Half-Life game in multiplayer, with various options (teams, free-for-all). There seem to be thousands of active Deathmatch servers – plenty for everyone.

Other online issues

It should also be pointed out that you can't play Half-Life 2 at all without an Internet connection. Some new anti-piracy program called Steam (it also allows you to purchase additional Valve games online and have them auto-installed to your system) won't allow you to launch HL2 without authenticating your CD-ROM or DVD-ROM with the Valve servers.

While annoying, and probably outrageous to the privacy-rights crowd, it's relatively invisible to the gameplaying experience.