Gaming Made Me: Counter-Strike

By RPS on May 21st, 2011 at 12:00 pm.

This week in our ongoing retrospective series on games journalists’ most formative games, we very proudly welcome Eurogamer‘s god-king and operations director Tom Bramwell to the word-stage. He’s here to tell you about his long years spent with arguably one of the most definitive PC games of all time, and what for one generation of gamers was a global obsession that today’s shooters, no matter how much bigger they might be, just can’t seem to match…

I also wanted to write this about Grand Theft Auto, and I might still do that another time if RPS will have me back. There were probably other factors, but no one game is so singularly responsible for my being a games journalist (or at least having been one) as DMA Design’s original PC game. But I’m really here today to bang on about Counter-Strike, and I owe that game a massive debt too, because it’s thanks to Counter-Strike that I don’t play Call of Duty or Battlefield or Medal of Honor or any of that stuff on the internet nowadays for a moment longer than my job requires.

It’s not that I don’t like them or think they’re good (they’re stupid and mildly offensive, but I do enjoy them and think they are worth the 8s out of 10 I’ve occasionally given them), and it’s not because I’m so smashingly busy and go-getting that I never have time to indulge myself.

It’s because my time – YEARS – playing Counter-Strike has rendered me mentally incapable of forming meaningful relationships with its modern descendants. The mod that Minh Le and Jess Cliffe (whom I once offended by posting ignorant rubbish about CS on Planet Half-Life when I was the 15-year-old editor) created together a decade ago was where I grew up.

Counter-Strike was and is a multiplayer FPS. There were two teams – Terrorists and Counter-Terrorists – and there were a few types of map to play on, the main ones being cs_ and de_. Cs_ maps (like cs_militia) were about the CTs rescuing hostages or the Ts preventing them doing so. De_ maps (like the most famous one, de_dust) were about the Ts planting a bomb and the CTs either trying to prevent them doing so in the first place or defusing it if they did. You could also lose a round by having your whole team wiped out. Nobody respawned until the end of a round.

Rather than classes, CS had you buy weapons at the start of the round using a sequence of number-key presses. This warm-up period only lasted about five seconds (or less if you were an HPB) and then you had to be really on it, so for me a typical round began like this: 1, 3, 1, 1, 1, 2, 3, 1, 4, 6. Or something last that. That’s probably wrong actually. (Apparently I can’t consciously interrogate muscle memory for the right combo for Deagle, Colt, Flashbang, HE, ammo. Shit, and I wanted armour too!)

I was in a clan – hell, I kind of still am in this clan – called Eat Electric Death. We had our own server (which we called Snatch) that we ran CS on. We used to hang out in our QuakeNet IRC channel and talk rubbish all evening and play CS against random people who ended up on our server (whom we called peons).

Depending on how magnanimous we were feeling, we’d be on Roger Wilco (a voice comms program – I refuse to sully this retrospective by using the term “app”) at the same time calling enemy positions. It was a public, so this was kind of cheating, but we generally only helped each other if one of the remaining peons was camping or being otherwise antisocial. In extreme cases (and sometimes in other cases, and sometimes just to amuse ourselves) we would use rcon to kick people off.

We had some stars, but our clan hierarchy was pretty much dictated by personalities rather than skills and we were a social bunch. We met up at the Dickens pub near Tower Bridge for drinks pretty often, and we went to the odd i-series LAN party. (We once accidentally terrorised i8 by doing a netsend to everyone on the network announcing that people who go to LAN parties to play Planetarion ought to be euthanised. We meant to send it to everyone on our switch.)

We also dabbled with some other games (Quake 2 was the genesis of the clan, I think, although that was a bit before my time), but it usually came back to CS. We played in a proper league and everything.

Now, I imagine if you’re reading this there is a half-decent chance you have done some organised gaming, and you may even have read Jim Rossignol’s excellent book where he talks a lot about the time he spent doing the same thing. The difference between Jim and my approach to organised gaming is that whereas he shaved down CFG files, lowered mouse sensitivity and plotted tactics in IRC, I practiced for Rocket Arena 3 games, for example, by bouncing around levels listening to Foo Fighters.

But CS was different. I can’t say I was much of a tactician, and I was a middling twitch player, but playing a real clan match against a team of unknowns really mattered. Making the team (such that it was) really mattered. I was a 16-year-old kid who worshipped his older 20-30-something team-mates. And against the anvil of CS I hammered out some lifelong memories.

The first concerns Afty, our affable Mancunian (Manchester might as well have been Sarajevo to a reclusive 16-year-old who never went north of the Watford gap, incidentally, so Afty was kind of exotic). We were playing a game on cs_backalley. Terrorists were guarding hostages, Counter-Terrorists had to get them back. The Ts would always round the hossies up into one of the upstairs rooms then hole up and listen for activity on the stairwell or the telltale sound of ladders and vents.

I was a terrorist (good morning ECHELON) and we were a few men down. I was in the upstairs bit playing it cool. Shinji (Rob Fahey – he writes for GamesIndustry.biz and Eurogamer and was also EED) was with me. I heard something on the stairs. There was definitely someone on the stairs. “IS THERE ANYONE ON THE STAIRS?” is what I said on Roger Wilco. I fucking said this. I asked the question. Nobody replied so I repeated it. So just for the record, I FUCKING SAID IT TWICE. No.

I threw an HE grenade. It connected perfectly with the man on the stairs. In the face. He died. I headshotted him with a grenade. It was a perfect, perfect kill.

Shame it was Afty. A pause.

“Does anyone want to kill Tom right about now?” Thanks Shinji.

I was embarrassed and ashamed. I may actually have stayed off IRC for a day or so after that, although you always come back.

The second big memory though was what I will happily refer to as My Finest Hour.

My Finest Hour took place on de_dust. Dust is sometimes cited by reviewers and developers as a great example of level design, but to my mind it was as close as anyone has ever come to a perfect multiplayer FPS level.

It’s an asymmetrical map with two bombsites and two main choke points in the centre of it – a bridge under which people can move from one half of the map to the other, and a covered tunnel area that has a few exits. One bombsite is close to the CT spawn point, while the other is on the other side of the choke points but more exposed and still a bit of a trek for the Ts.

With the possible exception of the first track in Super Mario Kart, I have run around de_dust probably more than I have done anything in any other single space in a game ever. When I’m a CT, I race down the ramp and break right toward bombsite A, and using a bunny-hop launch a flashbang into the covered tunnel choke point area so it perfectly rebounds into the exact area the Ts will be rushing if they are heading for A. (That’s the plan anyway – sometimes I blind my own team.)

Unusually though, for My Finest Hour I found myself as a lone CT overlooking the bridge. My team-mates had just rushed the tunnel and presumably discovered token resistance, but within about 10 seconds of this I was able to inform people on RW that there were Ts in the tunnel. Quite a lot of them. All of them, maybe.

Help was not forthcoming.

This was quite bad news, because I had – in one of those wonderful flights of optimism that has also prevented me ever becoming consistently useful in organised team games – purchased an AWP sniper rifle with my funds for the round. Aiming not being a traditional strength of mine, things were not looking good. In these situations I usually focused on trying to get one good kill and then leg it or leap down and thrash around with the knife to take the enemy by surprise (the enemy often masked its surprise by efficiently shooting me in the face with an AK-47).

On this occasion, I racked up my one kill very quickly. But then something happened. The next Terrorist obediently ran into my crosshairs at the exact moment the lengthy AWP reload cycle completed, and just as my fat teenage index finger dabbed the LMB of what overpriced Razer nonsense I happened to be gripping. Headshot.

It happened again. I maybe had to move the mouse a bit, but in general the impression from the perspective of my clan mates on the other side of the map would have been this:

LOUD FUCKING NOISE
[EED]Mugwum [NME]ThisGuy

LOUD FUCKING NOISE
[EED]Mugwum [NME]ThisOtherGuy

LOUD FUCKING NOISE
[EED]Mugwum [NME]NowThisGuy

LOUD FUCKING NOISE
[EED]Mugwum [NME]AndThisGuy!

I think I got maybe five of them. We won the round.

I won the round. It was My Finest Hour.

For maybe five or six weeks afterwards, senior members of the clan who I basically wished I was would actually give me the AWP in matches – as in they would buy it and dump it at my feet, an unspeakable honour – and generally talk about my sniping skills without irony.

I often read war stories in game reviews, but I know most reviewers – even really good ones – enjoy the act of recounting an enviable experience in an entertaining way more than they probably enjoyed the act itself.

Most of the time games just aren’t like that, and especially multiplayer FPS games. Most of the time they’re that jaded cliché about getting shot repeatedly in the face by a whiny-voiced teenage homophobe from Rednecksville USA, although probably not as much as we claim.

Most of the time Counter-Strike is exactly like that, and even at the time that was why a lot of people found it really off-putting (our rcon behaviour probably didn’t help either). But I guess the reason CS is so special to me is that the memories of it that I’ve kept in my head for 10 years are all like the time I headshotted Afty with a grenade, and My Finest Hour.

If I close my eyes and think about Counter-Strike, I find myself staring down the alley on cs_Italy and optimistically firing the Scout at shadows, or I’m crawling over the rooftop on cs_militia, or I’m listening for the vents in cs_assault, or I’m watching someone crawling along the railing on the exposed mountainside part of de_prodigy and laughing as [EED]Lurks blasts them down the slope with his Desert Eagle.

I probably do have the time and inclination to get to this stage again with a Call of Duty or a Battlefield, but I’m not going to bother. Never mind the fact those games are disposable even in the eyes of their publishers – I can’t grow up again, and I don’t want to pretend I will ever have it as good as I did when EED was in its pomp.

So I suppose you could say Counter-Strike made me not give much of a toss about modern warfare games. But then on the flipside, it is also the reason that I give them so much space on Eurogamer and try to encourage our writers to treat them with respect rather than decrying their brown-grey empire as a death knell for creativity.

I know that somewhere out there somebody else is growing up like I did, and more power to them.

P.S. Run with the knife.

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120 Comments »

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  1. BeamSplashX says:

    I think those character models are kind of endearing. Must be the era it reminds me of.

    Imagine a modern budget applied to a game with graphics like those. It could be HUGE (or everyone on staff would get a beefy paycheck, that’s nice too).

  2. Radiant says:

    1.6????

    BETA 5.
    God damn children!

  3. Grape Flavor says:

    Never could get into Counter-Strike. Probably because my K:D ratio was always like 1:16 and the few kills I did get were from camping. That, and I never did enjoy the gun-purchasing mechanic whatsoever.

    Search & Destroy on Call of Duty 1+2 though was basically the same game and I had a glorious time. Carentan was my de_dust. And the expansion pack, United Offensive, with the tanks was pretty epic too.

    The Call of Duty brand may get nothing but derision around here these days but the pre-MW games were great. No killstreaks, no perks, no bullshit. Just exquisitely balanced, addictive multiplayer goodness, and the SP was a blast, too. It’s a real shame Activision has degraded the series to endless shoddy rehashes instead of truly moving forward.

    • Ogun says:

      F1 – United Offensive was my favourite, was gutted when the series took the turn it did.

      If I had to pick a game from back in the day it would be the ‘True Combat’ mod for Q3. Not as much silly fun as Urban Terror or the Q2 mods that had preceded it – but it had the whole visceral/immersion down pat. The developers had gone out of their way to use realistic (possibly real) gun sounds, you could grab ledges to climb up to higher areas or jump that little bit further, lean around corners,interact with the environment in rudimentary ways (opening doors, breaking windows) and perhaps most importantly, shoot through things like wood. The environment sound was always great and mappers seemed to make a real effort with the available technology. It also had a feature called ‘iron sights’ where you could use RMB to aim down the barrel.

      Damn that game was awesome. I know the same ideas have been used since, but it’s never been to quite the same effect.

  4. phenom_x8 says:

    I was playing CS when 16 too(after the half life DM). It’s a lot of fun and my favorite was cs_italy simply because it is the only map I remember thoroughly. The only memorable thing I remember when playing CS with my friend in local multiplayer game center was a lot of bad word around when one of them killed, all being quiet and then lots of laugh happened. Wow, what a good time!

  5. bill says:

    Somehow CS passed me by entirely. I’ve never played it. I’m still not exactly sure why, but it must have been something about timing.

    I think it must have come out when I had just left uni and started work. And at that time internet was dial-up and it was pretty pricey paying by the minute.
    So while I played loads of MP doom, descent, heretic, duke, and quake at uni (on their network) i basically stopped playing MP games once I went back home. So the whole CS thing passed me by, and then it got this reputation for being very newbie unfriendly, so I never ventured in.

    Actually, I’m amazed a MP only game got so popular in the days when very few homes had broadband. I’m amazed a game like CS is so popular (then and now). It doesn’t seem like it would be, but it must have something great.

    You know, I’m not sure i’ve played a MP PC game since uni…

    • bill says:

      ’97 to be exact – interstate 76 and Jedi Knight i think.

      I think timing was against me. So i became a single player gamer. I also wonder if missing CS is the reason that i’ve never had much interest in all the WW2 and Modern Warfare type games.

      Give me space marines!

  6. Butler says:

    I can’t really not post on this, of all Gaming Made Me posts.

    I played it religiously up to a fairly high level throughout my mid to late teens, right the way up until Source, essentially (which I won’t get started on!), and later World of Warcraft, like so many of the competitive UK CS community.

    I don’t know if the same can be said for anyone else, but I’ve certainly noticed a pattern between highly driven, successful people, and the kind of people that played competitive Quake, CS and StarCraft. The lucky ones, I suppose. The ones that knew when to stop playing games and start playing real life.

    I like to think my time with CS nurtured my competitive side in a positive way – and in a way that’s still paying off today.

    I could write forever about why CS is one of the best video games ever made, but never really do it justice. I just smile when I see kids talking about the latest CoD game thinking that, when I was their age, I was playing organised matches on dedicated servers with team VOIP on a game that, for all intents and purposes, is so vastly superior to today’s offerings it’s almost laughable.

  7. Butler says:

    @Grape Flavor

    CoD1&2 certainly had a very solid LAN community back then (stemming from a healthy online community no doubt), and was certainly wide respected, if niche.

    They were notoriously a bunch of c***s though, they made the CS community look tame!

  8. Premium User Badge

    Monchberter says:

    (Slightly relevant story ahoy!)
    I used to hate online multi-player. It was a source of eternal embarrassment logging onto a Half-Life DM or Jedi Knight server (remember Microsoft Gaming Zone?) and getting utterly humiliated.

    I held off multi-player for years until Half-Life 2 appeared. I dabbled with the multiplayer and fun while it was I also recieved Counter-Strike: Source with it. Now i’d held off CS originally due to all the horror stories of online douchey behaviour, but CS:S’s bot mode gave me something to practice against, so practice i did. Eventually I plucked up the courage to go online and face real opponents. And was summarily humiliated.

    But I stuck at it and soon the rounds of CS were a daily thing. I never was that great, and rebelled against the AK / AWP / Colt / Deagle hegemony by specialising in pump shotgun, the 5-7 and TMP, much to the disdain of my fellow players, but I was having too much fun.

    My abiding moment also came in de_dust. I found myself alone as a CT armed with a TMP against a lone AK wielding T who had just pretty much wiped out my entire team of 8 (what you’d call a pub-star I hear). This was a late on a Friday night so the games had been somewhat focused with people really pulling out all the stops to play well, but with a fair amount of jovial banter.

    I tried to stalk Mr AK but he saw me exit an entrance from a distance I could never have hoped to engage him at and shaved me with a very well placed bullet. One more hit and I was gone. I had to end it there though as the humiliation of cowering while he eventually found me was far too much. I feigned back inside and immediately jumped out again tapping my RMB as my pathetic TMP spat out three or four humiliatingly small bullets.

    He fell, I had headshotted him on the jump from the other end of the map.

    Everyone cheered wildly and It wasn’t until TF2 appeared that I would feel such bonding over something so inconsequential. Brilliant times
    (Apologies for lack of original CS)

  9. Wizen says:

    The game that i really grew up with was Rainbow Six 3 on Xbox. It was the first competitive shooter on that particular console, and was very similar to the ‘one life one chance’ layout of Counter Strike. I have memories of moments that were so hilarious that i still can’t help but smile when i recollect them.

    There were the ladder/clan matches in which I managed to kill off an entire team all alone, after my team was massacred. My fallen team mates would watch intently on death cam as I picked off each enemy, and then praise me at school the entire week for having done so with such precision and skill (or luck). But the best moment has to be crouching in the office on Airport, waiting to hear the rushing footsteps of the enemy in the adjacent hallway. Little did he realize, there was a plastic explosive attached to the opposite side of the toilet door that he is about to open and clear….

    BANG! Hilarity ensues.

  10. noom says:

    No way! I used to play on the EED server. You remember any guys from clan [OUK] Tom? Loved that server. Some of the best times I had in CS were there :)

  11. Dare365 says:

    Great read.

    I just wanted to comment that de_dust isn’t actually designed well but its brother de_dust2 absolutely is. de_dust is CT sided and any competent competitive player can lock even the greatest Counter-Strike team in the world out of the map with a bit of strategy. The CT sidedness of the map is actually why we no longer play it in competitive play.

    The big maps that we(competitive Counter-Strike players) play are de_dust2, de_inferno, de_nuke and de_train. They are what is typically considered the four “LAN maps” because they make an appearance at pretty much any and every LAN event worth a damn.

    You obviously love Counter-Strike. I recommend checking out the book “Gameboys.” Its a fantastic look at competitive Counter-Strike and the history of the game. If I remember correctly, the author, Michael Kane, had nothing to do with gaming at all. in fact he was a sports journalist. It is a fantastic look at competitive gaming from the perspective of a person who doesn’t even play games casually.

    Also, the documentary E-@thletes is a wonderful companion to the book and follows two Counter-Strike competitive teams quite closely. If those tickle your fancy, there is another documentary worth checking out called FRAG. It’s about corruption in competitive gaming and how some will put everything on the line to pursue the dream of being the best. It also shows the relatively unknown party life of competitive gamers and the self destructive nature of fame.

  12. lunarplasma says:

    I spent many a day (all day) and evening (nearly all evening) holed up in various LAN cafes playing CS. Although I myself never actually joined clans or other competitive wotsits, I generally did very well playing against the randoms.

    So many hours spent in those rooms, pop music blaring in the background mixing in with the dakadaka… SO MANY HOURS!

  13. frostedflames says:

    I made a account on here just to say I truly miss these days of gaming Played cs from beta when m4 had a scope up untill this very day including DoD Firearms and all the other mods I went CAL- M In Dod 1.3 never made it out of in open 1.6 or source haha but had so much fun

  14. Nethlem says:

    Counter Strike is still such an great example of new gameplay ideas.
    Anybody still remember the as_ and es_ maps the mod originaly started with?

    Especially as_ maps had been great fun if you got enough people together that knew what they did. Or if you ended up beeing VIP and singlehandly kill the Terrorist team :D

    Sure the es_ maps didn’t work that great, but i still think it’s an great idea and nowadays it could probably be done in a really fun way that works.

    And while i also hold a special place in my hearth for CS i think too many of us look trough rose tinted glasses of nostalgy at this. Sure many people like us we grew up as 13-16 years old playing the early quake’s, half life’s, call of duties and battlefields making memories we will never forget.

    But nowadays the “young people” (dear god i’ve arrived at the point where i can write that -_-) grow up making similiar experiences and memories in the current CoD/BF/Whatever titles. It’s an generational thing i believe, sure there is also this whole issue of “gaming has gotten so mainstream and commercial” but to the experiences and memories people make when they first get amazed by such games this hardly matters.

  15. cbad says:

    I think you’ve touched on something essential to gamers growing up in the turn of the century gaming world. I first played CS back in 1999 and fell in love with cs_assault and de_dust. Honestly I fell in love with all of the maps. The uncommon cs_thunder and custom rats maps, especially. Growing up playing a game creates a much more powerful connection with something like counter-strike, despite the fact that there is no storyline or single player. The clan tryouts, the hours spent on wilco and ventrilo while playing he_grenade for 2 hours straight, the original surf maps before they exploded. I could totally relate to the feelings you’ve got for this epic achievement in online FPS gaming. I recently rediscovered 1.6 on my steam after playing Source for so long. I never got used to the revamped cs_assault, and I seriously missed the UPC and 1337 mods. The COD games got old pretty quick, but there’s something about CS that keeps refreshing its own appeal.

  16. nomminglord says:

    “I know that somewhere out there somebody else is growing up like I did, and more power to them.”

    I’m growing up now (only 14) to this game. I’m not using Source, just 1.6 and CZ. I love it so much more than any other shooter, commercial OR free. I use 1.6 sometimes as it’s more popular than CZ (I think) but I like CZ’s features like packages and the single player campaign, plus bots to train against.

    Thanks for posting this, I now know what’s happening with my soul that I sold to Valve for the next 5-10 years. :L