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
LOUD FUCKING NOISE
LOUD FUCKING NOISE
LOUD FUCKING NOISE
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.