Counter-Strike, the team-based multiplayer mod for Valve's Half-Life, has been the darling of the online shooter crowd since its debut as a free download. Sierra's adoption of the product as a retail product only increased the penetration of the game, which puts you in the shoes of terrorists and counter-terrorists in a variety of more or less realistic combat situations. At any given time, the number of Counter-Strike players online far exceeds those playing Quake III and Unreal Tournament combined.

Aye, but there's the rub. Counter-Strike is multiplayer only. If you can't play online, and don't have a handy LAN and a bunch of friends available, you're out of luck. The counter-terrorist theme is popular, as Rainbow Six, Soldier of Fortune, and many more games have shown, but many gamers have been frozen out of the Counter-Strike experience by poor or non-existent Internet connections or lousy multiplayer shooter skills. That's going to change with the release of Gearbox Software's Condition Zero.

Gearbox's Randy Pitchford describes the Condition Zero experience as "a complete single player game where players take on the role of a Counter-Terrorist squad leader and embark on a series of missions rescuing hostages, defusing bombs and escorting important VIP's in dangerous situations." Note the word "complete;" Pitchford isn't talking about a simple bot match but a full solo campaign, playable from both sides, with new features and technologies beyond those of the basic Counter-Strike game. You'll start off as a lowly team leader, with a lowly team, maybe just yourself, or you and one other. As you succeed in missions, you'll be able to hire new squad members, buy better equipment, and generally beef up your capabilities before tackling the game's later, more challenging missions. "We're expecting Condition Zero to offer much more game time than Opposing Force and Blue Shift added together," he promises.

According to Pitchford, you'll be pretty low priority as far as the organization you work with is concerned at the beginning of the game. That means a lot of small operations before you hit the big time. You may be able to recruit one partner, but you probably won't be able to invest in any extra training to increase his skills yet. You'll also have a very limited amount of equipment at your disposal. Early missions will be scaled to your abilities, though, and by the time you get more complicated and difficult challenges, you'll have the resources to deal with them. "Your squad will be awarded more funding which you can use to recruit more team members, train them in specialized skills like bomb defusal, sniping, or combat tactics and purchase bigger and better weapons and other equipment."

One interesting tidbit about the game is its unique save game function: there isn't one. Pitchford points out that there's no single mission objective or confrontation between the terrorists and counter-terrorists in the game that can last longer than four or five minutes, so it's not necessary to provide any more save frequency than that. The game will auto-save between missions and after each mission objective, to avoid excessive frustration, but retain the tension of Counter-Strike. "A significant part of the tension and realism is the feeling of how frail your life and the life of your squad can be," he says, and a creep-and-save possibility wouldn't preserve that feeling.