It's hard for me to write about Counter-Strike because, well, Counter-Strike made me; the underpass of Dust is my Hyrule Field, Golden Saucer or Shadow Moses, and as a 14-year-old kid in a clan with big dreams and middling skill the rest of my team became role models. It is through a Counter-Strike lens that I now view and scrutinise today's modern shooters, and that usually means asking myself if whatever map I'm playing on is as good as Cobblestone, Italy or Dust 2. The answer is always no.
People often write about online shooters as if they're a ceaseless cavalcade of headshots and abuse, hamming up the skill levels of everyone else whilst dumbing down their own ability to line up the crosshairs. But most shooters really aren't that bad, because that's not good for business, so talented boffins are paid frankly comical sums of money to work out the right mix of unlocks, maps and weapons to ensure the average player gets a fairly enjoyable time. And that's fine. But Counter-Strike, on the other hand, is exactly that difficult. Or, as is the case with Global Offensive, it is half of the time.
Global Offensive is trying to be many different things to many different people, and in doing so it lacks the laser-sharp focus that has defined Valve's recent output. The developer (with some help from Washington-based Hidden Path) is walking a tightrope with its fresh attempt to reignite a fractured eSports community while simultaneously alluring new players. To achieve both at once is frankly a gargantuan task, and I lack the required perspective to adequately ascertain whether this game will be able to accomplish much of what it sets out to do; such a verdict will be decided over the course of months by a community of thousands. But the roadmap, at least, makes sense. Global Offensive mixes the high-risk, slow burn of vintage 1.6 and CS:S with two more immediate game modes that feature more generous options and less player downtime. It is, quite simply, an online shooter trying to have its cake and eat it.
Each of the four team-based objective modes pit Terrorists against Counter-Terrorists, with the most common goals featuring the former attempting to plant bombs the latter must then defuse, or having the goodies attempt to save a group of hostages from the clutches of the baddies. Dying forces you to sit out the rest of the round, and weapons and items cost money earned from accomplishing objectives or taking out enemy players. These are Counter-Strike's long-established modes, and Global Offensive provides eight remade maps that even now are some of the finest multiplayer maps ever devised: Office and Italy for hostage rescue, and Dust, Dust 2, Train, Aztec, Inferno and Nuke for bomb defusal.
It likely goes without saying, but Counter-Strike's vintage maps are wide, spiralling affairs of perfectly pitched choke points and sight lines. Their multiple avenues of approach cater to various styles of attack and defence, and their dense and layered environments mean you'll still be discovering new things months, if not years, from now. There are small changes here and there, namely the addition of a side exit from the underpass of Dust and some rejiggered weapons, but these are the same classic maps that have endured for well over a decade. It's a bit of a shame, though, that Valve hasn't had the bravery or conviction to create a single new level for these classic modes, though hopefully the game's community will respond in kind.
You will die, of course, because Counter-Strike is really hard. I've easily sunk over 1000 hours into the game over the years, and I found myself on the receiving end of hundreds of headshots since attempting to get to grips with Global Offensive. The game just doesn't play like all the other modern shooters, and its rules on bullet spray and accuracy are incredibly harsh when compared to its contemporaries. There are medals and achievements, but no persistent unlocks or any other concessions to modern trends, and a one-hit Taser has been added for players looking to showboat. Battle-hardened experts, on the other hand, will likely feel that Valve's compromises with hitboxes (the game uses the smaller hitboxes of 1.6 on the larger model sizes of CS:S) and weapon tweaks are acceptable, and much of Global Offensive feels like a concerted attempt to actively bridge the two splintered communities.
It's a daunting game, though the addition of matchmaking will likely help bucket players into approximate skill levels. And if you don't know exactly what filing cabinet to perch on in Office, Global Offensive also introduces two new modes that are far more forgiving to lapsed players and those starting out. Arms Race is a team-based spin on the Gun Game mode that you'll likely have been introduced to via Call of Duty: Black Ops, but which started its life as a famous Counter-Strike mod itself. Its two unique maps are small death-zones with instant respawns, flinging you into instant and frequent confrontations in a bid to ratchet through each of the game's weapons, your gun changing whenever you score a kill, and eventually win the game for your team with the knife.
The second new mode, however, is easily my favourite addition. Demolition feels like a lighter version of the bigger, meaner defusal maps, throwing you into tinier maps and therefore smaller tussles (which results in less downtime between rounds upon your likely demise) with pre-selected equipment loadouts. In many ways it's Arms Race in reverse, as you start with your standard everyday M4/AK and cycle through more specialised equipment at the start of each new round if you've scored a kill in the previous one. It even chucks in a free Kevlar vest, allowing you to survive slightly longer without sapping your resources dry. Demotion's six maps are by far the most appealing way for new players to learn the game.
'There's plenty of things to like about today's modern shooters, but Counter-Strike is the only one of its kind designed to be anything other than a throwaway novelty you replace every year.'
These two modes are also likely made with console players in mind, as is the game's new radial buy menu that makes very little sense when (pro tip: get used to typing B, 4 and 2) you're sitting there with a keyboard and mouse. A quick hands-on shows that the Xbox 360 version handles the game fairly well, with a well-implemented controller layout that lets you run easily run with the knife, but snooty Counter-Strike elitists (like me) will be quick to remind you that no controller is ever going to be able to handle the precision that the game's finest moments demand.
The game's slick visual overhaul is enough to get your attention, but it's the detail and pace of the game's tried-and-tested maps and gunplay that will keep you coming back - make no mistake, these are shootouts that are attractive through excellence rather than nostalgia. There's plenty of things to like about today's modern shooters, but Counter-Strike is the only one of its kind designed to be anything other than a throwaway novelty you replace every year. It's the Audi compared to Call of Duty's Fiat.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive cannot be to me what Counter-Strike 1.0 ever was. I'm too old now, my life has changed too much and my gaming habits are different. But Global Offensive is a fine instalment of one of the best games ever made, and someone out there will shortly be discovering what will become the definitive moments of their gaming lives.
Version Tested: PC