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Counter-Strike 2 review: a big change to an unparalleled FPS, but it could be something special

It might've released too early, but give it time

A group of players in Counter-Strike 2
Image credit: Valve

After 11 years, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has been, somewhat unceremoniously, shut down in favour of the newer, shinier Counter-Strike: 2. Whether you like it or not, Valve wants you playing CS2. For those who don't take their CS all too seriously, CS2 won't seem like much of a change from CS:GO, besides some grenade changes, more detailed maps, and a disappointing lack of fan favourite game modes. And for those who train their aim on the reg and line up their smoke grenades, CS2 might look the part but lacks the precision of CS:GO's movement and gunplay.

Still, CS2 captures what makes Counter-Strike tick and even if the foundation seems a little sparse and a touch shaky right now, I'm confident Valve have an FPS that'll supersede CS:GO in time.

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For your average Counter-Strike-enjoyer, CS2 will seem more like a large CS:GO patch than a sequel eleven years in the making. Sure CS2 is powered by Valve's newer Source 2 engine, with a slew of smaller tweaks to menus and bigger tweaks to the way grenades work. Ultimately, though, it's still terrorists versus counter terrorists where budgets wax and wane depending on how many heads players have dinked in their crosshairs. Hop into a game of CS2 and it'll feel very, very similar to CS:GO. It's to be expected right? CS2 was always going to elevate a winning formula and not like, introduce wall running and a perk system.

Transitioning from CS:GO to CS2 is easy peasy, as all of your settings and binds port over, alongside all your cosmetics. As a returning player, I had no problem hopping into CS2 and finding my feet quickly, which deserves a big thumbs up. Unfortunately for newcomers, the game's still poor at guiding you towards useful things, like tweaking your aim sensitivity or adjusting your crosshair or even what any of the modes actually entail. Guides or an experienced mate are likely necessities if you're feeling a bit overwhelmed, so CS still has some growing to do on the tutorial front.

I'd say your mileage may vary if you're playing Casual matches, as they're still a chaotic mass of bodies and grenades that offset the intricacies of bomb defusal, but hop into Deathmatch, Competitive or the new Premier mode and CS2 captures what makes Counter-Strike so damn crispy. As much as guns have personality and it's satisfying when you land your shots, CS is about question and answer, both in response to your teammates' dots as they scurry about the map, as well as the sudden cracks of gunfire that break long periods of silence. Are you covering your allies' blind spot? Is it time to rush B no stop? Yes and absolutely 1000%, yes.

And if we examine the small changes more closely, they do play a more significant role in making match admin a bit easier. The flexibility of the new inventory means you're able to curate your weapons pool with a drag and drop, so you can finally have both CT assault rifles available in the buy menu if you'd like (I am giddy). And the buy menu's been updated, so as your teammates purchase guns in-between rounds, little dots underneath each weapon's portrait help you see everyone's loadout at a glance. There's even a handy refund button to undo those slip-ups or ease last minute hits to the bank account.

A web where players pick and ban maps in the Premier mode of CS2.
There's a new Premier game mode that's distinct from Competitive in a way that's not explained by any tooltips anywhere. Essentially, Competitive is the equivalent of ranked matches where you get to choose the maps you'd like to play before you queue up. Premier has a whole map pick and ban phase, as well as a global/regional ranking with a points system dependent on how good you are. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Valve

It's on the surface where the game's most obvious change lies. Step into any map and it'll appear brighter and more colourful, with dark corners abolished in favour of visibility. Step into Mirage's palace and there's a proper sheen to the marble floor, the monster graffiti in Overpass now wraps around the tunnel with a mighty splash, and I'd spend my Steam Points on a long weekend at Inferno's apartments because they're gorgeous now (noise might be an issue, but we compromise). Gone are the days of walls with the texture of hummus and I'm here for it.

On the slightly-less-obvious-until-you-sling-one-across-a-map scale, grenades are more reactive to their surroundings. In CS:GO, smoke grenades would generate a puff of static fog that wouldn't budge until it disappeared. But in CS2, fog will curve around an arch and spill outwards, or wedge itself into a narrow gap and shoot upwards like it's been pinched by the stone. What's neat is how explosions from regular grenades will dissipate smoke for a second, exposing any poor bastards hiding away inside. And if you shoot through the edges of a cloud, it'll bobble around your bullets and potentially expose enemies, too.

Generally, I think the smoke grenade tweaks affect both your regular and serious players equally, as they're substantial enough to alter their most basic usage as quickly chucked sight blockers or entirely change how top players use them. I'm by no means a serious player and even I've found the new smokes awaken options that hadn't previously existed. Rather than waiting around tentatively for them to vanish or being surprised when someone erupts from the darkness, it finally feels like you're able to manipulate smokes inline with the rest of CS's sandbox.

The player secures a triple kill with a pistol in CS2.
The player points an AK at a smoke on Anubis in CS2.
The player aims the FAMAS past a fountain on Inferno in CS2.
The player points the M4A1-S at a smoke grenade on Inferno in CS2.
Overall match length has been reduced from a race to 16, to 13. Or in other terms, the maximum number of rounds has been reduced from 30 to 24 overall per match. I've not found it an issue, and if anything, makes each and every round feel a little more meaningful. | Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Valve

Despite some of these positive strides in maps and grenades, there's also a lot of goodness from CS:GO that hasn't found its way into CS2's launch. There's no Mac support. No Arms Race or War Games. No way in the console to go left-handed. Fan favourite maps like Cache and Train are absent. All of these will undoubtedly come with time, but it's frustrating that we can't go back to CS:GO and enjoy them because Valve snapped it out of existence. I don't blame players for thinking CS2 has "cut the game in half", as it sort of seems that way.

There's also an argument to be made about how some of the maps like Inferno and Italy have been "overhauled" and what overhauled means for most people. For folks like me, most of the changes are about as perceptible as spotting a lobster with pink eye. Most of these tweaks involve shifting a ledge a few inches to the right, which serves the side of the community for whom minutiae matter. Again an example of how CS2's updates will seem more substantial to some and barely present for others.

A player in Counter-Strike 2 inspects their knife in front of a wall with colourful graffiti on it.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Valve

Having tuned into pro-players and their streams, it seems like there's a lot of talk about CS2 feeling off compared to CS:GO. Movement isn't quite as smooth and spraying with your weapon doesn't feel as accurate. The new servers with their 64 tick/sub-tick thing just doesn't cut it, apparently (I have zero idea what sub-tick means). For long-time fans and serious CS-heads, it seems like CS2 has some catching up to do. And as a sort of lapsed player who used to take it quite seriously but doesn't anymore, I agree that the sensation of accuracy in holding down the trigger feels a bit… off in CS2? I've also been sniped around a corner a few times, which didn't happen in CS:GO, and might be something to do with those server ticks? But hey, I'm finding my matches of CS2 just as thrilling as before! And I'm sure most players will, too.

It wouldn't be CS - or any videogame, I suppose - without rounding off a game and being hit by cosmetic rewards and the like. If you bought CS:GO back in the day, you'll get what's called "Prime Status" free of charge in CS2, otherwise it will cost you £15. Those with Prime Status unlock the competitive and premier modes, plus queues with other Prime members. In theory, it's Valve's way of saying that you're more likely to play against people who don't take their FPS video games for granted. Eh, I've still been matched up with both lovely people and horrible folks I've reported almost instantly, so I doubt it makes much of a difference. Either way, what Prime also enables is the Weekly Care Package, so if you earn enough EXP and level up, you'll get to choose two cosmetic rewards to add to your collection. Cool, I guess.

Looking at the innards of a Prisma case in CS2.
Image credit: Rock Paper Shotgun/Valve

Valve's still at it with loot crates you've got to pay to open and the dodgy marketplaces that orbit it. But I wouldn't say it's super in your face, as you can choose to not engage with it if you'd like. I basically do not care for any skins or crates or anything and the game doesn't hit me with pop-ups or punish me for tuning out. I'm not saying I like the whole gambling thing and I wish it didn't exist, but you're at least free to disengage.

Even so, if I'm being perfectly honest, I think my CS days are behind me. It's an FPS that requires a lot from you, and those after a shooter you can sort of switch your mind off to should look elsewhere. But if you're a newcomer, lapsed player, or veteran, I think CS2 offers up thrilling matches that can twist and turn after a smart play or a remarkable shot. Many will find it's rather close to CS:GO with neat upgrades to grenades and extra pop to maps, while another portion of the community might just want CS:GO back. Right now CS2 is a great iterative update to a tried and true formula... that's missing an awful lot of fan favourite stuff. Give it time, though, and I think it's onto something pretty special.

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