Eurogamer's grand high poobah Tom 'Tom Bramwell' Bramwell makes a welcome return to RPS to tell us all about the latest makeover of Valve's undying multiplayer shooter Counter-Strike, which was was released to the world just yesterday.
Handsome and erudite readers of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I need to warn you that I am going to begin by discussing the console version of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. DO NOT BE ALARMED. I will stop doing this as quickly as possible. But it's worth acknowledging its existence for a few reasons:
1) Without the PS3 and Xbox 360 versions of CS GO, there would probably be no CS GO. And that would be a real shame, because this is my favourite take on Counter-Strike since CS 1.6 for Half-Life. It benefits from all the usability lessons Valve has quietly sat learning in its sprawling fortresses of secrecy in all the naughty years it hasn't been making Half-Life 3. It's superbly tuned, embellished and presented. It's the new CS that PC gamers deserve, and yet it probably only exists because Valve noticed that there wasn't a version of CS for the PS3 and Xbox 360, and wanted a larger audience to be able to experience the majesty of multiplayer arenas like Dust, Italy and, er, Dust 2.
2) The existence - and significance to Valve - of the console versions helps to explain why the only shipping maps for the core bomb defusal and hostage rescue 'Classic' modes are ones we already know: Dust, Dust 2, Italy, Office, Inferno, Train, Aztec and Nuke. And why Valve has installed a new radial menu system for buying weapons before each round that clearly only makes sense to someone sitting in front of the game clutching analogue sticks.
3) The console version only runs at 30 frames per second and has really annoying controller lag, meaning that everyone playing it is not having as much fun as we are. Given the audience I'm writing for, I thought this information might be widely appreciated.
So, does anyone need a Counter-Strike refresher course? Well, probably not, but you can't be too careful. Counter-Strike in its purest form goes like this: teams of Terrorist and Counter-Terrorist players try to kill each other and/or fulfil an objective, which is either planting a bomb or rescuing hostages. There's no respawning until the end of the current round and there's no experience system to unlock perks or any of that crap. However, success (personal or shared) does reward you with money, which you spend buying up weapons, grenades and equipment at the start of each round. That's it.
In CS GO, bomb defusal and hostage rescue modes can be played in 'Casual' and 'Competitive' modes. This isn't really about skill level, because everyone involved is pretty decent in my experience - it's more about the attitude of the players involved. In Competitive, you come to win. No messing. You get a long time at the start of each round to buy equipment, and once you die you only get first-person feeds of your team-mates' activities to switch between, so there's no hope of sharing sneaky enemy intel over voice comms. Kevlar and defuse kits need to be purchased. Games last a long time, over many, many rounds, and you get to play as both teams.
In Casual, you can horse around a bit more. Everyone gets kevlar and defuse kits for free, and once you die you can watch third-person chase-cams of team-mates and enemies. Matches don't last as long, and you don't get as much time to buy stuff pre-round - you're probably expected to just hit F1 to auto-buy an average loadout. If you're the sort of guy who likes to do the opposite of what the rest of your team is doing and go off looking for glory, you're probably going to want to keep that on Casual servers. If you're on a Competitive one and the guy with the bomb says Bomb Site A, get your ass to Bomb Site A.
This stuff is all great. Valve and Hidden Path have done a fine job of not cocking it up. Player movement, weapon behaviour, strategies and tactics - everything is in its right place. Running with the knife is faster! Crouching to shoot is more accurate! Playing CS GO is like getting home after a long trip and having the perfect bath. Just the right temperature, the light from the bulb above you given perfect radiance by the purple night outside the frosted-glass windows... Sorry, I drifted away for a second there.
Basically, CS GO gets the core Counter-Strike right, and core Counter-Strike is one of the best multiplayer FPS games ever made. It isn't hyper-fast bouncy nonsense where you're always exposed to at least a dozen different lines of sight like in Call of Duty, and it isn't slow-paced and sprawling like Battlefield. There are moments of great excitement, tension, subtlety, bravado, lunacy and cowardice - often in the space of just a few minutes.
The graphical overhaul is enough to bring CS roughly into line with its modern contemporaries, without really threatening to top them, and where there are additions they are generally welcome. There's a new staircase on Dust, for example, which reduces the risk for the Terrorist team if they decide to go down the ramp rather than through the palace (oh yeah, apparently it's a palace now), but arguably rebalances the map for the better. And there are new grenades - the incendiary/Molotov cocktail and the decoy, which makes gun noises - which are fun. There's also a new bit of equipment called the Zeus, which is the ultimate troll tool - you can only fire it once, at close quarters, but it kills in one hit...
What surprises me about CS GO, however, isn't that it's very good at not breaking what doesn't need fixing, but more that it does such a very fine job of easing new or lapsed players into its core modes without patronising them. More than that, actually, it creates all sorts of new fun for old players who fancy a change of pace.
How does it do this? Four ways. There's a Weapons Course tutorial (1) for the absolute basics (which in classic Valve fashion is actually quite funny and compelling), but more importantly there are now AI bots (2) and two new game modes, Arms Race (3) and Demolition (4). (Sorry about the numbers in brackets - just making sure I can count.)
So hey, Valve, the AI bots would have been pretty fucking welcome 10 years ago, guys. I used to run up £500-a-quarter phone bills playing Quake and CS on dialup, and while Quake gave me Reaper Bots, the idea of bots that could competently play Counter-Strike was science-fiction to rival your own bloody resonance cascade scenario. [To be fair, there were bots from CS:Z, and some community-made ones for 1.6 - Historical Ed.]
Not that I'm really complaining: these guys are so good that they often fill the gaps on incomplete human teams on public servers and nobody can tell the difference. One of them did manage to give away my position on Dust 2 the other day by throwing a flashbang round a corner when I was stalking some Norwegian dude called L!nk, but then he also saved my ass when the same Norwegian came running round the bend with a P90 machinegun, so...
The bots will be handy to newcomers, then, but the real revelation is Demolition mode and, to a lesser extent, Arms Race. These are derived from Gun Game, where you get a new weapon for each kill. Arms Race is a straight-up free-for-all, effectively, set on small, very open maps with constant respawning, and the first player to kill with every weapon wins. It's fast-paced, super-violent and much more like Call of Duty than Counter-Strike. It also subtly introduces you to every weapon in the game in an entertaining way.
Demolition, however, I actually find myself playing more than the Classic modes. It's bomb defusal, again, but set on much smaller custom-made maps where the two teams can engage one another within five seconds. Not only that, but it's a kind of reverse Gun Game: you start off with an assault rifle (AK-47 or M4A4 depending on your attitude to freedom), then every time you register a kill you start the next round with a weaker weapon, until eventually you're trying to rush someone with a manual-reload shotgun or pistol.
Again, it's teaching you how to play the real Counter-Strike, and it's giving you a crash course in all the guns. Forcing you to use different guns also forces you to consider different strategies. Maybe racing up the staircase on the Safehouse map to blast Terrorists in the face works well with an M4A4 or the P90, but it isn't such a good idea when you're holding a scout sniper rifle firing from the hip, so you back off and try going through a ground floor window, or maybe climbing the ladder leaning up against the garage round the side of the house, which gives you a commanding view of the back garden and in through the first-floor windows to where the Terrorists want to blow open a floor safe in the master bedroom.
Counter-Strike used to have this fearsome reputation for being impregnable to newcomers. That isn't really true anyway - I'd argue that it's much harder to get to the point where you consistently enjoy or make progress in COD or Battlefield, as good as those games are - but if anyone was in any doubt then Global Offensive really puts an end to it. Arms Race and Demolition are the perfect introduction or refresher course, and great fun in their own right, and the subtle distinction between Casual and Competitive Classic modes, along with the bots, ought to satisfy most of the people most of the time.
As must be obvious, it's certainly satisfied me.
P.S. Seriously, run with the knife.