It can be difficult to get into a multiplayer shooter that's been out for even a week. Other players will know the layout of the maps, have a keener understanding of the weapons, and a better feel for the controls. Now imagine getting into a game that's been played obsessively for over a decade and it can feel next to impossible.
Such is the case with Counter-Strike, Minh "Gooseman" Le and Jess Cliffe's competitive multiplayer mod from 1999. In the time since its inception we've had Halo and Call of Duty come and go and come back again, the word "pwned" has entered the pop-culture vernacular, and dual analogue sticks have become the norm for console games, allowing the FPS genre to thrive in a space previously dominated by Goldeneye. A lot has changed, so coming into Counter-Strike now can feel like an exercise in futility.
This hasn't stopped Valve from renovating its aging warhorse in a way accessible to today's market that may not be familiar with the legendary shooter. Their upcoming iteration, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, seeks to maintain the series' hardcore sensibilities, while opening it up for new players.
The core mechanics will remain much as they ever were. One team plays as terrorists, tasked with setting bombs or keeping hostages. Another is a counter-terrorist squad sent to dispose the threat. Each team spawns on different sides of the map until their multiple routes collide with bloody results.
What separates Counter-Strike from the bulk of its modern FPS brethren is that there's no respawn. Further adding to this harsh realism, players can only take a miniscule amount of damage, often dying in one or two shots. There's a mini-map that gives away enemy positions, but only if they're currently in a squadmate's point of view. In short, it's perpetually living out the climax of a tense battle. It's fiendishly taut, but not exactly alluring for newcomers when others have been practicing since back when Daikatana was a heavily anticipated title.
To overcome this, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive adds ranked match-making, a first for the series. While Counter-Strike's central conflict remains timeless, its inability to pair players with those of similar skill is woefully dated. Given the series' high bar of entry, this could be the biggest attraction to reel in new players.
Furthermore, Valve's research showed that people played Counter-Strike in two ways: competitively and casually. In order to appease both camps, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has two different modes available based on what kind of player you are.
Competitive mode is serious business. You can only spectate squadmates after you die, communicate only with teammates, and the in-game economic repercussions for dying are as harsh as the global economy is right now.
Casual mode has more lenient restrictions on what you can buy, allows everyone to chat regardless of alignment, and you can view all players' viewpoints after dying. This also matches you with friends independent of skill. For those who play primarily as a social experience, this is a good way to avoid the rabid fanatics who will throw a hissy fit if a teammate messes up. "We've simultaneously raised the skill ceiling and lowered the skill floor," says project lead Ido Magal in regards to these new options.
Beyond the steadier learning curve that caters towards different play styles, there are plenty of subtle changes to create greater balance. The only map shown off was a revamped version of Dust (and thanks to the vastly improved graphics, you can now actually see the dust). It may be considered sacrilege to many to alter such a beloved map, but Magal recognizes that it fell out of favor over time due to a slight imbalance. The left underground passage gave an advantage to the counter-terrorists who could camp on a ledge overlooking the underpass and massacre any potential terrorists by seeing their feet before they'd even have a chance to retaliate.
This is no longer the case. There's now a side passage with a staircase linking the underpass to higher ground, granting relatively safe passage for overzealous terrorists. The terrorist's spawn point has also been moved closer to the map's center (equidistant from the two routes), so they can get to this newly constructed path before the counter-terrorists can set up camp. Finally, there's additional cover under the bridge, so whichever way players chose to approach, it's a more viable route.
In addition to these refinements are new weapons and grenades. Perhaps the most significant is the Molotov cocktail; being able to lay a barrier of fire could prove invaluable for terrorists holding off an assault while waiting for a bomb to detonate. Decoy grenades are like firecrackers, spewing the sounds of fake gunfire to set bait for players who think they can swoop in mid battle for the vulture kill, only to wind up staring down the barrel of a shotgun.
This was probably my favorite weapon from my brief hands-on (by virtue of being the weapon I had the most kills with). Its large spread and high damage make up for its extremely close range and slow firing speed. It's rubbish for dueling across long chasms, but my strategy involved staying behind my comrades until a fight ensued, at which point I'd charge in, guns blazing.
Another new addition is the PP Bison, a mid-range submachine gun with minimal damage but a whopping 64 bullet clip. This may sound excessive, but after a Rambo-esque barrage ended with my opponent dead and a single bullet left in my clip, it proved its purpose.
Less practical but no less entertaining is the Zeus, an expensive one shot electrocution weapon with short range. It's wildly impractical and made exclusively for humiliation. Sure it's a novelty, but it adds a little optional levity amid all the gritty realism.
In addition to these upgrades and renovations, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive will contain eight all new maps, as well as seven classic ones. There will also be some new game modes, though Valve is remaining hush-hush on these for now.
This may not be the full on sequel to Counter-Strike some might expect, but as Magal points out, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." The original's sensibly mortal soldiers stand in stark contrast to the space marine bullet sponges of today, but it lacks the matchmaking, graphical fidelity and hardware accessibility to capture the attention of those transfixed by more modern titles. With these additions making it a more inviting prospect for neophytes, and new content ensuring veterans will have to rearrange their tried and true tactics, this could be the excuse we need to party like it's 1999.