I am what you might call a lapsed Terrorist. Around a decade ago, you could often find me skulking around Italian wine cellars with AK-47s, or cowering behind hostages in a conference room watching for SWAT. I wasn't exactly a brilliant servant to the cause - some of my exploits made the underpants bomber look like a pro, like headshotting one of my team-mates with a grenade while he checked a stairwell - but I was dedicated. No matter how many times I would charge into battle, knife in hand for faster movement, only to be blinded by a flashbang and then slain while hopping wildly into a wall of gunfire, I would always be there the next time around, ready to lay down my life all over again.
(I also played as a Counter-Terrorist half the time, obviously, but my heart was never in it.)
I can't remember why I stopped playing Counter-Strike, but I'm immediately back at home in Global Offensive, Valve and Hidden Path's latest overhaul of Jess Cliffe and Minh Le's original Half-Life modification. The main team-based objective modes see Terrorists trying to plant a bomb while Counter-Terrorists try to wipe them out and/or defuse it, or Counter-Terrorists trying to rescue hostages while Terrorists try to wipe them out. Cash earned from kills or team success allows you to buy better weapons before each round, and these modes take you on a tour of some of the best multiplayer shooter levels ever designed: Dust, Italy, Nuke, Train, Dust 2, Aztec, Office and Inferno. You're also rewarded with superficial awards and MVP points, but beyond that there's no XP-based progression, classes or custom builds, and once you're dead there's no respawning until the next round begins, so life is a bit more valuable than it is in other shooters.
It's a simple skill-based game, then, and if you dive straight into Counter-Strike's core modes then you will find everyone else is pretty damned skilled already. Even in Casual mode, where friendly fire is switched off and everyone has Kevlar to give them a bit more protection, the standard of play is still very high - the 'Casual' reference is more to do with how quickly the maps cycle. I've probably played Counter-Strike for hundreds of hours in total, and these aren't new maps, so I know every choke point, shortcut, physics trick and optimal vantage point, but I was still struggling to stay alive when I started back. People who don't realise you need to manually fire in bursts or walk or crouch to increase your accuracy are going to get slaughtered. A lot.
Yet another multiplayer FPS where newcomers can look forward to hours of crushing failure before getting anywhere, then? Well, yes and no. If you start with the main modes - whether in Casual or Competitive flavour - then yes, you're going to suck down a lot of failure before you taste the sweet air at the top of the scoreboards. But nowadays you can also practice offline with bots, who won't abuse you when you fail but who will put up a very convincing challenge - so much so that the game uses them to fill out online matches with unbalanced teams and nobody seems to mind.
What's more, there are new modes - Arms Race and Demolition - that make for a more agreeable introduction. They're derived from Gun Game, which you may remember from Call of Duty: Black Ops' Wager Match options but which began life as a Counter-Strike modification, and the basic idea is that every time you kill someone you get a new weapon. In Arms Race, it's technically team deathmatch but really it's a free-for-all where only half the guys in the game are shooting at you, and you have to work your way through rifles, shotguns, pistols and sniping all the way up to a golden knife. The winner is the first player to register a kill with everything. Respawning is fast and furious and there are a few small-scale, specific maps for this mode, which owe a lot to the Quakes and CODs of the world, with criss-crossing walkways and rat runs that leave you constantly exposed.
The other mode, Demolition, is my favourite. It's a mash-up of the core Counter-Strike bomb-defusal objective variant with Gun Game-inspired rules, tweaked so that you get a new weapon after each round in which you register a kill (rather than immediately every time you drop someone) and so that weapons get progressively weaker - starting with, say, an M4A4 assault rifle and moving toward weaker pistols and manual-reload shotguns.
This might not be so great if you were playing on the larger classic maps, but there are some excellent small-scale Demolition battlegrounds instead, each with one bomb site at its centre, like a log cabin with a floor-safe in a bedroom and a bank with a vault behind the counter and floor-to-ceiling windows. Each team can engage the other within 5-10 seconds, and there's a low time limit on individual rounds, so even rapid death isn't a huge blow, whereas it can put you on the bench for several long minutes in the main game.
A few other console-minded additions and tweaks also make it a bit easier to get into the game than it used to be. A new radial selection menu for buying weapons at the start of each round may raise a few grumbles with PC players - it's great for analogue sticks but makes no sense if you're using number keys to issue buy commands - but you get used to it. The addition of proper matchmaking and a lobby system is a huge boon to every system though, and PC gamers can always fall back on the old-style server browser if you want to play on non-Valve servers or try out custom maps. (Console gamers don't get this functionality, but then you wouldn't really expect it.)
Between these tweaks and the addition of Arms Race and Demolition, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive should shorten the distance to gratification for new players. In the new modes, faster turnover and the mandated infusion of new weaponry whenever you register a kill means that you'll see a lot more action and you'll learn a lot more about the way the game works if you're new to Counter-Strike. For the rest of us, they're just fantastic pick-up-and-play additions, with tight new maps that immediately burn themselves into your subconscious. The other interface tweaks either make the game simpler in agreeable ways or prove largely benign.
The other big changes go slightly deeper, but they're all fine really. There are some layout changes to a few of the maps - most notably the addition of a staircase to the tunnel section of Dust - and I imagine these were based on years' worth of telemetry telling the developers that players were favouring or avoiding certain locations and tactics because of perceived imbalance. They change the dynamic of the maps but only a lot of time will tell whether they really disrupt them in a positive or negative way. Meanwhile, it's easier to pass judgement on the new grenades - the Molotov cocktail and incendiary are vicious little fellows who spread puddles of flame, potentially blocking choke points completely, while the decoy grenade is a handy way for an isolated player to confuse aggressors.
Is this Counter-Strike for everyone, then? Potentially. Judging by the Steam message boards, where dedicated players have been helping to test the game for the last year or so, not everyone is in love with Valve and Hidden Path's treatment, but given that the complaints range from the relatively obscure (bullets don't penetrate wood as easily as before) to the highly subjective (the Desert Eagle gun model is "too big"), it looks like the prolonged closed beta period has ironed out most of the kinks.
I do have one big complaint, though, and it's really simple: no new maps for the core game? Really? Global Offensive is being released simultaneously on PC, Mac, PS3 and Xbox 360, but it's easy to conclude that it exists because Valve wants current-generation console owners to have access to it, which until now they did not, rather than because PC gamers wanted it. It's a concern that's frustrating to have to voice, given that it's exactly what I said about Counter-Strike: Source, the last CS overhaul, when it came out in 2004.
Then again, these designs are classic for a reason; each tweaked and balanced to create tremendous situational variety and prevent specialist domination. Wherever you tread you'll find a mixture of tight corridors, long sight lines and covered markets, courtyards and train yards perfect for middle-distance cover shooting. Global Offensive's modest graphical overhaul does nothing to jeopardise that balance and even the nips and tucks are only in reaction to deep study of years of player data. Perhaps the emphasis on trusted designs is just for console owners, but it's not just nostalgia that gives me pleasure as I'm squinting down the long covered passageway on Italy, watching for the rustle of distant Counter-Terrorist pixels, nor as I patrol the bridge on Aztec and catch the telltale sound of splashing below; it's timeless level design working its magic.
Modern military shooters have become a disposable cliché, full of ideas and maps that we will forget in less than a year, whether it's in the bouncy, power-up-heavy arcade instakill frenzies of Call of Duty or Battlefield's Black Hawk Down-infused cross-country running. The core of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is a reminder that quality can be permanent rather than fleeting, and the new additions give us new reasons to take interest and - hopefully - another way in for people who are ready for something different.