I've played Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and can now say it's for me, too.
On the eve of the public debut of its newest game, Valve Software let me into their ever-expanding offices in Bellevue, Washington to give me a sampling of four classic Counter-Strike maps as they've been remade for 2012's Counter-Strike: GO.
This was, I dare admit, the first time I've ever played Counter-Strike.
Forget my shame, and let me tell you how terrific an experience it was. There is a lot to this game that will be interesting to veterans and newcomers.
Even I knew before I put my hand to mouse and keyboard in a Valve testing lab today that Counter-Strike is a classic team-based first-person shooter. One side plays terrorists; one are counter-terrorists. The most popular mode and the one I played today is Bomb/Defuse. One of five terrorist players randomly gets the bomb and can place it; any of the five counter-terrorists can try to defuse it. The match ends when one team is wiped out or the bomb goes off.
CS: GO will launch with five maps for Bomb/Defuse mode, and two for the other classic franchise mode, Hostage Rescue. Those combined seven maps are all based on classic Counter-Strike 1.6 and CS: Source maps, in other words, maps from the two most popular earlier incarnations of the game.
The maps will be recognizable to series fans. Valve's designers have kept the best of them nearly intact, applying a graphical upgrade but leaving most of the level layout intact. The classic Dust 2, for example, looks improved but plays the same.
Another map, Nuke, has had some of its dead space removed, Valve's project lead on CS: GO, Ido Magal, told me. Areas where players would get lost have been tightened. The classic map Aztec has been altered to give terrorist players more cover and quicker paths to bomb placement areas. Dust has had a "sniper alley" fixed so that players can now run through a trench in that map while trusting that some bridges that span it and other obstructions will give them some cover.
If you're like me and a Counter-Strike novice, you'll notice none of the subtle changes in the game's maps. Valve is partially making the game for us, but also vetting many of their big and little changes through pro players in the massive competitive Counter-Strike community.
Players like me can cheer for the game's new Casual mode. In it, money is no object and players can buy weapons for each round without worrying about cost. They will be playing with voice-chat open to all players, on both sides and the ability to spectate any player's actions, again, from either faction, should they die and be watching the rest of the round as it plays out. Casual is, Magal and Valve writer Chet Faliszek explained to me, part of their and partner studio Hidden Path's effort to "lower the skill floor" for new players.
Veteran players will ideally appreciate the game creators' efforts to also "raise the skill ceiling." The overall idea is that Counter-Strike is considered, at Valve, to be a game about skill, one that doesn't sand over differences in player ability and always lets the player feel like they know why they died. I sure understood why I died and also why I was able to achieve a surprising number of kills during our Casual sessions. Weapons recoil and headshots remain paramount. Character movement is swift and the pace is indeed fast. Maps are clean and easy to rush through. Valve clearly wants nothing to obstruct the clarity of the play of the game. To wit: Faliszek explained to me that smoke and dust effects, which are prominent in the starting area of Dust, appear less frequently and with less opacity, as the round gets underway.
Experienced CS players may gravitate toward the game's Competitive mode, which drops the cross-team chat and spectating and intensifies the rounds, dropping round time from three minutes to two. In Competitive, money earned for success in a round does count and can be spent on weapons and armor for the next round.
For the new game, Valve will host its own servers. Fans can still host theirs and tweak the game, but Valve wants all of the players to be able to rely on having access to a consistent experience. On the Valve servers. CS: Go will play the way described here. And only on the Valve servers for PC and Mac—or on the console versions for Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3—will players be matchmade based on skill. Valve is using a system called ELO and will prioritize that skill ranking when matchmaking in the Competitive mode. It will prioritize your friends list when matchmaking for Casual.
On PC and Mac, Counter-Strike: GO players can expect the standard options you get with a Steam game and any of the control options you would have with a computer. On the Xbox 360, players will use a game pad. On the PS3, players can use the game controller, the PlayStation Move motion controller or even a mouse and keyboard. PS3, Mac and PC players will be match-made against each other, clumped by skill, regardless of input device or platform. (Valve didn't demonstrate the PS3-PC.Mac cross-play to me today, but they confirmed that that enticing bit of networking is something they are striving to include in the game.)
Counter Strike: Global Offensive will feature eight new weapons and seven classic maps.
What Valve showed me and will be showing at both this week's Penny Arcade Expo and next month's Eurogamer Expo is a lot of CS:GO's nods to the past, through classic modes and tweaked and graphically improved classic maps. In the future we'll find out about new modes and maps associated with them, innovations to the formula about which the Valve guys dropped no hints, other than to mention that for some reason, on some undisclosed map, some players will be in the role of professional bank robbers.
But even in the content now being shown, fans will be able to spot differences all over the place. They will see that character models are dressed appropriately for their level's environment and, in time, Valve will ensure that all of the characters have small visual variations in their wardrobe to distinguish them from each other. Veterans will notice that in Casual or Competitive, bullets will now fire tracers, helping players learn and understand where the ammo from the game's various weapons is going and coming from. This will visualize the series' various realistic streams and arcs of bullets as guns fire, recoil and are subjected to simulated laws of physics.
Long time players will also spot new weapons and items. Among them is a taser gun, an expensive, one-shot, instant-elimination gun that Faliszek described as a weapon that is used to humiliate. Players on either side can use a decoy, a bundle of firecrackers, sort of, that looks like a player on the mini-map and lets off the sounds of guns being fired. But it doesn't look like a player and doesn't make the sound of footsteps. A third new item is the molotov cocktail which fills an area with fire and smoke, briefly, the first CS item, Magal explained to me, that is designed to slow another team down. There will be more new weapons, but those are the ones I spotted.
The game is set to go into beta this October. Attendees of PAX and the Eurogamer Expo will get Beta codes they can redeem later, and Valve will provide fans other means, not yet announced, to get into the game. Through the beta, which is PC only, and through dialogue with more players of all levels, they want to tweak and perfect this game. As Faliszek and Magal showed me CS:GO, they frequently referred to stats in the game that might change. That's the point of the beta and the continued dialogue, to determine, for example, if bombs should detonate in 45 seconds, as they did in the build I played, or if that time will be shortened to 35 in Competitive mode. Defusal is currently 10 seconds. Decoys last about five.
The process of give and take is constant for this game, the Valve guys told me. For example, Valve was going to eliminate the ability to get armor, but was talked out of it by Source players. So they added them in, made them cost money for Competitive mode, made them free for Casual and they think they've solved the problem. For now, Valve is confident that they've made the right decision to eliminate random spawn points on all maps, a trait of the old games they think the community agrees led to unfair advantages. Feedback and the reams of data Valve has collected from players of earlier incarnations of the game can still change and influence any of this.
Valve and Hidden Path are attempting to expand the Counter-Strike audience with CS:GO, roping in more console players while also creating something that is supremely refined for computer veterans. I was impressed with how streamlined everything felt and how pleasant a session of Casual was, leaving me without the feeling of shellshock I often get during my rare dalliances with competitive shooters and instead with the satisfaction of playing an efficiently-made game with an amiable crew.
Counter-Srike: Go is scheduled for a first quarter 2012 release on the PC, Mac, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3. It will be download-only. Faliszek couldn't tell me what it'll cost. They're worrying about making a great game first, he told me. They'll sweat the other details later. (But! Magal added: they won't be selling in-game hats.)
We'll have more on Counter-Strike: Go in the coming days here on Kotaku.