Counter-Strike: Global Offensive First Look

08/25/2011 by Charles Onyett | Source: IGN

It's easy to forget how unforgiving Counter-Strike can be. Valve's competitive online shooter truly rewards the skilled and stomps all over the newcomers. There are no Call of Duty-style kill streaks, no artillery barrages to call in or packs of dogs to let loose. It's just you, your guns, a few grenade types and your ability to react. Map knowledge, teamwork and quick reflexes are the only things that matter.

With Global Offensive (or GO), the next version of Counter-Strike, Valve isn't trying to completely reinvent the franchise. This isn't Counter-Strike 2, it's more like an incremental update. Terrorists still fight Counter-Terrorists in round-based combat. You still plant bombs on Dust and rescue hostages on Office. Some maps, like Dust and Aztec, received updates while others, like Dust 2, are largely unchanged. Though the changes aren't wild, franchise fans will find a few new interesting additions to the formula that may very well turn out to be series staples moving forward.

If you're using GO's matchmaking system you'll be dumped into relatively small maps for five versus five gameplay. Valve built an ELO-based ranking system into GO to determine your skill level, so ideally you're set up with players around your level of skill. Bots of appropriate difficulty settings will also be added in if a full game of live players can't be put together. If the idea of a five on five match sounds too limiting, PC players will be able to set up custom matches that Valve assures will provide the same degree of flexibility as is available in Counter-Strike: Source. Console players will not have the option to set up servers, however.

Once you do get a match up and running, the gameplay may be seem simple at first, but there's quite a bit of depth. Depending on the map the Terrorists either need to plant bombs or protect hostages, and the Counter-Terrorists need to stop them from planting and detonating bombs or rescue hostages. Before any of the fighting starts, you need to buy weapons by drawing on a personal pool of accumulated funds. Weapons include pistols, rifles, SMG and sniper rifles, as well as specialty items like flashbangs, high explosive grenades and smoke grenades. In the in-development build I played body armor is automatically purchased at a round's beginning, though Valve says when GO's done in 2012 the armor will be a separate purchase. In an interesting twist, defusal kits that let Counter-Terrorists quickly disarm bombs are no longer purchaseable. Instead they're randomly assigned to two teammates at a round's beginning.

Armor and defusal kit changes are important because you don't have infinite money in Counter-Strike. Kills and victories in each round earn you more funds, but you start off poor in GO's Competitive mode. The first round is typically only pistols, and if your team keeps losing don't expect to be running around with a one-shot kill AWP sniper rifle any time soon. Weapons need to be earned through skilled play, which makes acquiring them all the more rewarding. Alternatively, you can scoop weapons up off the ground from dead teammates and opponents, and in either case, if you die you'll have to purchase everything all over again. If you're new to Counter-Strike or don't want to have to deal with amassing a small fortune to buy your favorite gear, the Casual mode will be a good thing to try out where you'll get plenty of money each round to buy whatever you wish.

The weapon you choose dictates your combat role. If you're running around with the sawed-off shotgun, don't expect to do much damage from long range. Let the players with sniper rifles take care of that, then spearhead your advance with smoke and maybe a flashbang to disorient the other team before charging in. Chances are you won't be able to get up close very often, though, unless it's by accident or you manage to flank someone. It's tough to get close because it doesn't take much to die in Counter-Strike. Health doesn't regenerate and there are no first aid packs. Charging around maps out in the open is pretty much the worst way to play. In fact, running really isn't a very good idea at all.

Footsteps make noise in Counter-Strike, so when in hostile territory walking or crouching is the best thing to do, unless of course you're fleeing an encounter. Move against walls, move slowly, move with your teammates, and always make sure you're checking every entrance to your part of the map. It's a lot to keep track of, but if you do it's a hugely rewarding feeling to hunt, kill and ultimately defeat the opposing team.

Part of the brilliance of Counter-Strike is how dynamic the combat can be. On each map, any experienced player will know exactly where the zones of contest will be every single time. To get around that, your team needs to not only be accurate, but creative. Use the grenade types, flank, take up intelligent positions if you're defending, and be stealthy whenever possible. If the majority of your team is drawing the attention of Counter Terrorists on Dust's underpass, the bomb carrier might try to sneak around to the map's opposite side to plant the bomb. Once the explosive is activated, the Counter-Terrorists panic and rush to the bomb site to defuse it. But if the bomb carrier gets killed before the device is planted, then the game changes again. Instead of defending the bomb sites, the Counter-Terrorists now protect the bomb wherever it dropped, ensuring no Terrorists swoop in to pick it up and scamper off to the designated detonation zones.

Games of Counter-Strike have no respawns, so if you die, you have to spectate the rest of the match. It can generate big drama when one team is down to a single player and the other has three or more (as well as barbed comments when the full team is revived at the next round's start). Considering how fragile every player is, it's entirely possible for one to defeat three. It comes down to accuracy, smart positioning and maybe a little bit of luck. If you want to pull off a comeback victory, you have to learn how to shoot properly. Pressing and holding the trigger isn't going to get you anywhere. With SMGs and assault rifles, you have to burst first if you want to hit anything from a distance. Crouching helps steady your aim too, though can leave you vulnerable. And just because you decide to take cover behind a wooden door doesn't mean you're safe – bullets will pass right through.

GO's online game should be especially interesting during the PC beta test planned for this October, as those who get in will have a chance to test out the new Molotov cocktail. This grenade type is expensive, but has dramatic effects on the flow of battle. If you step on the carpet of flames produced by shattering the Molotov, you take damage over time. You're not actually set on fire, though. Once you're off the fire, you immediately stop taking damage. But still, the effect can be both disastrous and strategically useful. If a team's all bunched up in a corner, a well-placed Molotov can make a serious dent in their collective health and send them charging for an exit – easy prey for waiting snipers. It can also serve to completely block off an entryway to the enemy team. This gives a lot more power to the solo player, like a Counter-Terrorist trying to defend a bomb zone. If you know help is on the way and the direction of the incoming Terrorists, a well-placed Molotov will keep the enemy at bay for a few seconds, which can open up an opportunity to either escape or give teammates enough time to run over and help out.

Another addition, the Zeus stun gun, is meant to be a tool of humiliation rather than something reliable. Valve considers it to be a joke weapon at this point. It's more expensive to buy than even the Molotov, carries only one charge, and needs to be fired at ultra-close range to hit. Though it seemed somewhat impractical given most are using deadly long-range weapons, I'm very interested to see if pro players may be able to come up with a more effective application for it. Many Counter-Strike favorites return like the AK-47, AWP, Desert Eagle and Famas, and other new weapons have been included as well that fill out the assault rifle and SMG categories. There's definitely a lot here to pick from, but the question of whether it'll all be useful remains, something Valve is looking to find out for sure in the beta.

Regarding map changes, playing on Dust 2, one of my personal favorite maps alongside Office and Italy, felt just like old times. It features a near perfect mix of long sight lines, hiding spots, alternate routes and opportunities for close-quarter surprises. Many of Aztec's changes have to do with the Terrorist spawn zone and additional cover near the double doors, though the main zones of combat should remain familiar to veterans. Dust has been opened up quite a bit from previous versions. The most noticeable alterations were made to the underpass side of the map. The space under the bridge in which Terrorists used to be so easily pinned down by sniper fire has been significantly widened, and a staircase has been built into the side providing an easy escape route to the top level. A plank bridge now connects the Counter Terrorist sniper nest with the other side, meaning there's a more direct route for Terrorists to charge in to the bomb site. Subtle changes were implemented too, like moving the Terrorist spawn slightly closer to the underpass so they can run down the ramp more quickly after a round starts. If you've never played Counter-Strike obviously none of this means much, but it does result in a more balanced feel to the map even after only a few play sessions. Even small changes can have big effects, and the added staircase, as insignificant as it may sound to a newcomer, should ensure many a round is played on Dust once GO is ready for launch next year.

In case you're a PC gamer and concerned about the current interface, don't worry: Valve plans on implementing a proper heads-up display and buy menu eventually. Counter-Strike GO is still very much in development, and much of the appropriate polish has yet to be added. Unfortunately it doesn't sound like sprays are going to make it in, but Valve still has a few surprises in store in terms of new maps and game modes.

The good news is the core gameplay feels just as satisfying as ever – it feels exactly like Counter-Strike, only with a Molotov cocktail and an updated art style. It's especially refreshing to play given the current shooter climate of progressive unlock obsession that often dwarfs the gameplay experience entirely. Few shooters can induce such panic and joy in so short a time frame. Whether you're stricken with terror as a Molotov soars out of nowhere and explodes at your feet match or the last surviving Terrorist camping over a live bomb with four CTs on the way, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is very familiar and still a lot of fun.

And in case you were wondering, Valve has no plans for microtransactions in GO. That means no hats, aside from those already on the character models.