Every gamer has that one particular title that when played, brings about an aura of emotions that deeply resonates with them long after the TV or computer screen is turned off. It isn’t necessarily a feeling of nostalgia, although it absolutely can be. The connections we feel with the games we truly love are cultivated by a number of reasons. We might praise the game’s mechanics, its ability to tell an emotionally involved story with rich characters, or we may simply cherish the way we feel when we play it. For me, that one particular title always has been and always will be Counter-Strike, in both its 1.6 and Source versions. No, Counter-Strike doesn’t have any vivid characters or even a storyline for that matter. It has issues with bullet registration and is often plagued by hackers. Even so, it remains one of the deepest, most multifaceted FPS games ever created, and every gamer that has continued to support it for over a decade following its release shares that same sentiment.
In simple terms it is a multiplayer FPS in which a group of Counter-Terrorists are pitted against a group of Terrorists and are given a simple objective, whether it be to rescue a band of hostages or prevent the Terrorist team from planting a bomb. At first glance, the game isn’t very involved and chances are if you were to explain it to someone who had never heard of it, they most likely wouldn’t be extremely interested. Upon playing through a couple of rounds however, it becomes evident that there is much more to Counter-Strike than meets the eye. It has a palpable replay value that is difficult to explain to those who have never tried it, an almost addictive quality that keeps you engaged round after round. That is why almost 12 years later, amidst a collection featuring titles from the Call of Duty, Battlefield, and Halo franchises, I still find myself in a friend’s Ventrilo, launching Counter-Strike on my PC and returning to the one FPS that I believe is the pure embodiment of “the timeless classic.”
Now, in 2011, the competitive era of Counter-Strike is on the decline. It is not so much an issue with CS specifically as it is with competitive FPS gaming as a whole. Counter-Strike was once the very face of eSports, dominating and headlining every major gaming competition throughout the world. Though it still continues to be the single most prominent competitive shooter, other games from different genres, particularly RTS and Fighters, appear to be on the rise. Most notably, games from the Starcraft, Tekken, and Street Fighter series have seen an enormous increase in popularity throughout the competitive circuit and will undoubtedly continue to grow in the coming years. Valve has clearly recognized this pattern and has decided that now is the time to revamp the most consistent game they have ever created, and they’ve titled it Counter-Strike: Global Offensive. Like most FPS fans, I was elated upon hearing the news. It was the type of excitement I thought I would feel after the Halo 4 announcement but didn’t. I thought at first, “My favorite game of all time is getting a much-needed update, one that the community has been awaiting for quite some time.” I parked myself in front of my computer and vigorously researched everything, anything about the game I could possibly find. It was fanboyism at its finest as my jittery mouse hand hastily clicked every link with the words “Global Offensive” in plain sight. I came across Craig Levine’s article on ESEA, continued to read, and then gradually began to rethink my initial sentiments.
Levine, with a host of other CS regulars that included UK, German, Slovakian, and French CS:S pro players, as well as representatives from ESL and Zblock, were invited to Valve’s HQ to test out what is to be the prototype of CS: GO. I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that as a long-time CS player, some of the features and additions that Levine reported have me more than skeptical, they have me terrified. Terrified that Valve is on the verge of ruining the most irreplaceable, exceptionally balanced FPS ever created in favor of a shooter that will arbitrarily attempt to imitate the overvalued “modern shooters” of today and consequently erase the significance that CS has embodied for more than a decade.
The legacy of Counter-Strike across the eSports world is undeniable. It remains to this day as the most widely played shooter among gaming’s elite pros, featuring in the E-Sports Entertainment League (ESEA), CyberEvolution league (CEVO), Electronic Sports World Cup (ESWC), and of course, the World Cyber Games (WCG). It is without question the most respected and accepted FPS in competitive gaming. How is it that a game that began as a simple Half-Life mod and seemingly follows such a simple premise rose to such a renowned position? Mainly, it can be attributed to the emphasized “teamwork” component that Counter-Strike demonstrates better than any other FPS in existence, perhaps more so than any game across all genres. Teamwork and communication are absolutely essential to success in CS. It is a game that requires you to be communicating at all times with your teammates, calling out enemy positions and designating which areas on the map that your team controls. Should you fail to properly communicate with your teammates, chances are you’ll be losing rounds to even the most mediocre of organized teams. The element of strategy is by far the most important aspect to any CS match and is often the difference between two evenly skilled teams. Knowing when and where to plan a rush, when to buy certain weapons, how to best cover a bombsite, and when to “rotate” are among the factors that will determine whether or not you will be successful as a team. No other FPS on the market will test your mind as a strategist or expertise with a virtual weapon, which presents another reason as to why Counter-Strike has managed to stand the test of time: weapon balance.
One of the major criticisms of Counter-Strike as a competitive game states that only a few of the game’s guns can be used as viable weapons, and it is a criticism that is definitely warranted. CS, especially on the competitive level, operates mainly through the use of three weapons: the AWP (the game’s main Sniper Rifle and most powerful overall gun) The M4A1 (used on CT side), and the AK-47 (used on T side). Even if this system is something that needs to be changed for CS: GO, the balance of it is unquestionable. The M4 and AK are two guns that require both patience and persistence when first learning how to use them. Each has a distinct recoil which you must learn to control, as well as different rates of fire that you have to constantly be aware of. “Spraying” is obviously the most useful tactic for close encounters, but the concept of “tapping” during long-distance firefights is one that even the most skilled FPS veterans have a tough time getting used to. Both the M4 and AK require certain tapping techniques that make it easier to nab those enemies that are further away. This gun balance is so distinguished that when Valve implied to their invitees that they were thinking of tweaking the M4 and AK to make the weapon system more even, the pros firmly suggested that they should leave the mechanics of the two guns untouched, and instead modify the other weapons.
Valve is reportedly experimenting with weapons that will have “situational value” in CS: GO. The developers want to make sub machine guns and shotguns viable purchases instead of having players constantly stick with the most reliable M4 and AK. It’s a good idea in theory, but Valve needs to realize that the risk involved may not be worth the minimal reward. In my mind, a FPS can have a flaw much worse than the “few gun” system. Overpowered shotguns for example, are a much bigger nuisance, and there’s a distinct possibility that we could see them in CS: GO if Valve doesn’t carefully distribute the power of each weapon evenly. I’d generally be the first to complain that a game doesn’t give players enough weapon choices, but with CS, it has simply never been an issue because of the ideal balance that the M4 and AK provide. Though I rarely use any other weapon, it’s refreshing in the sense that I’m not thinking about my weapon loadout as I’m playing. This in turn allows players to focus on the more important strategic element rather than on what “situational gun” they plan on using next round.
What I fear most for Counter-Strike’s next installment is that Valve, with the implementation of features that will be discussed further in this article, is planning on trying to compete with the popular FPS juggernauts that dominate the commercial market. CS has far outlived its expected lifespan due to one reason above all others: it is unlike any FPS currently played today with a uniqueness and originality that is unmatched by any other game in its genre. It is not sheer happenstance that CS remains the only FPS played at the WCG, the world’s largest gaming event often considered to be the Olympics of competitive gaming. CS requires patience, meticulous communication, and a level of precise accuracy and reflex that other FPS games simply don’t provide, or are at least not as effective in doing so. There is no perks system, no XP, no illogical ranking system that provides players who play more with rewards that players who play less don’t have. There are no special abilities, regenerative health or even health packs. There is you, your gun, your teammates, and your armor and grenades, assuming you even have the money to afford them. CS is as much about comprehensive strategy and pre-round planning as it is about aim and precision. In short, CS is generally not the FPS that your average college student will play after returning from the frat house at 2 am in a drunken stupor.
In this sense, it worries me that Valve is making changes to a tried and true formula. Craig Levine reported that Valve plans to include both “casual and competitive games modes” in CS: GO with individual and team rankings, and a built-in matchmaking system. It all sounds so depressingly “console”, and as a CS veteran this type of news makes me feel much more disheartened than excited. Counter-Strike has been able to retain both its individuality and its loyal community because it is an FPS that is essentially removed from a genre that has increasingly become more commercialized in recent years. Whereas other shooters thrive on advertising and a fanbase made up mainly of dedicated 12 year-olds who like to brag about their nonsensical “rank”, CS has appropriately remained isolated from features like leaderboards and rankings, features that are designed to keep players coming back who otherwise wouldn’t if those aspects weren’t there to keep them interested. “Casual game modes” are fine for shooters that are not specifically intended for competitive use. Most modern FPS games usually have one playlist for gamers not looking to play too seriously, and one that is aimed toward the hardcore. It’s a good setup theoretically, but I find that most of today’s shooters which feature multiple game modes, unlike CS which features just one “mode”, have a difficult time differentiating between casual and competitive, consequently affecting the latter aspect in a negative manner. Traditionally, Counter-Strike has a very unkind ease of entry. In other words, if you’re a noob, you’ll be screwed for a while, yet this concept is one that truly needs to be reintroduced to a genre that relies too heavily on the easy-integration of new players.
Who wants to play a game these days if you can’t be good at it right after opening the packaging? After all, you’re spending $60 of your hard earned cash, so you want to feel satisfied right out of the gate. This is the methodology that FPS developers and publishers have adopted in recent years and is undoubtedly why most modern shooters allow new players to so easily transition into just about any game type. I would argue that if you’re paying $60 for a game, that game should make you work at it to be successful through persistence and sheer determination. Getting better at it should be an incremental process, and I’ve always thought that if you’re a new player and are able to hang on any level with players that have been playing that game for much longer, you’ve been ripped off. Take Call of Duty for instance which has a “perks” system in place that undeniably fosters camping. Just about anyone can attain a good KD ratio through one simple strategy – camp and build those precious “killstreaks.” This is one such area in which CS excels where other FPS games flop. It has no such system in place.
I can still remember my first time playing CS at a LAN center. Though I fell in love with the game, I got absolutely wrecked upon my first hours with it. But rather than getting frustrated and opting to play a more noob-friendly game, I became thoroughly engaged. I wanted to be as good as the guys who used me as target practice, and it took years of patience and learning the game’s subtleties before I got there. It is a perfect example of the exquisite “skill gap” that CS has in place, and one of the main reasons as to why the game remains the most prominent competitive shooter around. Over time, I learned the art of tapping, controlling recoil, aiming over long distances, and of course, bhopping, which I still can’t do to save my life. These facets contribute to a skill gap that unquestionably separates the pros and the elite from everyone else. It is a concept that allowed Halo 2 a long lifespan on the competitive circuit. Gamers new to playing that title on Xbox Live would not know how to BXR, BXB, double shot, quad shot. It took time for players to learn such features, but if they were dedicated enough and eventually perfected them, they would gain a distinct advantage over other players who weren’t skilled enough to perform them. Counter-Strike has always had that type of skill gap, one that other modern FPS games lack, and the thought that Valve could remove it with some of their proposed features is truly a scary thought.
One such feature that has me nauseated to even think about is the reported introduction of Molotov cocktails that will be intended to slow enemy rushes and cause collateral area damage.
A Molotov cocktail…in Counter-Strike.
I would expect to find such an urbanized, impromptu weapon in a game like, say, Max Payne, with its protagonist being a fugitive New York cop bent on revenge and nothing to lose. But in Counter-Strike? Used by Counter-Terrorists whose objective is to prevent Terrorists from causing area damage through the planting of a bomb? The reality is that a Molotov cocktail belongs in CS as much as aliens belong in an Indiana Jones film – they don’t. I highly doubt that Molotov cocktails are the weapon of choice for Counter-Terrorist units across the globe. It makes no sense philosophically and makes even less sense if the feature is to be included in the game’s competitive component. What’s next Valve? An aiming down the sight feature? The ability to sprint?
The inclusion of a Molotov cocktail could be an ominous sign that Valve is desperately trying to add features that will make CS: GO commercially successful and relevant among today’s modern shooters. Just as the M4 and AK are to be untouched, the 3-grenade (HE, Flashbang, Smoke) system needs to be left alone as it is perfect in its current state. Besides, a well placed Flashbang can effectively stop any rush by disorienting the enemy team, and an HE grenade can similarly deplete an entire team’s health and heavily decrease their chances of planting. Smoke grenades even, aside from their obvious primary purpose, can be used as a “fake flash” allowing you to rush the enemy unexpectedly while they wait to be blinded. There are already proven strategies of stopping rushes, and nearly every single one requires the help of teammates to provide support by rotating to key positions on the map. Though you may be able to slow a rush or nab a couple of oncoming opponents, an organized and effective rush is virtually impossible to stop by yourself, in which case you must rely on your teammates to get the job done. It’s a fantastic system that requires you to verbalize with your team and work together on both the T and CT sides. The inclusion of such a dynamic feature as a Molotov cocktail might considerably diminish that very teamwork element which CS has always implemented so well. Imagine rushing Long A on de_dust2 and suddenly being set ablaze. The round would be effectively ended within the first minute by just one CT without the help of his teammates. Though the power and damage of the Molotov cocktail remains to be seen, it simply sounds like a feature that is neither wanted nor needed, especially on the competitive level.
Levine also stated that Valve entertained the idea of automatically equipping a random member of the CT team with a defuse kit at the beginning of each round, trying to make it a special item like the T’s bomb. Thank the heavens that Valve had the sense of mind to invite a group of people who actually knew the game, clearly unlike most Valve employees. The group of CS pros firmly explained how vital defusal kits are in competitive matches. It is essential that every CT purchases one before the start of the round, as having one equipped is often the difference between defusing the bomb and having it explode. In short, kits can be the difference between winning and losing rounds. Levine similarly reported that Valve was also experimenting with including fresh Kevlar as the standard player loadout at the beginning of each round, removing the need to decide between buying Kevlar with or without a helmet. Kelvar, like the defusal kit, was removed from the buy menu all together. It’s mind-boggling really, how Valve could be so unknowledgeable about a game they’ve supported for almost 12 years. Have they largely ignored CS so much that they are unaware of the importance of such competitive staples like defusal kits and Kelvar? It severely worries me that Valve initially thought of these fundamental items to be nothing more than negligible, changeable features that could be altered. The developers of CS: GO must realize that the money system of CS is what separates it from every other FPS on the market and it has virtually been perfected thanks to years of community feedback, and one now-famous article.
In 2003, Griffin ‘Shaguar’ Benger of pro CS clan, NoA, wrote an article regarding the CS money system. He described its flaws and summarized the negative impact it was having on professional CS. Benger proposed changes that would help to improve the financial balance on defusal maps and explained how teams like 3D were winning matches solely by controlling the money of their opponents. He described how they were deliberately losing rounds knowing that it would do more damage to the other team’s financial situation than it would do to their own. As a result, Valve appropriately made changes to the system that have since made it more balanced. The article underlined the importance of the money system in CS, and how understanding it is vital to success on the competitive level. The basics are these: win a round and get $3250, lose a round and get $1400 (plus $500 for each consecutive round lost), plant the bomb on T side and get $800, kill an enemy and get $300.
The money system essentially causes players to think differently, and undoubtedly play differently, than they would in other shooters. Understanding how much money your team as well as your opponents will be getting each round can influence the decisions that you make in different situations. The $500 losing bonus is designed to assist teams who are struggling by giving them more cash the more they lose. Wait a second. A system that is intended to help the struggling team? You mean to say there is no killstreak system that only further rewards a team who is already pummeling the opposition and allows them to do so even more? As a player with a plus 20 KD ratio, I can’t man a chopper gun and mercilessly spawn-kill enemies while they camp in a nearby building to take cover? That’s right. A system that helps you when you’re having a tough time, and certainly makes you play more realistically.
Say you are equipped with $5,000 in a given round. Buying an M4 at $3100, Kelvar and helmet at $1000, a Flash at $200, an HE grenade at $300, and a kit at $200 will cost you $4800. It’s not likely that you’ll be willing to play too aggressively, senselessly rushing into areas you know you’ll probably die. Other FPS games allow you to instantly respawn with your same weapon loadout, with little to no punishment for running around like a chicken with its head cut off. You hear this argument quite often: “People play games like Call of Duty for the ‘gun on gun’ gameplay.”
That’s laughable. Every FPS features gun on gun gameplay in one form or another. No, they play those FPSs because there is no punishment for playing only for yourself. If you wanted to join a Team Deathmatch game you could disregard the team entirely, and in fact do very well statistically. Try that play-style in a game like CS for example, and you won’t get anywhere near a positive KD ratio. CS is a game that not only encourages teamwork and communication, it requires it, and the money system is a large part as to why. In this sense, it is just one more feature that needs to be left unaltered if CS is to remain the game we know and love.
Perhaps my alarming concern is simply an overreaction to features that may even turn out to have a nominal impact. Besides, with Valve in attendance at Gamescom this week, they are sure to show off Counter-Strike: Global Offensive in some form, and only after that will we be able to gain a concrete sense of where the developers plan on taking the coveted franchise. Yet it’s plausible that overreaction is appropriate in this case, especially when you consider what Craig Levine wrote following his time with the game: “I have my fair share of concerns about how what apparently seems to be a console game built on the Source engine will port over to the PC.” It is by far the most disturbing sentence a conventional CS player will ever read.
Counter-Strike is the last shooter that hardcore FPS gamers have that is far removed from the commercialized features included in every modern FPS game of today. It is the last of its kind as it’s supported by a community of loyal and devoted players who continue to play it simply for the love of the game itself. For this reason, I implore you Valve, take great caution and consideration when developing this game. CS is a haven for those of us who neither want nor need rankings or matchmaking systems. You have in your possession a timeless gem that has traditionally been unconcerned with the current FPS trends of a particular period. Please, do not sacrifice that in an attempt to make CS: GO viable for gamers that cannot appreciate the balance and subtle brilliance that CS 1.6 and CS:S embody.
Valve has already asked the community for help and advice. It is a good first step, but they must continue it through every single stage of the development process. Levine said how “there were about six developers floating around between the gaming rooms, each eager to hear our every thought and jotted down notes, comments, and feedback.” This type of enthusiasm is a promising sign, but like Levine said, they need to build on that concept of community-developer dialogue and continue to communicate with the competitive gaming community through open beta. The CS pros have already prevented Valve from making a couple of critical errors (weapon tweaks, removal of the ability to buy kit/kelvar), so hopefully that was a wake-up call that emphasized how important it is to develop a game like CS with the community always in mind.
I would however, disagree with Levine on one matter. He writes, “It would be great if CS GO can be a rallying point to usher the Counter-Strike franchise back to the global e-sports stage that has recently seen games like StarCraft 2 and League of Legends take all the limelight.” CS: GO may very well be able to retake gaming’s competitive stage, but at what cost? Are CS gamers really willing to see the game take on the commercial features that may in fact make CS a mainstream competitor with the likes of Call of Duty and Battlefield? I would love to see CS become more popular in the modern era, but not at the cost of what has made it the wholly original FPS it remains today. If CS is to be removed from the competitive arena, let it go out the way that it came in – through the support of its loyal fanbase that reveled in the unique individuality which set it far apart from any other game in an oversaturated genre. Counter-Strike has always been an FPS that was created by the community, for the community. It needs to stay that way.