Counter-Strike Global Offensive review: Come at the king, you best not miss

At a certain point, developer Valve became the new Capcom and Counter-Strike became its Street Fighter 2. Rather than take the series in a completely new direction, Valve has decided instead to make adjustments to Counter-Strike over time and release it in various versions across multiple platforms over the years.

What has worked in the past – and works again here – is that these adjustments never bump up against the franchise's key element: the simple culture of good versus evil. It's terrorists versus counter-terrorists, and that's it. There's a simplicity to the formula that modern multiplayer shooters have recoiled from. Today, it's all about progression of the individual player, which often pushes them away from what should be a team-oriented experience. Counter-Strike has always nailed the team dynamic, because going it alone is a much riskier proposition when a single spawn is in the balance.

There are certainly some new elements in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, but they are based on classic components found in Counter-Strike's culture.

The new Arms Race mode, for example, is essentially the CS mod Gun Game. In this mode players are awarded a better weapon for each progressive kill. There is no bomb to plant and no respawn limit; this team effort ends when one person has cycled through all of the available weapons. Another new mode, Demolition, changes things up by awarding players with worse weapons each round – based on their accumulated kills – making things progressively more difficult for the winning team. In traditional CS style, players are given one life per round, with victory going to the team that wipes out its opponents, or manages to successfully trigger or defuse the bomb. These two modes offer new maps, but they aren't of the same caliber as classics like Dust, Inferno, or Italy – though I did grow fond of the Demolition map 'Lake.'

Classic Casual and Classic Competitive make up the final two online modes. These modes, unsurprisingly, follow the original Counter-Strike formula: earn money by completing objectives and killing opponents, then use that cash to buy new gear. Classic Casual disables both friendly fire and team collision. Competitive matches, on the other hand, not only enable both options but also toss in the ability to buy defusing kits to speed up the process of defusing the bomb.

CounterStrike Global Offensive review Come at the king, you best not miss

The underpass in Dust has seen significant changes in Global Offensive

Global Offensive includes bots with customizable difficulty, for offline pay or to help fill out either online squad. Generally, bots have the uncanny ability to know where you are at all times, not to mention nearly perfect aim. On the upside, you can take control of a bot if you happen to be killed. Playing against bots offline is a nice "last resort" option if you can't find a suitable squad of players, but it's no replacement for the real thing.

Many of the classic maps have adopted changes found in Counter-Strike Source, while others have been given major overhauls. In de_dust, for example, the underpass area now includes a stairwell to the section above, whereas it used to be a simple tunnel toward a sniper nest. Even certain bomb sites have been altered. There are also new weapons, like Molotov Cocktails and Incendiary Grenades as well as updated versions of old favorites (like the MP7 instead of the MP5).

Given the franchise's entrenched player base, it's not surprising that some changes have met with resistance from the devout Counter-Strike community. Two key complaints have focused on the "nerfing" of quick scope kills and "walling." In Global Offensive, sniper scope cross hairs will blur as players run or or jump. Meanwhile, "walling" – bullet damage through objects – has been drastically reduced and in some cases disabled. You can still shoot through doors, but you're not going to have as much luck firing through solid walls. While some might complain about the changes, I think they bring a better balance and a more realistic tilt to Global Offensive's engagements.

That's not to say I agree with every change, however. For example, purchasing weapons and gear now takes place on a radial menu. I got used to it on PC, but it clearly caters more to a console controller than a keyboard and mouse. There's also a strange lack of impact animations. You can empty entire clips into an opponent with no visible reaction, no indication that something is wrong. Even Counter-Strike 1.6 had some visual feedback for being shot, and the lack of it in Global Offensive can actually hinder your perception. My internal conversation when something like this: "Am I hitting that guy? Oh, he fell over. I guess I hit that guy."

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There's also an Elo ranking system to help match players to the appropriate skill level, though it doesn't seem to work very well in the game's early life. On PC, Casual players should probably stick to looking for casual servers via the browser. Console players, unfortunately, will have to deal with the system as it evolves over time.

Despite these small issues, what works at the core level in Global Offensive is the immediate rush of diving into to a tactical, skill-based game that doesn't complicate its basic gameplay. There are no bonuses, power-ups, streak rewards, or revives. It's you and a team, and (for the most part) it's always sudden death.

My experience has always been fast-paced rounds of cat and mouse. Running directly into the fray is a terrible mistake, typically resulting in a swift death. With only a single life per round, survival is always on the line, resulting in movement that is more methodical than most shooters. Movement also relates to how well you can perform in matches, as crouching and slowing will sharpen your aim, while bouncing around like a buffoon will take you directly into "spray and pray" territory. There are no iron sights here – it's about planting yourself and aiming for the kill shot before the other guy does. It's tension I rarely feel in most shooters, where the fear of death is muted by the assurance of a quick respawn.

By revisiting a formula established over a decade ago, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive delivers something rarely seen in modern shooters. It brings us back to a time of simpler multiplayer action. In this war, you don't need to call in screaming jets, there are no pointless tchotchkes to unlock, and a stray bullet could mean plotting your revenge for minutes rather than seconds. Modern shooters do their job well, but Counter-Strike is the series that helped build the scene. At $15, Global Offensive is a great extension to that legacy.

This review is based on the PC version of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, provided by Valve.

The reviewer also purchased the XBLA version to test claims of connection problems, but found no such problems in his limited experience with that version. Despite that, some users are still reporting problems.

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