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Counter-Strike: Global Offensive Review by real gamers

After a long break from the franchise and making several big hits over the past 5 years with Left4Dead, Portal and Portal 2 and Team Fortress 2, Valve has returned to develop and release a new iteration of Counter-Strike, the series which started 12 years ago as a mod branch off their Half-Life game and turned into a massively popular game among casual and professional gamers in the earlier part of the 2000’s.

We tested Counter-Strike: Global Offensive on the PC/Mac platform, which holds the largest user base of CS:GO players. All the screenshots in this review are actual gameplay screenshots from the game, using the highest settings available for all graphics options.

Brief intro

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO for short) is a first-person shooter game that’s multiplayer only, for those unfamiliar with the game or need a refresher on what it’s about. The game was released on August 21, 2012 across all the usual gaming platforms: PC, Mac (yup, you can play it on your MacBook or iMac!), Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 (it’s available as a direct download via Xbox LIVE and PlayStation Network respectively).

The launch price was a mere $14.99, which is extremely low for a new game, which normally command prices of $50 or $60. And even better, Counter-Strike: GO has gone on sale in a high profile manner three times: A prelaunch sale where it was on 10% discount (to $13), earlier in November for 33% off ($10) and very recently, it went for a whole 50% off during Valve’s Steam Autumn Sale.

To develop Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Valve worked with Hidden Path Entertainment, a game development company located around the neighborhood of Valve’s office in Bellevue, Washington. Though it also uses the Source Engine, the game was built from the ground up instead of being a mere overhaul of Counter-Strike: Source.

A true successor in the Counter-Strike franchise

The Counter-Strike series has had a massive fanbase on the PC platform, which is incredibly different from other popular game franchises who have more players on consoles. Counter-Strike was one of the pioneer games that spawned gaming tournaments, professional gaming leagues and competition around the world, with just about every one of its remakes garnering the same amount of attention during their era. Heck, there have been folks who have been holding on and playing (and also fragmented between) Counter-Strike 1.6 and CS Source for years now.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive hopes to be the true successor to both CS 1.6 and CS Source, and reunite players of both games under a single umbrella… And, going into 2013, become the new staple first-person shooter (FPS) game in competitive scenes. Actually, scratch that future tense, Counter-Strike: GO has already made its way into being played at the ESWC and Dreamhack Winter tournaments recently (both represent huge international level gaming competitions).

A new coat of paint

Despite being 8 years old, Valve’s Source Engine has aged gracefully with time. Source has evolved more than your typical game engine and the version used in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has come a far way since CS: Source, or even the first Left4Dead from 2008. If you’ve played Left4Dead 2 and Portal 2, you’ll notice the graphics of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive are similar to those games and certain elements have been cross-used and borrowed from each other (notably the new molotov/incendiary grenade in CS:GO is something that made its way over from Left4Dead).

As a whole, Counter-Strike: GO’s graphics are acceptable (as in things look pretty good from afar and when moving along but pause and look, and you’ll realize that graphics are far from being class leading). You’ll probably be so engrossed in either the fast paced environment of Arms Race or heart pounding moments in Classic, that you’ll overlook the details… but it’s those moments when you’re stationary and waiting for the enemy when you look and realize things like wall textures and elements in the environment (like those big wooden crates) look a little jagged and pixelated.

That said, the Counter-Strike franchise, being optimized for balanced gameplay between teams, has never been about flashy effects, Michael Bay style explosions or bleeding-edge graphics. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has sufficiently good graphics to attract casual gamers while not being overly detailed to distract or give more serious gamers a hard time picking the enemy from the detailed background behind them.

Performance of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is great – part of the reason Counter-Strike isn’t extremely graphics intensive is probably due to the desire to make the game accessible to as many people as possible. On a mid-range Core i5 desktop running AMD Radeon 7870 or Nvidia GTX 660 graphics, you’ll be able to max out graphics at 1920 x 1200 resolution and easily get over 200 frames per second on average! Decent laptops with dedicated graphics cards will be able to run it, depending on model and performance, at 1366 x 768  at a mix of low to high settings, to attain a fairly fluid 50 to 70 FPS.

If your laptop is a 2010 or before model and/or runs Intel Integrated Graphics, expect to run the game at 1366 x 768 with all low settings to get things to 30 to 40 FPS. In this case, you’d be good for some quick matches of Arms Race or Demolition but you might not do so well in the more competitive environment of Classic mode. As seen above, we’ve tried hooking up a Core i5 laptop with Intel Graphics to a 27 inch iMac (which acts as a monitor) and frame rate is a mere 60 FPS in the main menu (and drops to the 30’s once inside the game).

There’s big news for more competitive players in the graphics department as far as settings go. In the past, players would turn graphics down to an absolute minimum in order to ‘flush away’ the environment and be able to spot enemy players more easily. Not anymore with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive! The game still looks pretty good with all the settings turned down (though the degradation is noticeable), so there is no more gameplay advantage to lowering graphics settings and you might as well turn up graphics to as high as your computer can handle the game.

At its core, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive brings over many of the same maps found in its predecessors and puts them in Classic mode, though with slight tweaks to map layouts and objects. There are more maps rumored to be coming; Valve already added 2 new maps: Vertigo and Monastery in a patch a few weeks ago and also issued updates to improve team balance. There are a lot of guns carried over from previous Counter-Strike games along with the addition of some new ones (such as the MAG-7) and the addition of two new grenades: fire and decoy. Fire grenades (called molotovs on the T-team and incendiary grenades in CT) burst on contact with the ground and create a small radius of damage-causing fire for several seconds in an area. Decoy grenades emulate gun shot sounds (which will mimic the sound of the primary gun and/or pistol of the person who throws it) to throw off the other team.

Arms Race and Demolition modes are all new additions to Counter-Strike, as are the new matchmaking and ELO ranking systems.

It’s not about getting kills, it’s winning the round

What’s considered the staple game mode of Counter-Strike returns in Global Offensive as Classic mode (split into Classic Competitive and Classic Casual). This isn’t your typical first person shooter game where everyone jumps into Team Deathmatch mode and violently shoots the lights out of each other until one of the teams hits a certain score or the time runs out. No, Classic mode in Counter-Strike: GO is a match that consists of 30 brief rounds (a time limit of 2 minutes per round, though they end way earlier than that in most cases) between teams, where the first team to win 16 rounds emerges victorious in the entire match (they can also tie if both teams each win 15 rounds). For Classic Casual, there are just 15 rounds with the game winners being the first team that wins 8 of them.

The spawn areas of both the Terrorist and Counter-Terrorist teams are fixed on different sides of the map, with the bombsites on Defuse mode placed at a relative midpoint between the two teams (though some maps like Aztec and Vertigo have their sites biased towards the Counter-Terrorist side) while the T-team starts out closer to the Hostages in Hostage mode. There’s no opportunities for spawn killing or insta-kills at the start of the game in Counter-Strike – teams are a good distance away from each other and you typically head to the sites and duke it out with the other team over there (or on the way there).

*Also excuse the frame rate and little connection statistics in the lower right side in some of our screenshots (by default, they don’t appear in the game). But again, we take our screenshots based on actual gameplay and some of us have these raw stats enabled to view game ping and frame rate.

How it’s played

You are given $800 in Classic Competitive mode, a knife and a complimentary pistol to begin with, playing either on the Terrorist or Counter-Terrorist team, and set out to either plant the bomb/defend the sites respectively, or guard the hostages/rescue hostages respectively. And of course, you’ll get kills along the way as you fight through the opposing team. That’s another big difference in Counter-Strike compared to other FPS games: it’s not about getting kills, it’s doing what it takes to win the round.

Just about everything you do earns you money: Killing opponents on the other team, planting and defusing the bomb, rescuing hostages, winning the round and even losing the round (though you get quite a bit less than you would have winning the round). You do get penalized and have money deducted if you manage to hurt the hostages or kill someone on your own team, so try to aim.

With the money, you can choose to buy a new gun (you get to carry one primary weapon, one pistol and three grenade types), armor (either body armor or body armor + helmet), defuse kits that half defuse time from 10 to 5 seconds (if you’re on the Counter-Terrorist team) and select from 5 grenade types (flashbang, fire, smoke, explosive or decoy) at the start of each round.

Money management is crucial as you want a suitable gun and equipment for both yourself and your role in the team for both that round and future rounds (you lose all your purchased stuff if you die, but if you survive the round, your equipment gets brought over to the next round; thus saving you money).

Oh, unlike most first person shooters, there is no way to aim down the sights for most guns – the characters are essentially already in the ‘aiming’ position (or close to it) but you won’t be able to experience it from a first person perspective. You can only use the scope with a select few guns, namely the AWP and Scout sniper guns and two other rifles with midrange scopes. This has got to be one of the changes you will experience if you’re used to other games where you need to aim down the sights.

There have been complaints from other reviewers (who evidently did little to no research on how Counter-Strike is played) and some folks citing the poor realism of ‘firing from the hip’ just because there isn’t an animation to switch to the iron sights of a gun. This is not true as, unlike other games which have separate positions for hip-firing and aiming which affect accuracy, the characters in Counter-Strike are pretty much aiming already (although it doesn’t seem like it from a first person perspective). Shooting in Counter-Strike is not equivalent to hip-firing and is no less accurate when shooting while aimed down the sights in other games.

Both Classic Casual and Classic Competitive modes work this way, but as their names suggest, you’ll be playing with different types of crowds (Newbie tip: You don’t have to be a professional gamer to play Classic Competitive, it’s just the name of the game mode).

  • Classic Casual typically has more players (especially on community servers), gives you complimentary defuse kits, armor and helmet at the start of each round, no friendly fire and lower money rewards.
  • Classic Competitive (for more dedicated players) has none of that, plus has a longer wait time and a time penalty which bars you from entering another Classic Competitive game for a certain time if you leave a match before it ends.

A mix of chess with teamwork and guns

We like that Counter-Strike: Global Offensive brings us back to the old days, where gaming online took more effort than picking a gun, hitting join game and mowing down everyone in sight. It’s a breath of fresh air in the stale environment of cookie cutter games which revolve around kills and achievements to crown the ‘most elite’ player of them all.

Because of that, there is quite a bit of a learning curve if you’re new to the Counter-Strike franchise. Our advise is to not let that detract you from Counter-Strike: Global Offensive; treat it as a new experience rather than ranting about “oh, this is weird”. In fact, one of our team members at Games Per Second, Kelvin is new to the game – Global Offensive is his first CS game. He started out being horrible at it (like 2 or 3 kills in a 20 round game type of horrible) but nowadays gets a comfortable 1:1 kill to death ratio. Not the best, but again, Counter-Strike isn’t about getting kills – it’s about playing as a team and winning the round… and that, he does quite well as he catches the occasional enemy by surprise and gets the last second defuse ever so often.

Speaking of playing as a team, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive takes slightly more teamwork than your average first person shooter game. This is the reason why Counter-Strike makes it to tournaments and professional gaming leagues while other games don’t, apart from also having some of the best balanced maps. A microphone really helps out in calling out enemy positions, planning strategies for the round and sudden change of strategy when you see Site A is being camped out by the whole enemy team while Site B sits empty and read for the taking.

Even simple things like donating weapons to poor teammates call for a better attitude and cooperation in Counter-Strike: GO than everyone running out on their own, doing their own thing as “Me, Myself and I Rambos” in other games. Counter-Strike also has a fairly unique mechanic of allowing one person to stand on the shoulders of a crouching teammate (as shown above) – this too requires a form of team communication and there are certain spots in maps which specifically call for this in order to reach an area more quickly.

One of our editors, Brad, compares Counter-Strike: Global Offensive to a game of chess, being played as a team, with guns. Notably apparent in Classic Competitive mode is the fact that good teamwork is rewarded with being able to take out as much of the opposing team as possible and planting/defusing while bad teamwork is punished as players who go stray are picked off one-by-one by the enemy. A team with one or two top notch players can be toppled if the others in the team aren’t working together.

Since you don’t respawn (and lose everything) if you die until the next round begins, there’s plenty of incentive to NOT run and gun.

Arms Race and Demolition; the fun stuff

There are two other game modes that were just introduced in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, each with their own set of brand new maps. If you don’t have at least 30 to 50 minutes to spare for a full Classic match, head on to Arms Race or Demolition mode.

Arms Race is Counter-Strike’s team deathmatch mode with a twist. You still play in a team but things here are more “we’re in a team so there won’t be mass havoc, but otherwise, every person for themself” rather than “hey let’s talk and strategize”. The main point is to win the game by getting a kill with the 26th weapon, the shiny golden knife, after racking up kills using 25 different weapons. You start out with an MP9 SMG and each kill rewards you instantly with a new gun (which you are forced to use, or switch to a knife), while every time you kill yourself or get killed by knife downgrades you to the previous gun. Unlike Classic mode, you respawn instantly and indefinitely in Arms Race so you’re never alone and you’ll have to always be on alert for enemies lurking around the corners.

There are no grenades available in Arms Race, but we think the extremely tight quarters of the three small maps (Shoots, Baggage and Monastery) are sufficient to house a madhouse of ten run-and-gunning players. Each match lasts 3 minutes on average and are exceptionally high paced. Don’t expect any strategy or hiding in Arms Race, because the three maps are mostly wide-open and there are no dead-ends. The bad part is that these maps are small and uninteresting (the layout of Shoots and Baggage are exactly symmetrical so may the best man/woman win!), and there are just three of them. There’s a high chance of Valve (who has had exceptional support of their games) introducing new maps for Arms Race in the future.

Demolition mode is a hybrid of Arms Race and Classic mode. It combines the fast-paced action of the former with the bomb planting/defusing objective of the latter. Demolition mode has a total of 20 rounds per match (first team to 11 wins is the champion) but the rounds are usually very, very short and you get rewarded for kills with a new weapon and grenades in the next round. There are five maps (Bank, short train, lake, safehouse and sugarcane) unique to Demolition mode, which are based off certain parts of maps from Left4Dead 2, with more maps said to be coming soon.

Doesn’t have a storyline… or does it

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive doesn’t have any sort of single player, unless you count Offline mode with bots (AI Enemy) and the Weapons Course; both of which are aimed at beginners and folks looking to familiarize themselves to the maps the game has to offer. We do feel that Arms Race and Classic Casual are both superior ways to train and would recommend those over the offline modes where you’re essentially playing by yourself and the not-too-brilliant computer bots.

No singleplayer means that Counter-Strike: Global Offensive lacks a storyline… a true storyline at least. While you’ll be jumping straight into online multiplayer mode with anything Arms Race, Demolition, Classic Casual and Classic Competitive have to offer, there seems to be a subliminal plot (present either by accident or deliberately incorporated) in Demolition mode (whose maps are based on sections from Left4Dead 2). There’s a theory that these pre-apocalyptic versions of the maps in Counter-Strike hint that Global Offensive is set at a time before Left4Dead 2. The events that occur in CS:GO, which is Terrorists trying to plant stuff in weird places (like a sugar mill) while Counter-Terrorists try to stop them, lead on to the CT’s being unsuccessful and the explosions containing dangerous materials leading to people to mutate into zombies… and those are the events leading up to the story of Left4Dead and Left4Dead 2.

Fans of Valve games have established connections between the Half-Life and Portal series, so it’s unsurprising if Valve made this connection between Counter-Strike and Left4Dead as some form of an easter egg for fans.

Counter-Strike for console

For the first time ever in the series, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is now available on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 platforms. In contrast to the PC/Mac version, there’s a smaller player pool on both consoles (though still sufficient to find games quickly) and the skill level needed is noticeably lower due to the lack of precision controllers have compared to using a keyboard and mouse. The console versions are essentially the same as the PC/Mac versions with one huge flaw (which isn’t Valve’s fault but that of the console makers) – lack of constant game updates. The reason is that game makers have to pay Microsoft and Sony a fairly hefty sum to issue an update; hence Counter-Strike: Global Offensive on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 are exactly how they were on August 21 when the game was launched. It lacks the two new maps (Vertigo and Monastery), various bug fixes, performance and game balance updates as well as a fairly game-changing patch that PC/Mac players got not two weeks ago.

That said, the game is still pretty affordable and we suspect Valve may issue a collective update along with changes and new maps for consoles in the form of a paid DLC some time in the future; in a fashion similar to what they did for Left4Dead 2 (though we definitely wouldn’t hold our breaths as such an update is still speculation and yet to be confirmed; it could be many months away.

Ze verdict

We at Games Per Second love Counter-Strike: Global Offensive as a whole. The game sports a nice mix of decent graphics, fairly addictive gameplay (which is a surprise considering CS:GO doesn’t have a ‘level up’ mechanic) and great value (it costs a fraction of other first person shooters). It normally costs $15, but when it hits $7.50 or $10 during sales (like it did in November), you really can’t go wrong getting it. The game lacks top-notch graphics but that means it runs surprisingly well and smooth on older and less capable computers; it also still manages to look good even with all the settings turned down.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive isn’t perfect though because it definitely needs more maps in Arms Race and Classic – Hostage modes (this may come in future updates, but for now we’re ranting until that happens), and some fresh map layouts for Classic – Defuse mode (which presently uses maps from previous Counter-Strike games but with new graphics and some very small layout tweaks). We also think that the more casual modes, Arms Race and Demolition, need some kind of ranking or level system in order to improve replay value and give an incentive for players to stick around. Don’t get us wrong, there’s a massive player base out there and even more so after the recent sale, but improvements to keep players loyal for the next couple of years is nice (a role that game modders played to keep some of the older Counter-Strike games fresh for longer than most other games of the time).

For the PC/Mac version of the game, we’d give it a 8.5 for great execution and value, with points docked for the reasons above, and would highly recommend it. For the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 versions, we’re going to have to give the game a 7.5, which is our way of saying ‘it’s acceptable but has its flaws’. Go ahead and get the game for your console, but we would also advise looking into the alternative of getting it for your computer (come on, every person who owns a console must have a laptop or computer at home, right?).

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