After years of speculations and tribulations, the wait is finally over. Well, not quite – there are still a few months left to go until Counter-Strike’s grand leap forward into the Source 2 era becomes a reality. Even the few tangible snippets we’ve seen so far were incredible, and we won’t be able to appreciate the full knock-on effect of the engine upgrade until its large-scale rollout. This isn’t only true from a gameplay perspective: the entire modern FPS genre’s lineage and progress can be traced through this change, and the promise of the future is impossible to quantify.
In many ways, it’s incredible how popular Counter-Strike: Global Offensive continued to be across the years despite just how ancient the technology was behind it all. Neither the graphical fidelity nor the feature set could hold a candle to the competition by the time the new decade rolled around, and the relative paucity of updates and changes also compared unfavorably to games like Apex Legends and VALORANT. In many ways, it was – and is – a throwback to an older time when not everything was gamified, and the overbearing nature of the games as a service model didn’t push developers into regularly upending the balance and the metagame every few months on end.
That isn’t to say CS:GO didn’t have its own missteps or earth-shattering adjustments – the R8 Revolver and the AUG would like to say hello, and in the eyes of a few, the changes made to the game’s economy may also very well count in this department – but unlike with so many other games, you could rely on returning to the same core experience you knew and loved as a kid, an experience that still continues to enchant and enthrall a new generation of gamers.
All this is a testament to just how ironclad the gameplay foundations are, which can be directly traced back to the original mod. The 5v5 teamplay and the shifting roles before and after the bomb plant turned out to be nothing short of legendary, and CS:GO matches will always involve a delicate balance between skill and strategy, where the best-laid plans can be upended by a spectacular Deagle shot worthy of the gods. It’s a blend that’s hard to replicate, and Valve deserves massive credit for being so conservative. Not many gameplay developers in the modern era would have been content to stick with the same formula, and they’ve been rewarded with record player numbers even before the current version of the game becomes obsolete.
It begs the question: just how far can CS2 push the boundaries?
So, what happens if you combine great gameplay with great graphics? It’s easy to forget that none of Counter-Strike’s generational swaps went off without a hitch. 1.6 and Source split the player base for many years, and Global Offensive didn’t exactly launch in a pristine state, with Hidden Path doing a subpar job on the product on their end. This launch, with the biggest-ever audience and the best-ever tools to generate hype and to garner valuable feedback, may be the smoothest in the history of the franchise.
For many of the existing players, this could be the first time in their lifetime that a new Counter-Strike game arrives as a legitimate top-of-the-line product. There are many modern design sentiments at play here, with everything feeling cleaner and more readable from the UI elements to the contrasts on the map graphics. It’s clear that convenience doesn’t have to diminish complexity: now the new UI basically defaults to the pros’ settings, we’re getting jumpthrow binds and a plethora of other quality-of-life improvements, with the sub-tick system serving as a special standout. (Personally, my one fervent hope in this department is that the sound redesign finally reduces the ear-shattering peak of headshots, something that made me tense up in firefights for over a decade at this point, no matter what external compression tools I’ve tried.)
And yet, the game feels very much like Counter-Strike – and that is a good thing. But it’s Counter-Strike with brutally impressive new smoke grenades, it’s Counter-Strike with Half-Life: Alyx-level graphics, it’s Counter-Strike with modern design sensibilities, Counter-Strike that’s easier to get into and easier on the eyes, but not at all easier to play. A quantum leap.
We’ll have to see more to figure out the gameplay implications of some of these changes, but with smokes no longer serving as near-impenetrable walls, retakes may become more prevalent and faster. Even for purists, this has to go down as a positive, with more ways to poke and prod a defensive setups.
Taking a wider look at the landscape, how can any other company even dream of making something like this? The newfound visual fidelity of CS2 honestly puts VALORANT to shame – and not many franchises can match this level of popularity and history put together for a brand new release. Valve are making (well, publishing) games again, we’re finally starting to see the benefits of their hard work on tech behind the scenes in the quiet ‘10s. In some ways, even the failure of Artifact served to play a part in this: the extended limited playtest (in time and scope) and the permission to create content about CS2 in its current state makes this rollout very different from their eternally memed failure.
Here's to another decade.