A few back reports surfaced on the internet that Valve was inviting top CSS players and select community leaders to their headquarters. The purpose of the meeting was completely unknown to everyone and speculation ran wild but we knew something important was brewing. Yesterday, August 11th, we all found out why we were here.
The “small” list of invited people included UK, German, Slovakian, and French CSS pro players, representatives from ESL, Zblock, and myself from ESEA (about 20 in total). Valve graciously flew us all out to Seattle for this "secret meeting" but the purpose was entirely unknown and so everyone's imagination were running wild. In fact, one international attendee who was asked for his visit's purpose into the US didn't even know what to tell a US Customs Agent... he's lucky he didn't get shipped right back home!
With anxiety levels high, we met Valve for lunch where we broke into three tables, mixed with Valve and Hidden Path, a third party developer, and guests. Everyone made small chit chat for a while until one of the German players finally abruptly asked, "so why are we here? CS2?" Each of us at our table got a little quiet and all eyes turned to Jess Cliff, one of the original Counter-Strike creators, who I was lucky enough to end up at a table with. Looking a little confused that we didn't already know, and without hesitation, he explained Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (sorry for my early misreport yesterday!) or what they called CS GO. We politely peppered the development team with questions throughout lunch and they very matter of factly opened up about the game and let us know we were here to play test the game.
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is Valve's new version of Counter-Strike. Valve was quick to make clear that this wasn't "CS2" (or whatever that even really means) but rather a a multi-platform team based FPS similar to its predecessors, Counter-Strike 1.6, Counter-Strike: Condition Zero, and Counter-Strike: Source. It is designed on the updated Source Engine, but is not built off of Counter-Strike: Source and due out in early 2012 with beta access beginning this fall. It will maintain the traditional de_ and cs_ map types and would not include new game modes. Valve was keen on hearing the input from top CSS players to make CS GO an e-sports title and that is reflected by the game featuring both casual and competitive game modes with a built in match making system and support for dedicated servers.
Torbull at VALVe Software
After lunch, we walked over to the Valve office and the anxiety from the walk to the restaurant was now uber excitement. I've been to BlizzCons, QuakeCons, E3s, PAX events, and had all sorts of industry meetings, but I have to admit that I was totally geeked out for this. I've been playing Counter-Strike since 1999 and remained a loyal Valve groupie since their acquisition of CS in 2000. I might not log the in-game hours that I once did but this was going to be really cool and for me was a dream come true...
We walked through their office to a small lounge area where they formally welcomed us, explained the game is pre-beta and that they wanted our honest feedback, and quickly released us into two game testing rooms, each with ten PCs. We loaded up the developer version of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and we were off...
Perhaps poetically, the first map we jumped into was de_dust, a map remains a sacred cow and the face of classic Counter-Strike and that at lunch Jess warned us was overhauled to become competitively played. My first impression was "WOW". I was surprised at how visually polished the game was. The maps look beautiful, the player skins and animations are smooth, and the gun models are cool! We got to play dust, dust2, inferno, and nuke with confirmation that other CS classic maps such as train and likely some new ones will be included in the release. Visually, the game looked a lot further along than pre-beta. Any new version of CS is going to have to look aesthetically beautiful for e-sports fans and spectators.
We've all seen and played pretty looking games before, but hands down and unanimously, everyone was most interested in the movement, weapon handling, and game play. It didn't feel like 1.6 and despite being built on the Source engine, it didn't feel like CSS. By design, Valve wanted to create a game with a different feel, and overall it was really smooth. The pro players seemed surprisingly happy with the player player movement and feel of the game but thankfully they weren't short of feedback and most weren't shy to share it. Tweaks and adjustments are needed, but in my opinion, it was a great sign that it didn't grossly offend anyone. Player movement is arguably one of the most important elements of any FPS game and I applaud Valve for the decision to create a new feel that both 1.6 and CSS players can hopefully each enjoy.
The weapons were one of the areas that in the group's opinions still needs the most work. Valve wanted to create a more balanced weapon system that would expand beyond the main four weapons (AWP, M4, AK, and Deagle). They wanted shotguns and sub machine guns to have situational value and so they really took some "creative liberties". They wanted sub machine guns to be good mid-distance alternatives and for shotguns to provide a unique close range use. The AK and M4 rifles felt weak and inaccurate while sub machines like the P90 were overpowered and soon became the weapon of choice during some casual pugs. Many pro players voiced concerns about the spray control and recoil patters, feeling that it was too easy and simple, and unanimously felt that the first three bullets of the M4 and AK in particular were too inaccurate, which took out the art and skill of "tapping". In the pro players' points of view, headshots were difficult to score and came at a premium - another area that needs tweaking. The developers eagerly listened to feedback, prying for explanations and more information to improve. They informed us that the game is built to have adjustable weapon variables and made it seem that everything the group was pointing out could presumably be tweaked based on our feedback before launch and even before beta. I think it was put best when some pros suggested that instead of tweaking the M4 and AK to make the other guns more balanced, they instead should remain untouched from 1.6 / CSS and the other weapons should instead be tweaked to provide purpose.
While old guns are being tweaked and re-evaluated, a few new weapons were added, including a new heavy machine gun rifle, new pistols, and a new shotgun, but I think the biggest addition was with the equipment. They added molotov cocktails, an expensive $850 item, which can be used to slow down opponents and re-route opponents through AOE damage. Molotov cocktails could be used to slow down T rushes through the tunnels into B on Dust2 or by Ts to slow CTs on retakes. Molotovs are currently stackable and bounce (versus an instant break), which might need to be revisited. Decoy grenades are also a new item that can be thrown to emit gun sounds and give the illusion of there being a player. The decoy grenade currently produced an AK / Glock when thrown by Ts and M4 / USP when thrown by CTs. It was suggested by players that decoys should instead produce gun sounds of a weapon held by your team, which was a well received suggestion. While decoy grenades realistically won't fool any real player, I can see them potentially being used to make opponents hesitate for a quick second and at times provide the extra split second needed to secure better positioning.
When we first head of the molotov cocktail and decoy grenades, everyone's minds immediately rushed to Valve's failed attempt at incorporating the riot shield but I think if done correctly this provides an interesting twist. If done right I think each item has the potential to be change the way traditional competitive CS maps are played. They can change the dynamic of rushes, bombsite holds, and area retakes. IF done right, they can provide a new tool for strategies and breathe new life into classic maps.
Flashes were effective and smokes laid down a thick layer of cover that is useful. I think players were generally happy with how each were implemented. HE grenades currently are way too overpowered as one well placed grenade can take down a player with full health and armor. We had a few rushes thwarted by one HE taking out two or three of us in one fell swoop. Something that needs to be tweaked... Other changes include CS GO experimenting with automatically equipping a random member of the CT team with a defuse kit at the beginning of each round. Valve wanted to try and make the defuse kit a special item like the T’s bomb, but the group was quick to explain how in competitive game play multiple CTs buy kits each round so that at a minimum, there is one kit per bombsite. Another easy fix if they take our advice. Valve also was experimenting with including fresh Kevlar as the standard player load out at the beginning of each round, removing the need to decide between buying Kevlar with or without a helmet (in fact, like the kit, it was removed from the buy menu all together). This initially seemed really interesting as it could help balance ECO rounds, but upon group discussion it became apparent that if everyone always has full armor, then it in a way becomes obsolete.
Giving everyone full Kevlar each round also impacts a key strategical element that is so often the unsung art of Counter-Strike: the money system. Without needing to purchase Kevlar, Valve tweaked the price of some guns (most notably the AK, which is now more expensive) and money rewards. The money system is the second area that we felt needed the most work, and I think ultimately should be the last area revisited once we understand how useful different weapons are and what is done with kits and Kevlar. When the pros began talking about the money system, it quickly started to feel like CS Money System 101 and eventually 200 level lectures. They educated the developers on how the money system is used and how if not carefully crafted can be exploited. I am sure the developers knew that the money system is an important element of CS, but I don’t think they (or even most competitive players) understand how supremely important it is. The money system in Counter-Strike is what separates it from every other FPS and was beautifully perfected thanks to years of community feedback and a now famous article a few years ago. The money system is an easy tweak that Valve will need to listen closely to the competitive gamers for guidance on and it will likely be a long exercise in trial and error through beta depending on how quickly the other areas get finalized.
I can go on for hours with in-depth analysis and more details, but it is important to remember that our first hands on experience with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is pre-beta. 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. Is this a "half game" that serves a greater strategic purpose for the development of the Steam platform? By their own words, CS GO is a new game not meant to replace 1.6 or Source. Is this simply a political statement to help fend off unrealistic expectations?
None the less, it is very encouraging to see Valve tapping the community for feedback and is a step I’ve never seen them take before. For CS GO to have a chance as an e-sports title, the weapon system is going to need the most work, but remember that this is pre-beta game play. Valve still has plenty of time to get it perfected, and most importantly they seem to be building CS GO on a platform that allows for this to be "easily" done (says the guy not doing it and little understanding of the game's architecture!). If they can get the player movement, weapon handling, and game play tweaked right for the PC then CS GO has a real shot.
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. They seem to have a genuine and sincere interest in making a game ready for prime time e-sports, but to get there they will need to implement a lot of what we discussed during our first few hours with the game and continue an open dialogue with the competitive gaming community through open beta.
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. Although the Quake franchise pioneered North American e-sports, Counter-Strike ushered it to a new level, and I remain hopefully optimistic that Counter-Strike: Global Offensive will most importantly be a great game that players will want to play and can bring together rather than divide the already fragmented CS community.
In sports we measure greatness by championship rings and trophies and Valve has a track record of producing blockbuster hit after block buster hit. Like the Yankees, Packers, Celtics, and Canadians, Valve has the hardware to back it up and gives them the benefit of the doubt for whatever they end up doing with CS GO.
Stay tuned to ESEA News for video interviews with some of the pro player testers. Fans can get a hands on experience with Counter-Strike: Global Offensive at PAX West later this month where Valve will be showcasing the game play and handing out beta keys to those lucky enough to nab one.