Following weeks of teasing, Valve today announced Counter-Strike 2, the next step for the greatest and most popular competitive FPS in history. As a long-term Counter-Striker this is something that is both deeply welcome, and of course slightly worrying. The thing about Counter-Strike is, and I know this is slightly hyperbolic, it already seems as close to a perfect competitive FPS as you're going to get. Whatever iteration is your particular poison, the fundamentals of this game are so strong that changing them in any way is both exciting and fraught.
The first thing I noticed about Valve's announcement is how it laser targets certain aspects of the game that the community has long felt were overdue an upgrade. In the 11 years since the launch of CS:GO the venerable game has seen a bunch of challengers come and (mostly) go: You have to shout out the big successes like Valorant, because some of the improvements it introduced—such as increased tick rate—have ultimately forced Counter-Strike to do its own leapfrogging.
The three videos that Valve released today alongside the announcement address questions that players who already play Counter-Strike will have, rather than trying to sell the game to a wider audience (plenty of time for that closer to launch). The biggest relief for us veterans is how judicious Valve has been in this overhaul: The more things change, in this case, the more they stay the same but better.
Smoke 'em if you got 'em
The sexiest feature by far is the new dynamic smokes. Smoke grenades are key to Counter-Strike tactics as a means of blocking off areas for a limited time, disguising approaches, and anything else teams can think of. Teams that don't use smokes in this game, or don't use them well, get smoked themselves.
The smokes in CS:GO created a one-size-fits-all cloud that sat in place, regardless of the surrounding location, and lasted for a certain time. Smoke grenades in Counter-Strike 2 now create volumetric 3D objects in the world which react to the environment and what's going on around them. In other words, the smoke fills spaces and can be moved by external forces such as a grenade explosion or the riptide of bullets.
Several examples of this voodoo are shown in the video and all I can say is: Straight to my veins baby. This effect is incredible and, when you see a sniper clear Dust 2's centre doors of smoke with a nade in order to snipe someone, or watch bullets fired through a cloud that also disrupt that cloud, it's abundantly clear what a game changer this is.
Tick, tick, boom
Phew, I need a cold shower after that. Or maybe just to talk about tick rates. The tick rate in a multiplayer online game refers to how often the game updates the server with player input information. Personally speaking, I don't have the skill level where CS:GO's tick rate ever seemed a problem, but you have to accept that high-skilled players have been almost unanimous in complaining about the game's 64-tick servers to the extent there are profitable thirdparty businesses who provide 128-tick Counter-Strike servers.
Valve's method of addressing this is to basically eliminate tick rate entirely. Gabe only knows how the technical side of it works but, where previously there were these infinitesimal fractions of time where actions could get 'lost' and not register entirely accurately, the game is now constantly taking player inputs between ticks into account, which in practice should see the conversation (in Valve's own words) "moving beyond tick rate."
While I may not notice this improvement in practice, beyond a general sense that things are smoother, I'm pretty certain I will be aware of it as part of the other side of Counter-Strike fandom, namely the outstanding competitive scene. I still watch pretty much every Counter-Strike major and it's these players who live on that razor's edge between ticks, and it's them who'll be the happiest about a change that goes right to the heart of CS as a competitive experience.
That sense here with tick rate, of Valve not just addressing a community concern but going above and beyond in how it thinks about the solution, bodes extraordinarily well for the future. The esports scene now is unrecognisable from 2011 (when CS:GO launched) and Counter-Strike 2 has been built so that side of it will be industry-leading at launch. Clearly, Valve is laying the foundations here for decades of competitive CS to build on.
Maps, three ways
Valve puts the map changes coming in CS2 into three categories: Touchstones, Upgrades, and Overhauls. This is pretty much a sliding scale where the first group get essentially a visual overhaul, the second receive more substantial tweaks, and the third group are rebuilt from the ground up.
Again it seems to me like exactly what I want from a new Counter-Striker because, and curse me out if you like, I still love playing Dust 2 and don't know how I'd feel about it being messed with too much. Well, I do know how I'd feel: Childishly upset. Counter-Strike has such a long history with some of these maps, and knowing them down to the last pixel is so embedded in the experience of the game, that it simply wouldn't be Counter-Strike without this solid core of the classics at launch: Spruced up, please and thank you, but otherwise as perfectly balanced as ever.
The maps Valve has chosen to tweak and overhaul also mostly align with what I'd want to see. Nuke's one of those where the visual overhaul is incredible and almost changes the environment without fundamentally altering the geometry. All those reflective surfaces are going to hit way different, and I'm very curious about whether they're going to adjust the T-side interior approach to A (or as my buddies and I sometimes call it, slaughterhouse).
Beyond functionality, the standout thing about these maps is just how gorgeous they look now. The aesthetic is of course similar to what we know and love, but this seems to have a brighter colour palette than CS:GO and those classic maps feel like they've been given the love and care they deserve in this update.
My immediate reaction is that Counter-Strike 2 is a substantial backend and engine upgrade, with some really nice perks layered atop it. Valve clearly understands what it has here, a game where the fundamentals are so good that to change too much would risk throwing the kevlar-armoured baby out with the bathwater, and has been incredibly careful about what it's added and improved.
Counter-Strike players are their own breed, both deeply in love with the game and forever grousing about its problems, and one thing Counter-Strike 2 did right off the bat is address several longstanding complaints. This looks like nothing less than my dream game, and the fact it's both going to be free and everything I have in CS:GO will carry over is more than I could've asked for.
Us Counter-Strikers give Valve a hard time because it can be a bit of a silent monolith in how it maintains and updates its longstanding popular titles. But all along, it turns out, Valve wasn't listening: It was getting ready to blow our minds.