Valve announced Counter-Strike 2 at the start of this year and has been running it in a limited beta ever since, swapping 1-2 maps at a time, adding isolated features, and generally withholding the full package that it unveiled yesterday. That limited rollout made it hard to get a handle on just how different it's going to feel from CS:GO, but now we have no option. When CS2 went live, CS:GO became a beta branch on Steam (despite some mixed messages from Valve, CS:GO has not been 'disappeared' Stalin-style and remains accessible albeit with community servers).
Everything has changed: nothing has changed
Perhaps Counter-Strike 2's biggest problem is that number. In a series that has always been iterative, new Counter-Strikes have traditionally been pitched as variants on the existing game: vanilla Counter-Strike is better-known as Counter-Strike 1.6 (after a particular patch version), then there's CS:Condition Zero, CS:Source, and of course CS:GO. Whatever changes and upgrades these versions made, they weren't positioned as replacements in the way CS2 has been.
That leads to CS2, initially at least, feeling underwhelming. As one wag joked, "CS2 has only been out a day but feels like it's been here 10 years". Apart from the quality jump in maps, weapons, and all visual assets, many of the improvements it's made over CS:GO are backend, under-the-hood types of things that aren't obvious to players, yet the game itself comes branded as the first true sequel in 24 years.
My first games in CS2 proper, having played it a fair amount in beta, were nothing like moving from Halo 2 to Halo 3, fundamentally different multiplayer experiences. Instead it almost feels more like a director's cut or a definitive version of something you've been playing for years (because of course you have). I've seen a bunch of community grousing about the movement feeling lighter, and even complaints about the feel of the gunplay, but debating these very fine details is a longstanding tradition for competitive FPS players. That's not to say anyone's wrong, but as someone who's played the game for two decades I don't detect huge differences (admittedly, I was never going to make the NiP roster, even when I had reflexes).
Instead what I keep thinking of was one Christmas where my partner had managed to track down the exact pair of comfy slippers I'd had for let's say a decade, which were now rather dog-eared, and bought me a brand new replacement pair. I was delighted at the gift and the thoughtfulness of it. And when I wore those new slippers, for the first few days, I had to suppress my inner misanthrope moaning that they weren't as comfortable (and that I'd kept the old ones in the shoe cupboard). And after about a week I'd completely forgotten about that, loved them, and happily recycled the old ones.
The overall coat of gloss CS2 receives is, of course, very welcome. But the familiarity dulls some of that upgrade, and unless you put the two games side-by-side the faithfulness means a lot of the changes aren't immediately obvious: on Valve's CS2 landing page, there are some shots of the same areas in both games that let you slide back-and-forth and give some idea of what I'm talking about.
The biggest mechanical difference, and you see it in nearly every match, is the smoke physics. Utility in CS is as important as being able to shoot straight, and at all skill levels is the difference between winning and losing. Smokes give control over areas of the maps for a time and can be used to block entrance routes for the attackers or to block the defending team's vision (and much more besides of course).
While the bullet hole effect is beautiful to look at and can provide a split-second of vision, the combination of smokes and high explosive grenades is a genuinely new element to the game (an HE grenade will disperse a good chunk of the smoke cloud for what feels like 5-6 seconds before it returns to normal, granting vision through the smoke). This gives HE grenades a new form of utility, and vice-versa one decoy smoke can now bait several frag grenades from the defenders.
At its best CS is a mind game. You can beat better players and better teams by fooling them, using your grenade resources to gain ground, and by being smart about how you counter an incoming play. CS2 has added a lot of small things to the mix, some of which may in the long run prove more consequential, but this is the element that will most transform the meta. It's also the one thing about CS2 I haven't seen a single player complaining about.
Both M4s, kill tracking, buy menus: UI
The CS2 UI is a vast improvement over CS:GO's UI, which while nice enough had kinda been assembled over years. In CS2 things like the buy menu, thanks to Valorant's example, are vastly improved, small changes like the ability to buy both M4 models in-game are huge, and my favourite addition of all is the playing cards.
When you make a kill in CS2, you get a small playing card at the bottom middle of your UI. Each kill in a round adds up to a max of five playing cards and, as achieving this has always been an "Ace" in CS, it fits perfectly. Does it have any great functionality, not really. But it looks and feels tremendous, and somehow adds to the excitement of a good round that could become spectacular.
CS2 is a much brighter and more colourful game than CS:GO. I love the new look of the maps and the interplay between them and the Source 2 lighting and particle systems. They really are leaps and bounds over what we had before, while retaining in many cases the exact elements they had beforehand, but everything from water to fire behaves differently and the new impact effects on gunfire in particular are incredibly satisfying.
The full package?
A big disappointment for me is the absence of Arms Race, one of many community modes that became popular enough to be adopted by Valve and incorporated into CS:GO as an official mode. CS:GO had a whole bunch of secondary modes like this which haven't made the initial cut, but Arms Race (aka Gun Game) was my warmup: You chase kills over multiple rounds, and each kill upgrades your weapon for the next.
Things like this and Team Deathmatch (Deathmatch is present) I expect to be added to CS2, but it's surprising they're not part of this Counter-Strike 2 debut. Indeed, some players say all they do is play Arms Race and I can well believe it.
Personal complaint: although competitive matches are three rounds shorter (from 16 down to 12 per half), CS2 doesn't yet have short matches. These are competitive games with half the number of rounds and were one of the main ways I played CS:GO. Hey, I'm competitive, but I'm also a father of three and you don't always have 45 uninterrupted minutes for a competitive match. Again, I'm disappointed it's not here from the off.
Valve has clearly focused on getting the competitive side of CS2 right as the biggest launch priority, and things like the new matchmaking and ranking system are polished overhauls. But competitive is also about what's around it, and what else you can do in the game when you're not queuing for ranked, and CS2 feels anaemic in this regard.
Ranked & Unranked
CS2 introduces a much more in-depth stats system for Premier mode that you can view through the main menu, and it feels like a positive change but also way too early to say such a thing definitively. The various competitive games I've had so far have included some wildly different skill levels, with some players fragging 30+ and others only putting up single digits, but you have to put that down to this being the dawn of the first day and give the game some time to begin putting us all in baskets. This is an entirely new ranking system from CS:GO and it doesn't appear anything from the older one carries over, so I'll reserve judgement until it's had a few weeks to sift through the game's million-plus daily players (there are 1,441,329 players in-game right now).
The gifts are a nice touch
When you first log in to CS2, CS:GO players will receive two gifts. There's a CS:GO music kit, which if activated will replace CS2's audio with the CS:GO equivalents, and a CS:GO commemorative coin (these are issued for various occasions and events in-game). They're not a big deal, and certainly don't have much impact on the game itself, but were a fun surprise and somewhat softened the realisation that, yeah, CS:GO was yesterday, and CS2 is today, and tomorrow. But we'll always have these little reminders, and the memories.