Cards on the table time: I used to play the original CS mod a lot. Everyone has the game that takes over their life when they’re 15/16 years old and have way too much free time. Counter-Strike was mine. As a result this post may get more than a little bit ranty. But dammit, it’s justified.
I am not going to waste my time talking about what Counter-Strike is. The only reason you could possibly have avoided picking up at least some cursory idea of what it’s about is if you’ve somehow spent the last fifteen years trapped in amber and have only now been awakened by scientists who want to harvest your precious, precious DNA. It’s a multiplayer game where there are terrorists and counterterrorists and everyone shoots each other and has a wonderful time (in theory). Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (or CS:GO) is roughly the same game as the original mod as far as the shooting people bit is concerned; it has a somewhat faster pace that puts even more emphasis on fast reaction times and the ability to get headshots with the AK that makes me a bit sad, but it is recognisably Counter-Strike. That’s fine. If I can into get a good game of CS:GO I have a wonderful time. That’s not the problem. The problem is the number of barriers the developers (Hidden Path, responsible for the excellent Defense Grid) have put in between me and finding that one good game of CS:GO in the first place.
Barrier #1: Matchmaking and game modes.
There is a matchmaking system in CS:GO which the game heavily favours for finding servers1. This is to be expected given its simultaneous XBLA release and it’s not inherently a bad thing; L4D had matchmaking – or at least an automated server search – and I didn’t hate that. What I do hate, and the thing that seriously makes me question what both Valve and Hidden Path were thinking with this, is the way the matchmaking bounces off the various game modes available. There are four of them, which is approximately three more than in the original CS, and they go something like this:
Arms Race. A literal abomination that should never have been loosed upon this world. It’s CS with all the tactical gameplay, clever thinking and knife-edge tension stripped out. In short, it is Counter-Strike without the things that made Counter-Strike Counter-Strike, instead rolling all of the worst parts of Counter-Strike into one mode full of two-second respawns and twitch-shooting. Arms Race is what would happen if you made a really shitty post-Quake Team Deathmatch mod for the Counter-Strike engine2. The worst thing is it’s actually supposed to be like this, and I can tell because there is, no joking, an actual achievement you can get for spawn-camping the enemy start zone. People are supposed to enjoy this. People are supposed to enjoy this. I just can’t get my head around it.
Demolition. Slightly better because it keeps the weapon progression system of Arms Race while stripping out all of the stupid crap: everyone gets one life and there are objectives like plant/defuse the bomb. It at least has a justification for being in the game even if I personally would never play it because of the existence of…
Classic mode. There are actually two of these, Casual and Competitive, and I’ll get into just why this split was a monumentally dumb thing to do in just a second, but this is the closest thing to the Counter-Strike an old player of the game will know and love, with buy menus and bombs and hostages and so on. Consequently it’s the thing that I’m trying to spend my time in game playing. Unfortunately I keep running up against barrier #2.
Barrier #2: The five player team limit.
While custom servers can have pretty much any number of players per team that they want, the original CS settled on eight players per team as the default. So did CS Source. CS:GO plumps for reducing that number of players to five for Classic Competitive mode, however. I don’t like this. I think it’s the single biggest act of sabotage against the CS formula present in CS:GO because I can take or leave all the other stuff, but I have this five player limit practically forced on me if I want to play Counter-Strike as I recognise it. It’s not just that I don’t like things that are different, either; here are just a few ways it makes it downright impossible to find a good game of Counter-Strike anywhere on the internet.
Good players distort team skill levels far more than they would otherwise. One good player on a team of eight has far less impact than one good player on a team of five. With less people around to average out the skill levels and less people on the enemy team to chew through before they get rewarded with a win, good players can pretty much just rely on their shooting skills to Rambo their way through the game – and remember, this is the game responsible for the infamous one-shot-kill AWP sniper rifle. If you’re stuck on the other team then there’s pretty much nothing you can do until the map ends and the teams reshuffle slightly, but even this may provide no relief due to the tendency of good players to be backed up by friends communicating over a private VOIP channel.
Fewer players means less player turnover. This means you are almost certain to get matchmade onto a disorganised team currently taking a beating. Nobody wants to stick around to be instakilled every game and rack up loss after loss after loss, which is understandable, but this just creates a situation where one team is constantly having its players quit to be replaced by new ones, and as a result they can never get their act together as a team. Eight players on a team provided something of a cushion against this, as the matches went on longer and the losing team could often feel like they were putting up more of a fight than they actually were, prompting people to stick around and start working together to try and improve on that performance. Certainly I can’t remember many matches in the original that were over in 32 seconds, anyway.
Finding a game as a group is nigh-impossible. Ten potential player slots in a game. A group of three players wants to join the same game, which requires the matchmaking system to find a game that is 30% empty. The rules of internet gaming dictated that they will either be stuck looking at a “searching” dialogue for ten minutes as the system tries to find them this mythical game server, or else they will be dumped onto an empty server populated entirely by bots. Admittedly once they’re in the matchmaking system then throws more people in after them, but they still have to grind out a round or two against mostly bot opposition and I don’t expect that state of affairs to last once the post-release mania dies down a bit.
There’s more, but these are the three factors that result in CS:GO being massively one-sided and unfun if you’re unlucky enough to get stuck on the wrong team. The rationale behind five players per team is that that’s the number commonly used in competitive matches between organised clan teams. There is a world of difference between an organised clan team and a disparate group of public players, though; eight players is necessary to compensate for that skill difference, because otherwise you wind up with the situation we have now where there are groups of two or three clan players running around shredding the opposition in game after game after game. Fun for them, I’m sure; not so fun for me and my friends who are average at best.
“But Hentzau, “ I hear you cry, “that’s Classic Competitive! If you want a larger player count why not play Classic Casual?” It’s true that Casual has a ten player per team limit, which is a little on the large side but would at least be more tolerable. However, Casual mode also has baby features like free armour and defuse kits, no player collision, no friendly fire and reduced kill rewards, and it’s an all or nothing package. I want to play grown-up Counter-Strike with full-sized teams, not the kiddie version.
Barrier #3: The custom server browser.
Okay, so the combination of the matchmaking system and the game modes makes it nigh-impossible to find a satisfying game of CS:GO that way. What about finding a custom server? Surely that’s what gaming on a PC is all about? Well, I’d love to, but unfortunately CS:GO is still using the archaeological relic released with Half Life 2 back in 2004 as a server browser, and it gives you almost no useful information about the game server you’re joining other than the map and player count. Big changes will be flagged somewhere but small changes won’t, which is why I’ve joined too many servers that looked normal but which had unlimited money or banned weapons or something. Perhaps one day I’ll find a server that replicates CS circa 2001 in every way (and adds the silencer back on to the M4 to boot) but the horrible archaic server browser is putting a definite crimp on that particular search for the moment since I don’t ever know what I’m going to get without physically joining the damn things.
I should stress once again that I have found the occasional game of CS:GO that was good, and I have enjoyed these games immensely. The fundamental gameplay of Classic Competitive may be a tad faster and floatier than I’m used to, but my skills all transfer across both the jump from 1.6 to GO and the intervening decade of time okay and I still do quite well for myself. Get two balanced teams locked into a thirty round game and Counter-Strike is still one of the most engrossing multiplayer experiences out there. It’s just that the way the game is set up now is a curious collection of concessions to new players who have never even seen an FPS before mixed in with “hardcore” modes for the clanners, with no happy middle ground for players like me who just want to play classic CS without being headshotted from across the map the moment I step out of spawn. Prior to CS:GO I wouldn’t have said there was anything particularly unusual about me as a player. Perhaps I’m wrong. Perhaps CS players really are split into these binary camps of drooling morons and 24/7 clanners who have been playing nothing but 1.6 and Source for the last ten years. I doubt it, though, and judging from what my friends have said I’m definitely not alone in my assessment of CS:GO’s metagame elements. Poor show, Valve. Poor show.
- It’s kind of hilarious when you click on the “Community Servers” option and a message pops up which basically says “Are you sure you can handle the PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWER of the custom servers?”
- Yes I know it’s based on the popular Gun Game mod for the originals. I was being ironic.