The Counter-Strike franchise has sat rather quiet for just over a decade, and for good reason—2012’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive was a revolutionary first-person shooter. Valve opted for an “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach for more than ten years, but that changed with the release of Counter-Strike 2 this past fall. CS2 ushers in a new era for the tactical shooter franchise, modernizing it with visual upgrades and a shiny new engine.
Get to the source
CS:GO players should feel more or less at home when jumping into CS2. The games are so similar that Valve released the new game as a massive update for the previous one. That said, there are several key changes that set the two tactical shooters apart. Arguably the biggest is the engine. Counter-Strike 2 introduces Source 2, a new version of the engine that Global Offensive (and several other Valve games) was built on.
The improvements brought on by Source 2 are apparent the moment you load into your first match. Improvements to lighting and reflections puts CS2 in line with modern shooters, without compromising the qualities that made the previous game such a hit. Valve has rebuilt a number of beloved maps, including the iconic Dust, from the ground-up in Source 2. The new lighting system is also highlighted when firing weapons and hurling explosives at enemies.
Source 2 doesn’t just provide a facelift for the tactical shooter. Arguably one of the coolest innovations in Counter-Strike 2 is what Valve does with smokes. A key ingredient to any tactical shooter strategy, you’ll often see players chuck smoke grenades down long corridors, in doorways, and on the objective. Now, smokes follow a dynamic physics system. They react naturally to gunfire, explosions, and the environment around them. If you shoot through a smoke or cause an explosion near it, the smoke will partially dissipate for a brief period, creating new sitelines as the smoke slowly fills the space back up. It creates an entire new avenue for strategic counterplay when it comes to one of CS2’s core elements.
A fascinating case
Valve took a move out of Blizzard’s playbook when it decided to release Counter-Strike 2 the way it did. Similar to how Overwatch 2 launched in 2022, Counter-Strike 2 released as a free update to its predecessor, completely overwriting the last game. While it’s hard to argue with free, there are legitimate concerns about this model, specifically in regards to game preservation. If you loved CS:GO (a lot of people did), that game is just… gone. There’s no switch you can flip to go back and play it, no separate client. It just doesn’t exist anymore. It’s Counter-Strike 2 now.
Valve managed to assuage general audiences by ensuring that players’ stats and items would carry over to CS2. This includes weapon skins (have you seen what some of those things sell for?), which are at the heart of an entire subcommunity of Counter-Strike players that play the in-game economy like the stock market, exchanging keys, cases, and skins for real-world cash.
Valve also took Counter-Strike 2 as an opportunity to tweak and adjust some of the game’s core modes. CS2 introduces CS Ratings as a new metric to measure a player’s skill in relation to their peers. CS Rating is earned (and lost) by playing Premier mode, the pick/ban competitive mode. You’ll need to buy Prime Status for $14.99 to access this mode, but you’ll be grandfathered in if you purchased the pass in CS:GO, or if you bought CS:GO before it went free-to-play in 2018.
The new CS Ratings and the global leaderboard to accompany it are a cool new way to track your progression and see how you compare to friends and random players online. The competitive folks will surely pore over their win/loss rating, their kill/death ratio, and their overall leaderboard ranking. You’ll see your rating adjusted at the end of every match, offering a consistent feeling of progression (or a lack thereof).
As someone who fancies competitive play in any online game, jumping back into CS2 was a sobering reminder that Counter-Strike is home to some of the worst folks in the online gaming space. Shooters have a way of bringing the worst out of people, and it wasn’t long before I decided to start turning off communication features for my own peace of mind. It’s a shame, because there are plenty of level-headed people to game with online, but CS2 could still make strides when it comes to moderation.
Still the king
Underneath all the flashy new visuals and overhauled systems, Counter-Strike 2 is still Counter-Strike. It’s still one of the best tactical shooters we’ve ever seen, and it’s impossible to deny what Valve has done here. Moment-to-moment combat still feels sharp, one-tapping enemies is supremely satisfying, and those late-game clutch scenarios are as stressful as ever.
CS2 also proves that despite their reluctance to do so, Valve still has all the chops whenever they choose to put their game developer hat on. Nearly all of the changes in Counter-Strike 2 meaningfully enhance the experience without compromising what made the game special in the first place. With the foundation set for another multi-year run, I’m excited to see how Valve and the community evolve Counter-Strike 2.
This review is based on Counter-Strike 2, which is available for free on Steam.