I picked up Counter-Strike: Global Offensive last week. I don't know why it took me so long—the game came out in August, after all, and it costs only $15. Anyway, I was playing Battlefield 3 with a buddy of mine, and we were both getting slaughtered by a whole team's worth of veterans—you know, those folks with the golden eagles next to their names and every unlock in their arsenals. I mentioned CS:GO in passing, and my friend asked, "Why aren't we playing that right now?"
So we did. We logged out, opened up Steam, bought CS:GO, waited for the download to finish, and jumped in.
It took me a few hours to get back up to speed. This was my first time playing any version of CS in nearly six years, and I'd forgotten all the tricks—crouch to increase accuracy, walk to sneak up on enemies, take out the knife to run, camp whenever possible, and most of all, don't right-click to aim un-scoped weapons ('cause you can't). Making things even trickier, I had to familiarize myself with the slightly tweaked gameplay mechanics and new weapons in CS:GO. Somehow, the game felt both weirdly alien and tantalizingly familiar.
I pressed on. After a few hours, I rediscovered why CS is such a good game—and why other multiplayer shooters still pale in comparison.
It's not that other shooters aren't well designed or fun to play. A good round of BF3 (or whichever Call of Duty sequel all the pimple-faced teenagers are glued to right now) can be just as cathartic as any CS match. The problem is that, unlike CS, those games seem to require constant commitment—something I, as grown man with a job and hobbies other than gaming, can never quite muster.
With today's shooters, you've pretty much got to pick up the game at launch and play on a regular basis. The more you play, the higher you rise through the ranks, and the more weapons you unlock. If you only jump in occasionally (for, dare I say it, recreation), then there's no way to keep up with more committed players. You might be just as skilled as the next guy, but not having this unlock or that weapon may mean losing a fight nine times out of 10. That seems to happen whenever I return to BF3 after a long hiatus.
By contrast, CS is totally egalitarian. Everyone has access to the same items, and players aren't ranked. Nobody cares if you play four hours a day, seven days a week. All that matters is how well you negotiate the next firefight. You might take out half of the enemy team... but then again, a much less skilled player might blind you with a flashbang grenade and unload his top-of-the-line shotgun into your skull. It's not unusual to see a good player climb to the top of the scoreboard only to decline back into mediocrity. In CS, skill and alertness are your primary weapons—and when you get tired, there are no unlockables to help you keep your edge.
That's not to say CS takes the alertness requirement to an uncomfortable extreme. I gave up on the Modern Warfare series a long time ago for that reason: multiplayer skirmishes are just too damn fast and hectic. Drop your guard for a microsecond, and someone is guaranteed to air out your skull with a few well-placed bullets. That kind of constant stress gets exhausting after a while. In CS, Valve has tuned the cadence and pacing almost to perfection. Some rounds are fast and intense, while others go on for several minutes, with two or three surviving players hunting each other in a deadly game of cat and mouse. Players are encouraged to retreat and flank enemies, too, so some battles are interrupted and resumed elsewhere, with wounded combatants quietly sneaking around, trying to get the drop on each other.
CS:GO is just loads of fun. I can jump in anytime I want, play for a few hours, and then quit until I feel like playing again. I never feel an obligation to grind my way through defeat after defeat just to catch up to other players. Nor do I find myself suppressing the urge to play because I know I've fallen too far behind.
Before I sign off, let me address why I think CS:GO is worth picking up over the classic CS 1.6 or CS:S. Valve hasn't modernized the basic mechanics or scrapped the classic maps—that would be sacrilege—but it's made a plethora of little enhancements that, in my view, make the game more modern and enjoyable. For example, players now get assist points when they inflict damage but die before getting a full kill. In older versions of CS, you could get someone down to a single health point and receive zero credit when another player finished him off. No longer.
On top of that, Valve has transplanted the multiplayer matchmaking and dedicated server mojo from its other, more recent titles, so getting into the action (either alone or with your friends) is now much easier. There are new game modes, if you don't mind the odd departure from the classic formula, and the graphics have gotten a much-needed coat of fresh paint. CS:GO still looks slightly dated next to Battlefield 3, but it's nowhere near as old-school as even CS:S. Don't get me wrong; graphics don't make or break a good game. But that doesn't mean a little eye candy can't improve the overall experience.
When I first read about CS:GO, I expected it to be a watered-down, prettied-up version of the original geared toward console players. Now, I see it's every bit as authentic as its predecessors, and it actually improves upon them in very tangible ways. If you've given up on other multiplayer shooters out of frustration—as I almost did—then try CS:GO. Trust me. For $14.99, it's more than worth a shot—and Steam has it on sale for $11.24 today.