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The silhouettes of two characters, weapons ready, against the Counter-Strike 2 background Image: Valve

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Counter-Strike 2 pulls off a monumental task

Valve’s shooter is back in style

In the months following the announcement of Counter-Strike 2 in March, the average number of active Global Offensive players grew by nearly 30%. That number is still holding, as the new edition has completely revitalized the game, adding some sheen to a shooter that was beginning to tarnish. It has re-entered the zeitgeist and asserted itself in a genre that’s been co-opted by battle royales and extraction shooters. Counter-Strike is back, baby.

There are significant visual upgrades at play here – lighting, textures, smoke effects – and numerous quality-of-life updates regarding the buy-menu and user interface; but the real story here is that we’re even talking about Counter-Strike in 2023. It’s topping livestream charts again. YouTube is lit up with Counter-Strike 2 videos. There’s a buzz, and the game deserves every bit of it. If all goes smoothly, this buzz will roll over into competitive play with expanded leagues and prize pools. The community seems poised for Valve’s shooter to flourish once again.

Part of Counter-Strike 2’s early success is in how smooth the transition from Global Offensive to sequel has been. Valve has done a wonderful job easing the player base into all of the changes throughout a lengthy closed beta. What’s more, all of my weapon skins and upgrades have seamlessly transferred. Many of Counter-Strike 2’s changes may seem minor, but in actuality, Valve has pulled off a monumental task.

The player fires an AK-47 through a cloud of smoke, which parts to reveal more clarity on the other side, in Counter-Strike 2 Image: Valve

Because, of course, this isn’t just an update. Valve has rebuilt Counter-Strike from the ground up using the Source 2 engine. While the general rules of gameplay don’t stray far from the previous title, there is a huge swath of visual and physics improvements that offer the sequel a new overall feel. The aesthetics are more vivid and bright. Colors are further saturated and the lighting is heavily improved, incentivizing a faster playstyle and less camping as hiding spots with low visibility are non-existent. The new weapon audio is fantastic, with the nearby crack of automatic fire and distant pop of shotguns cutting across the map with ferocity.

Water physics have also been overhauled. I spent a couple of minutes just messing around in the muck as I waded through some of the larger pools on maps such as Ancient. There are some unbelievable unique properties, such as moss separating and reforming on the surface of ponds. You can also see the alcohol inside of Molotov bottles actually shift and adjust to how you’re holding it. The presentation is top-shelf and impressive.

Smoke, on the other hand, has been re-worked into a distinct entity that wraps around the 3D environment. It’s also reactive: Shooting through it will temporarily open a gap and allow you and your team to see the other side. Grenades completely evaporate the effect, albeit only for a moment. This opens up new considerations, such as a teammate temporarily clearing smoke so that you can spot a foe and eliminate them. The smoke surpasses simple aesthetic flavor by introducing further tactical depth.

A character turns a corner while holding an assault rifle in Counter-Strike 2 Image: Valve

Above all else, the most important benefit to this engine update is how extraordinarily smooth the gunplay feels. Weapon handling is snappy and satisfying. Counter-Strike 2 boasts some of the best hit recognition in any online shooter I’ve played. This may be a result of the netcode improvements, including a new sub-tick rate for servers that increases response time and accuracy. That improvement alone is a big enough win to justify the switchover.

In Counter-Strike 2, almost everything feels just right. The only unsettling quality of this update is foot movement. It’s as though a new inertia system has been implemented — there’s a sense of input delay and sluggish responsiveness. It took me a break-in period of a day or two just to get used to it all. While gaining comfort, you may have trouble landing jumps or swiftly traversing terrain that was trivial in Global Offensive. This new system is not awful, but it will take an adjustment; as of now, moving around these maps creates an odd and uncomfortable feeling. Even after gaining familiarity and re-learning the basics, I can’t help but note that it feels inferior to CS:GO’s movement mechanics. That’s somewhat disappointing, but it’s a trade I will make every time in exchange for all of the other exemplary improvements.

With such a wide array of tweaks, updates, and iterations, Counter-Strike 2 is a significant move forward for the franchise. The community is alight again, and I’m as excited as I’ve been for Valve’s shooter in more than 10 years. Counter-Strike is back, and if the current trend of improvements continues, it’s only going to get better from here out.

Counter-Strike 2 was released on Sept. 27 as a free update to Counter-Strike: Global Offensive on Windows PC. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.