On Thursday, Valve Software surprise-launched a comprehensive update to its five-year-old game Counter-Strike: Global Offensive (CS:GO) with two equally major changes: a new battle royale-inspired combat mode and a shift to the free-to-play economic model.
The battle royale mode in question, dubbed "Danger Zone," resembles popular fare like PUBG and Fortnite in that it revolves around a similar formula. Players drop onto an island with very little equipment, then search for weapons, ammo, and gear while trying to be the last person surviving. In order to speed combat up, a constantly shrinking "safe zone" forces players to run towards each other.
Danger Zone's most obvious difference is game size. Unlike the 100-person battles of PUBG and Fortnite, each Danger Zone match only contains 16 players (or 18, in the case of team-based modes that include squads of two or three). And these smaller pools of players drop onto the battlefield by selecting a spot on the map before a match even begins, thus guaranteeing that every match's combatants land a certain distance from each other. From there, the rest of the combat plays out in a decidedly more Counter-Strike fashion, as extended sessions revolve around money: finding it on the battlefield, taking it from dead foes, and using it to purchase weapons, ammo, armor, and upgrades.
You'll pay for these items using a tablet interface (seen in the above gallery), and upon placing an order, a drone will start buzzing in your direction from the edge of the map. Yes, you can be spotted by other players who see a drone stop and drop an item where you're hiding, and yes, you can shoot down other players' drones to swipe whatever loot they paid for.
Should the whole loud-drone concept not tickle your fancy, you can still pick up items scattered around the island, and that money can be spent on things like unlocking special doors, which typically hide powerful bonuses like weapons and armor.
Initial testing reveals a smooth-enough gameplay experience, in terms of CS:GO's aging aesthetic scaling well to pretty much any gaming PC imaginable. Unfortunately, the jump-through-windows standard of most battle royale games has landed in Danger Zone without any tweaks to CS:GO's controls, so these kinds of jumps require an awkward, perfectly timed tap of the crouch button once you're about to go through a window's opening.
While we are already charmed by the economy-driven tweaks, and we like the handheld tablet map that can vaguely lead players towards other combatants, something is up with the game's server infrastructure on launch day. In spite of tens of thousands of people logging in to play, matches are taking no less than eight minutes at a time to gather 16 combatants.
Meanwhile, every mode of CS:GO is now completely free to access. Existing, paid players have received a bump to the game's new "prime status" tier. This perk allows players to join a "prime-only" matchmaking pool for every mode and additionally promises certain cosmetic bonuses over time (though none of those were active as of press time).
Should you not wish to spend $15 on prime status (its current cost on Steam), you can play the game enough to earn a high reputation, then supply a valid phone number to Valve. Upon doing this, you'll receive prime status consideration. Details on how that works appear in the second gallery, above.
CS:GO has included enough microtransactions over the past few years, complete with a bevy of mixed currencies (including required "unlock" keys for certain items), to already resemble a free-to-play game ahead of Thursday's update. This economy of in-game items has led to an industry of item shuffling via the Steam Marketplace, which resulted in many users turning its items into a gambling service.
Listing image by Valve Software