What can Counter-Strike learn from VALORANT?
by Tom Coles

Counter-Strike is old. I hate to break it to you, but it celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, which makes it older than the Nintendo Gamecube and only a few months younger than the Playstation 2. It’s seen off a number of rivals and moved with the times, but even the most recent title, Global Offensive, is closing in on its 10-year anniversary, and while the content updates for it continue with the release of the newest Operation, Broken Fang, the rivals keep on coming too. The most recent and perhaps strongest challenger to date is Riot Games’ shooter VALORANT, which celebrates its first anniversary this week.

VALORANT is very similar to Counter-Strike. It features two teams of five. The Terrorists/Attackers aim to plant the bomb/spike while the Counter-Terrorists/Defenders attempt to defuse it. Both teams use a mixture of guns including pistols, shotguns, SMGs and rifles along with utility (flashbangs, smokes, and molotovs) to take one of the bombsites, or to kill (“frag”) the enemy team. VALORANT copied this formula because it worked. But it added its own new spin. It features Agents, each with their own unique skillsets and limitations. Its maps feature special twists, like Haven’s triple bombsite and Bind’s teleporters. And it tweaks many of the minor details, from the weapons sprays down to communication methods.

killjoy

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive already added one VALORANT feature — or, at least, one that is common in modern shooters — “pings” to aid in communication, especially for players without microphones. But what else could Counter-Strike pick up? Here are some ideas:

1. No More Misbuys

Is there any more frustrating feeling in Counter-Strike than when your team calls to eco after you’ve already bought yourself armour and nades? Or when you mis-click and end up with a glass cannon AK-47? Misbuys are a part of Counter-Strike, but they’re not fun for players and they even pop up at professional level, where it can hardly be said to be good for the viewer either.

VALORANT, by contrast, allows you to sell any weapon you’ve bought during the buy phase without penalty, allowing teams to communicate and decide right up until the final seconds what they want to do — and preventing that awful moment when your team-mate asks for the AWP you were going to drop and you realise you’re a few $ short. A simple change and one that would be most welcome.

2. More Map Variety

Ask any Counter-Strike fan, pro, or caster about the map pool and they’ll tell you it’s in need of an update. I’d be willing to bet you’ll then get 50 different answers on what that update should be, but the fact is a big update is long overdue. It’s not just that most of the maps have been around a while — in the case of Mirage, it’s now 7 years since its last big update — but there’s also very little variety in them. The colour palette is mostly desert sands and silver, several maps share player models, and they mostly follow the same layout formula — 3 lanes, two bombsites. The most recent additions to the map pool are either more of the same (Anubis is yet another desert map) or updates of old maps (Ancient is an update of Aztec, Tuscan is being remade, etc)

mirage

So let’s throw all the rules to the wind. A tundra-based defusal map in the style of dz_frostbite or VALORANT’s Icebox. A map based around a Hollywood studio, where players have to fight across different film sets. Hell, go all out and make a full version of Red Bull’s Matrix map — teleporters and everything. The real-world context of Counter-Strike was fresh when it was released, but it can also be restrictive. Valve should encourage its map creators to go wild. 

I don’t know if I’d enjoy a 3-bombsite Counter-Strike map like Haven, but I wouldn’t rule anything out. The most dangerous words in any field are “that’s the way we’ve always done it”.

3. Loosen Up

If there’s one area where Counter-Strike shows its age, it’s in how seriously it takes itself. This means both in gameplay terms and in terms of the UI. Counter-Strike comes from an age of internet cafés and LANs in dark rooms, and it assumes you will take it seriously. Trying to get demos to run on the absurdly outdated demo player is frustrating, while there are numerous guides on the internet to getting the most out of the developer console — something you will need to do in order to achieve maximum functionality.

VALORANT is not perfect, in fact it’s missing a lot of UI options that players would take as standard. But what it does have is that, at its heart, it understands that it is a game, and that people want to have fun. It’s little things like the on-screen pop-ups for when players pull off clutches, or the kill notifications appearing at the bottom of the screen, that differentiate it from Counter-Strike — in a good way. 

That isn’t to say I want Counter-Strike to go overboard, or that it needs to copy VALORANT’s features to survive. But it could do with simplifying some of its more complicated options, and centring the fun parts of the game experience. Nobody plays Counter-Strike — with its boosts, one-way smokes, and glitches — expecting a realistic take on counter-terrorism. Why do we pretend otherwise?

4. Embrace diversity

For a game called “Global Offensive”, Counter-Strike’s latest entry is surprisingly narrow in terms of scope. Two maps are set in America, two maps in the desert, and three in Europe (albeit very different parts of Europe). Not to mention the focus on realism — basing the factions off real-life terrorist groups — has been outpaced by reality, as the Separatist faction that make up Inferno’s T-side live on only in video game form — the groups that make up their basis in real life have disbanded.

VALORANT has a colourful, diverse cast of characters and a range of maps with a global feel — from the Arabic style of Bind to the Japanese Split and Ascent set in a futuristic version of Italy. Counter-Strike is introducing its own “characters” with the Broken Fang storyline, but it still centres around a narrow perspective. Just as with the map pool, variety is the spice of life.

Split New-mid %28Patch 1.0%29

This also expands outside the server — with RIOT announcing the “Game Changers” series to encourage more participation, especially from female players. Valve have mainly left such initiatives up to the community — and while that has allowed a gap in the market for female-only tournaments such as Dreamhack’s Showdowns, that still is only a sticking plaster on the obvious divisions at professional and semi-professional level. Racial diversity is also a problem — just ask the few black pros about their experiences within the scene. Valve are uniquely placed to lead by example and get a firm grip on this problem.

5. More frequent, smaller updates

There was a year in between Operation: Shattered Web and Operation: Broken Fang, and fans were clamouring for more even then. It isn’t hard to see why; as I alluded to earlier, the competitive map pool has not changed in forever (and isn’t expected to change until after the Major this November); and Valve’s patches typically contain only extremely small changes, or translation updates. VALORANT, by contrast, has added multiple new agents, new gamemodes, and all kinds of big updates on a constant basis since it launched.

Obviously Valve launching a new Operation once a month would be impossible — and bad business — but what about enabling smaller changes. Make it so the map pool has 7 maps from a possible 9, and rotate out the oldest for an inactive map every few months. Retakes proved popular on community servers, so why not look into other fan-favourite modes and if they can be added to the game full-time?

Rather than saving up all the changes for one, expensive swoop, let’s aim to have two or three things changing every few months, to keep the game fresh all the time.

The important thing is that Counter-Strike isn't going away, and neither is VALORANT. Here’s hoping that competition brings out the best in the developers to ensure a healthy future for both franchises!