I've been playing Counter-Strike for a long time. 16 years, in-fact. During that length of time I've become well-acquainted with what I can expect from the game on a month-to-month basis. More specifically, I've grown to accept that the game doesn't change much no matter how much time passes.
In the case of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, additions and tuning only happen every so often. On average the community sees one campaign and roughly one to two meaningful patches per year. Though, I should be clear that although I call them "meaningful" patches, they don't tend to do anything near what you'd expect from a game with 10+ million monthly players.
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But this week's update is different, to a point where I'm incredibly surprised. Called Operation Hydra, the update is the single most radical departure from established Counter-Strike conventions that I've ever seen.
The main feature of Operation Hydra is what Valve is calling Hydra Events. Hydra Events have unlocked an all-new competitive skill ladder that is based on new game modes that push the limits of Counter-Strike with the following three modes of play (War Games has 6 sub-modes):
- Wingman - Put your friendship on the line in a quick 2v2 best-of-16 match on CS:GO's single-bombsite maps. The pressure is on - don't let your wingman down!
- Weapons Expert - How deep is your weapon pool? Play a 5v5 best-of-30 match with a twist - once you buy a weapon, you can't buy it again for the rest of the match. Coordinate with your team, grind the enemy out of weapons, and try to keep your best options available!
- War Games - Jump in to a match featuring unique twists on classic gameplay! At the end of the match, vote on the next War Game to play.
- Heavy Assault Suit - Play casual bomb defusal rounds with the help of a new suit of armor available for purchase in the buy menu. Like a tank, you'll make a bold entrance as you plow through enemy territory. Prepare to be the center of attention!
- Headshots Only - Practice your aim in a headshots-only deathmatch. Guaranteed to raise your headshot percentage to 100.
- Hunters-Gatherers - Every kill drops a dogtag – work with your team to collect enemy tags and recover your own. Your actions score points for your team, so work together and push for victory!
- Stab Stab Zap - Get up close and personal in this electrifying War Game. With only a knife and a special recharging Zeus (and with whatever grenades you can afford), you'll have to have great close-range skills to win.
- The Flying Scoutsman - Based on a fan favorite, this War Game turns the gravity down and the accuracy up. Armed only with an SSG08, a knife, and your quick reflexes, take advantage of cover and high mobility to take down the enemy!
- Trigger Discipline - Take your time and aim carefully--you'll take damage for every missed shot. Concentrate on perfect accuracy or bait enemies into missing shots--then finish them off with grenades. Good things come to those who wait.
This is the first time Counter-Strike has supported unconventional modes of play in an official manner. Previously, it was up to the community to execute on creative ideas, birthing concepts such as kz, surfing, hide and seek, and much more. As a result of this, you could only play "fun" game modes on unofficial servers, which are more prone to poor performance and don't track progress.
Operation Hydra is a healthy mix of competition and enjoyment. Previously, the two felt mutually exclusive, as competitive matches are intense and attention-demanding, while casual games are fun yet inconsequential, providing no sense of progression.
This is best demonstrated by The Flying Scoutsman, which is Valve's take on popular Scout maps. The Scout is the only weapon in Counter-Strike that allows the player to move at full speed (equal to having a knife out) and fires ammunition with perfect accuracy while on the move, even when jumping. This makes it a fantastic toy weapon, and in this case the means for a frantic precision-oriented game mode.
I have a particular fondness for Wingman as my best friend and I have been a two-man Counter-Strike duo since 2003. Back then, we competed in online tournaments, and regularly participated in 2v2 matches on de_dust2 and de_aztec. In CS: GO we've played more than 500 competitive matches together, building incredibly sharp communication and teamwork along the way. With Operation Hydra we're able to take advantage of our skillset and play on dedicated servers, progressing through a ladder as we enjoy the game in a new format.
The usual additions have come along for the ride, too. There's a new Operation Hydra Case, which has added a list of new skins. There's a Guardians Campaign, with dozens of missions to complete. There are also four new community-created maps, consisting of Thrill, Agency, Black Gold, and Insertion.
When I was at Valve's HQ back in February I got the impression that the company is making moves to incorporate community feedback more frequently, and in the case of CS: GO deliver bigger, more attractive updates. If Operation Hydra is any indication, I may have been right.