PC Gamer
MOD OF THE WEEK

In Mod of the Week, Chris LIvingston scours the world of user-created adventure for worthy downloads. This week, a Portal 2 mod that fuels our dreams of an above-ground Aperture City.

Apart from a guard booth and a small shed in a field, most of what we've seen of Aperture Science has been carefully hidden underground. Perhaps if things hadn't gone so horribly wrong in their massive subterranean lab, Aperture eventually might have built a proper above-ground campus, like Google or Microsoft.

That's the premise of Above Aperture. You're on an excursion to Aperture City, a large above-ground compound littered with buildings and devious test-chambers. 

Yes, you're still as trapped as Chell ever was, but the open-air nature of most of the chambers and the little outdoor strolls you take between the challenges give it a different feel than the subterranean labyrinth we're used to. Aperture City, naturally, is abandoned and crumbling, and armed with only your wits (and a cool handheld device), you're trying to find your way out, or at least your way through

Above Aperture features some custom models and art, as well as a really nice piece of custom music. Not only are the maps lovely to look at, but they're pretty challenging as well. I spent a good deal of time in the very first level wondering just what the heck I was supposed to do. I could clearly see the spots I needed to get to, and I knew I had the tools to get there: my portal gun, a light bridge, and a faith plate. There were even clues in a few spots, little arrows painted on the concrete... anyway, it was a challenge, a nice twist on the standard game-play, and quite satisfying when I finally figured it out.

Light bridges are a big part of most of the puzzles, but there are other familiar elements: laser-beams and mirror cubes, a bit of gel, a few turrets here and there. The chambers are nice and big, and for me, they're the best kind: where you sort of wander around for a bit before you even try anything, peering at the walls and ceiling, trying to put the solution together in your head before you actually start firing the gun.

I really do like being above-ground, too. I know, it's just a skybox, and the maps may as well be underground anyway because you're trapped in them either way, but it still feels a bit more freeing being able to see the sky (though no moon, of course). It's also one step closer to my ultimate Portal dream: a huge GTA-style metropolis I can fling portals around in.

If you spot a radio during your travels, make sure to take it with you: there's a cool custom song hidden somewhere in the maps, and you won't want to miss it. (I definitely missed it my first time through.)

Above Aperture is in three parts which you can subscribe to here. I certainly hope there will be more of this adventure to come: the puzzles are pretty fiendish and the maps are very well designed, not just in how the puzzles function but in the overall atmosphere as well.

You can also check out more of the modder's Portal 2 workshop items here.

PC Gamer

Admissions of hacking by three professional CS:GO players have cast a shadow of suspicion on the CS:GO competitive scene. The outed players, Hovik "KQLY" Tovmassian, Simon "smn" Beck, and Gordon "Sf" Giry each received in-game bans through VAC earlier this week. The revelations call into question the players past performances, both during online tournaments and at LAN events, where the cheat, which allegedly connects through a player s Steam Workshop, could have been used. For some in the scene, the news also presents the uncomfortable possibility that other professional players have used similar, still-undetected cheats in tournament play.

These revelations could not have come at a worse time for CS:GO e-sports—we re days away from the biggest tournament in the game s history, DreamHack Winter 2014.

Professional CS:GO players have been VAC banned before, but arguably not such high-profile players. KQLY, the most prominent player of the three, admitted in a statement on Facebook (that I ve translated from French using Facebook s integrated tool) that he had used a third-party program for seven days. KQLY denied using the program while he was a member of Titan (during the DreamHack Invitational, for example, which Titan won). As you may have seen yesterday, I was banned by VAC and unfortunately it was justified, KQLY wrote. I wanted to say that I am really sorry for all the people who supported me, I am aware that with my bullshit, my career is now over and my team in a very bad position. They did not deserve it.

When he was offered use of the program, KQLY says, the provider reassured him that many pro players were using it.

This is a cheat that doesn t have anything visible on the screen. The only way you d know if someone did it is if you caught them at the point they installed it on that machine and activated it.

KQLY has been cut by Titan, who along with Epsilon have been disqualified from DreamHack Winter 2014 by the tournament s organizers. Their expulsion is a huge blow to both organizations, who have spent weeks training for a chance to compete for the event s quarter-million-dollar prize pool. Speaking to Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, DreamHack s Head of e-sports Tomas Lyckedal expressed surprise. "I don t think a pro player has been banned like this since 2001. Of course people have been caught cheating but it s always been semi professionals, never established players. And it s a shame it has to happen so close before the tournament, he said. I really hope that this doesn t happen to more teams, but this has to be a clean sport so if it happens then so be it.

Lyckedal also pledged that DreamHack will take special precautions at DreamHack Winter 2014. Playing in Titan and Epsilon s place will be the winners of a Last Call Qualifier organized by DreamHack that takes place on Saturday.

On Friday, Titan issued a statement condemning KQLY s actions. As it did so, Titan also criticized Valve for not working directly with teams to remedy the situation. After KQLY s ban was revealed, Titan says it contacted Valve but was eventually met with dead silence after their initial email exchange. "Valve opted for a unilateral decision, handing out collective punishment with complete disregard for team involvement in the problem solving process. I contacted Valve earlier today for comment but have not received a response.

The nature of the hack

KQLY s ban was preceded by the ban of Simon "smn" Beck on ESEA, a third-party client used by competitive players to find matches and pick-up games. According to ex-pro and HLTV.org contributor Tomi Lurppis Kovanen, Valve contacted ESEA when it learned of the cheat. The bans of KQLY and Sf that followed, it would seem, were a result of Valve updating VAC to detect the cheat that smn used on ESEA.

The cheat in question is allegedly very difficult to detect, so much so it s not out of the question for it to have been used at live LAN events. E-sports commentator Duncan Thooorin Shields took to YouTube (embedded above) to speak about the scandal—primarily to call for calm and an end to the witch hunt for other potential hackers that s overtaken some fans in the scene in the past few days—but he also gave his own explanation for the type of hack that was allegedly used.

It s a cheat that doesn t even have an extreme effect—unless you really abuse it—it has layers to it where it can just give you a slight advantage in aiming, says Shields in the video. So if you re already one of the best players in the world, it ll make it so you just look like you re having your best game. It won t even seem like you re hacking and that was an impossible movement. He continues, This is a cheat that doesn t have anything visible on the screen. The only way you d know if someone did it is if you caught them at the point they installed it on that machine and activated it.

The impact

Titan and Epsilon s disqualification from DreamHack Winter sours the excitement around CS:GO s biggest tournament of the year. For some, the bans have created a cloud of suspicion around other teams and players. Smn, the originally banned player, commented on a livestream on Friday about his ban and the incident, allegedly saying that as much as 40% of the pro scene is using hacks.

Of course, that's one person's statement, and it should not be taken as the certain truth. It remains to be seen whether more players will be VAC banned, and whether Valve will take further action, though some members of the community are already anticipating more bad news. I believe it s important to temper our suspicion and not jump to conclusions that any one team or player is guilty until there s hard evidence to suggest that they cheated.

It s been exciting over the past year or so to watch CS:GO blossom into an e-sport that draws hundreds of thousands of spectators at once. And it s been exciting to see the scene grow to support dozens of players and teams around the world. Fighting the hack-making industry, as we ve previously investigated, is a constantly evolving struggle for studios like Valve, who can t be expected to quash every single assistance program—it s part of the cost of building a popular competitive game. Valve does, however, in cooperation with leagues and teams, have the power to make the punishment for hacking so unpalatable that fewer pros and non-pros would pursue it. Whatever happens next, it s going to make for a fascinating tournament at DreamHack next week.

PC Gamer

Each Friday the PC Gamer editorial team convenes at a secret mountain lodge to discuss the deeper ramifications of the week that was. The gl wein expenses are killing us.

THE HIGHS

Chris Thursten: Well strike me down It finally happened: I found another lane-pushing game that I like. The Smite regionals in Cologne are to blame: I went in a novice and came out wanting to give the game a try, and now my lunch breaks are consumed by Arena. This is well-timed, really: 6.82-era Dota 2 doesn t reliably fit into 45 minutes any more, whereas I can play a couple of games in one of Smite s lighter modes in that time. I m still not quite feeling brave enough to head into full 5-on-5 play, but that s partly because I m really enjoying the 80% Arena winrate that my transferrable Dota 2 skills (such as they are) have granted me.

More to the point, I like the little things that make Smite less of a fraught experience than the game I m used to: the tactical necessity of retreating to base, the rhythm of pokes and ganks, the way ults operate as much as a make play button as a oh god guys we need to teamfight we re wasting time button. I m sure the game has those elements, but at the moment it feels like a holiday in a more straightforward land. There s a chance I d enjoy League of Legends for similar reasons, but I ll never see the point in committing to a game where your account level dictates anything about your potential power in-game. Smite earns a lot of good will by dodging that, and by offering an affordable pack ( 20/$30) that allows you to unlock every character, past present and future.

Shaun Prescott: A truly disturbing shooter I haven t actually played GAME OF THE YEAR: 420BLAZEIT vs. xxXilluminatiXxx [wow/10 #rekt edition], but I ve seen enough gameplay footage to know that it s a work of art. Created by Melbourne developer Andy Sum for the recent Seven Day First-Person Shooter Challenge, watching GOTY is like listening to Lou Reed s notoriously unlistenable Metal Machine Music LP. It s a distillation of everything ugly and garish about modern blockbuster gaming: the unmitigated bloodlust, the corporate synergising, the flagrant macho stupidity of it all. While the parodic game is ostensibly funny , it s also weirdly disturbing: this is a part of our culture that seems fairly commonplace, until it s paraded before us in such a concentrated fashion.

Phil Savage: The unbearable lightness of being I recently completed a big, sprawling RPG—one that took up a solid week-and-a-bit of my life. Afterwards, I was in need of something smaller, lighter and altogether more silly. The answer, it seems, was bears.

At this point, I think I've played more of Far Cry 4's map editor than I have of Far Cry 4. It's great. More importantly, it's dumb. I'm not sure it's meant to be dumb, but the way I've been using it is. With a few clicks you can set up a ridiculous scenario, and then head into play mode and watch it play out. For the most part, I've been stacking animals. Or blowing up animals. Or blowing up stacked animals. One day, I might make a real map. More likely, I'll try to jump over a pyramid of bears with a tuk-tuk.

Tim Clark: More bear love I suppose it s uncool to admit that I m enjoying what s essentially a clever marketing campaign, but the truth is the Good Ship Cool long since sailed for me, and I m straight up loving the daily drip feed of cards from Hearthstone s Goblins vs Gnomes expansion. We got to reveal one ourselves earlier today—Hail, Iron Sensei!—and you can read my ramblings about all the recent cards here. So far easily my favourite is the Druid s Anodized Robo Cub. Not the flashiest creature in the game by any stretch of the imagination, but a wonderfully flexible early drop for a class that badly lacked exactly that. Also, the art is adorable. And if you re not choosing at least a couple of cards based on irrational love of the artwork, you re Hearthstoning wrong. 

Tyler Wilde: Goat MMO Simulator Bears are fine, but goats are where it s at this week. A new free expansion turns Goat Simulator into a (fake) MMO, where you can quest to pick up apples and infiltrate a sheep village, but mostly just headbutt people into ragdolls. I m still with Andy on Goat Simulator—it s silly and all, but I haven t found much actual entertainment out of it—but this update was too clever not to try. For one thing, you can play as a walking microwave. Just like I always dreamed. It also does a great job of simulating MMO chat convincingly enough that, for a minute, I questioned whether it was fake. Even better, it inspired a very stupid article, so I have it to thank for that.

Tom Senior: Dying a thousand deaths I have bled to death in an abandoned apartment complex. I have died of severe hypothermia in a field. I've been hit in the leg so hard I've crumpled to the ground and been mauled to death by a desperate stranger. You too can experience the panic and misery of the post apocalypse in NEO Scavenger.

This low-fi survival game only lets you carry what you could feasibly carry in two normal-sized human hands, which forces painful decisions between whether you ought to keep a shard of glass for defence, or a blanket to fend off the elements. A bag, shoes, a roof over your head—these are as gold dust in the cold plains of future Earth, and if you survive long enough to find them, you've got a shot of unraveling the mystery behind the planet's devastated state. There's horror out there in them hills, from cannibals to killer robots. It's rather good so far.

THE LOWS

Chris Thursten: Phantom controversy The tendency for hardcore games communities to transmute passion into disappointment and rage is a source of constant bemusement, for me. It sometimes feels like you re not allowed to love something unless you re also convinced that it could be ruined at any moment—that every change, or absence of change, is a disaster. This attitude gives developers no room to move, and can turn exciting reveals sour in moments.

Valve released a new hero for Dota 2 this week, Oracle, along with an event associated with a premium item for Phantom Assassin. This is the first event to substantially interact with the playing of regular matches, and as such its implementation warrants some scrutiny. But that s not what I d call the reaction on Wednesday, when a leaked list of the event s features (many of them false) caused much wailing and gnashing of teeth. The community set to building THE END IS NIGH signs over a set of assumptions that didn t even turn out to be true: such a waste of energy.

Today s the first day of the Foreseer s Contract update and people seem to be having fun with the new systems. There are even reports that the event is encouraging greater cooperation between players. Valve s tinkering might just have yielded something fun and innovative, but it was still deemed a disaster before the truth was even out.

Tom Senior: Mob-o-geddon I m in a positive mood this week, so my low is secretly a second high (shhh, don t tell anyone), in that I ll use it to express frustration that I m not playing Lost Ark at this precise moment in time. I m a big fan of the ARPG genre, but as much as I enjoyed Path of Exile s cerebral charms, I ve always wanted someone to push the genre to new heights of lunacy. Lost Ark lets you sail around the world fighting huge ghost ships. One of the classes lets you shoot huge dragons at mobs, or summon god-sized elemental beings to stomp on enemies. Watch the trailer and just look at how big those mobs are. Look at how pretty it all is. Damnit, hurry up and get on my PC.

Tim Clark: Crying foul  Continuing with Tom s definition-bending theme, my low eventually became a high. We took some flak behind the scenes this week from Ubisoft, who weren t pleased that we d referenced the recent buggy launch of Assassin s Creed: Unity when we explained why our Far Cry 4 review was late, and that in the interim buyers should probably exercise caution until the state of the PC code could be confirmed. I mean, god forbid a company s blockbuster game should be mentioned in the same breath as another blockbuster a game it released a few days previously.

In the end I think our scepticism was justified, given that the publisher had to create a live updates site to deal with the brace of patches needed on release. For the first 24 hours I couldn t get the game past the menu screen without it crashing, on a PC that ought to have been capable of handling it on Ultra without breaking a sweat. Andy had a happier time, as his review in progress notes. The full verdict will be up early next week. Here s where things cheer up for me too: With both patches applied and a new driver installed, Far Cry 4 is now running fine. Better than that, in fact, it looks absolutely sensational—as this video which the other Tom made shows. I can t wait to make the inhabitants of Kryat s acquaintance. A weekend of extreme taxidermy awaits.

Shaun Prescott: Official VR support for GTA 5 seems unlikely With the arrival of GTA 5 s first-person mode on new generation consoles, and its release for PC in January, it seemed inevitable that VR would come into the equation somehow. Indeed, it seems like the only valid reason a studio would bother retrofitting a whole new perspective into an already immensely popular game. Alas, comments this week by Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick seem to indicate that VR won t be officially supported (Take-Two is Rockstar s parent company). Zelnick thinks the industry isn t ready for VR yet, and while there s little doubt that enterprising modders will get it going, it s still a little disheartening.

Phil Savage: Expecting the Inquisition Last week, we successfully landed a probe on a comet. In space! This is a thing that people envisioned and built and made happen. Given this—and, while we're at it, given the entire scope and wonderment of human achievement—how come we still can't release a video game on the same day worldwide?

Dragon Age: Inquisition has only today been released in the UK. The USA and others have had it since Tuesday. A few extra days might not seem like much, but it's a story based game and the internet exists. People are rightly precious about spoilers, because discovering the story is part of the pleasure. And yet, the risks are now out there. YouTube is filled with cutscenes of late-game missions, wikis are being updated with newly learned fates, and pricks are simply being pricks. We don't communicate across national lines any more, but our media is still held back based on arcane contractual tradition. That these restrictions are so easy to circumvent reveals them for what they are: artificial restraints with no justification or benefit.

Tyler Wilde: I want to walk in Dragon Age: Inquisition I m really enjoying Dragon Age: Inquisition, but one thing is bugging me (well, aside from the stuttering, but I m hoping the latest Nvidia drivers solve that.) I can t walk. This is a big deal. Seriously.

With a controller, a light touch on the analog stick triggers the walking animation. But I am not using a controller, and there s no key to toggle walking. It s driving me crazy. I spent an hour making my character just right (she looks a bit like Mireille Enos in The Killing), and now she bolts around everywhere like an idiot. Mireille Enos doesn t run everywhere! She walks purposefully. If she s going to have a conversation with someone, she doesn t sprint into their faces, bashing nose against nose. YOU WANTED TO TALK? No. She walks. Calmly. Like a human being.

Thank goodness I m not the only one asking for walking, and Creative Director Mike Laidlaw is on the case. Unfortunately, BioWare sort of needs to make sure the game is working for everybody before addressing a design issue like this. I guess that s more important. But I can t wait for the walking patch.

PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2. Well, mostly about Dota 2. Image via ESL's Flickr account, credit Helena Kristiansson.

I'm going to try something a little different this week. It might be alarming, and I don't want you to panic. This week's column is not going to be entirely about Dota 2. It's going to be about a related game, Smite, and a recent experience that has helped express something I've been considering about competitive games in general. A lot of the things I've learned and written about while playing Dota could apply to Smite, League of Legends, Counter-Strike, or any other team game: this is simply the furthest I've ever taken that notion.

The Smite pro scene is currently undertaking a run of regional championships to determine which eight teams will earn a place at the $1.3m World Championship in January. Last weekend I attended the European finals in Cologne, a modest event by modern Dota standards but a reminder of how exciting it can be when an e-sport is still finding its feet. The Smite scene is young, and it lacks the history, orthodoxy, and to an extent the politics of professional Dota 2 or League. You should be watching Smite right now because this lack of precedent means that upsets are more likely, bringing the personalities of individual teams and players to the fore.

(It also means that there are a load of UK players in the scene, which was such a novelty I'm still not sure I believe it. I'm so used to encountering my countrymen exclusively as casters and personalities that meeting a British pro player elicits genuine delight and surprise, like seeing a cool dog in the pub.)

Nobody has successfully codified what makes a professional gaming team effective—or an amateur team, for that matter. There's a lot of chaos in the system, and few formalised practices regarding coaching, management, or training. Underprepared teams sometimes win through superlative skill; prepared teams sometimes win through collective discipline. Sometimes there's a little of both, and sometimes there's no pattern at all. I followed Alliance because of the attitude expressed by Loda during this interview; I also understand why old-Na'Vi and their particular swagger drew the approval it did (and does).

E-sports are, I think, a few years away from approaching the kind of stability encountered in traditional sport—and I don't think there's anything to be done to speed up the process of getting there. The only power we do have, as fans and players and managers, is to decide what we're going to focus on: what approaches to play that we'll celebrate, which attitudes we'll try to imitate. It's in this way that it's possible to exert a degree over control over the tone of a game, whether that's just for you or your friends or for the community as a whole.

There is, I think, a natural but problematic imbalance in the kinds of top-level plays that garner attention. Specifically, it tends to be solo players and virtuoso moments that hold the most sway over the minds of the community. It's easier to build narratives around individuals than teams, and it's easier to imagine yourself as the game-winning lone wolf than it is to see yourself as the guy who really knows how to ward. This is the essential root of every drafting disaster that has ever happened to you in ranked matchmaking. It's why people seek other individuals to blame to preserve their own ego. It's why the community flips out about solo MMR in what is fundamentally a team game.

The reason I want to celebrate teams that win the other way is because it sends a message to the community: things do not need to be the way they are. When a team's collective strength is their greatest attribute then it suggests a better way for players to interact with one another. The best recent example of this that I can think of took place in Cologne, in Smite, when Aquila (a Cognitive Gaming team) stormed the regionals through determination, preparation, and teamwork.

Aquila are more or less the dream, as far as e-sports success stories go. They missed out on inclusion in the Smite Pro League by a single game and had to fight their way into the regional championships through the Challenger Cup, also known as the amateur league. They had their own coach and analyst before being picked up by Cognitive but are otherwise fresh to the circuit—Cologne was their first LAN. While certainly underdogs, there was nothing scrappy about their approach to the game.

"I don't think any other teams prepare in quite the same way as we do" team captain Nate 'Ataraxia' Mark told me after their first match. "We're much more formal."

And what a first match. Notable chiefly for featuring the most profound upset in competitive Smite, Aquila vs. Cloud9 turned on a dime when the latter refused to press their advantage in the second game to close out the set 2-0. C9 were maybe two or three auto-attacks from ending the match when they backed off, and while the obvious narrative here is that they threw the game, they were able to throw it because Aquila kept their shit together in the face of first-round elimination.

"No-one was saying anything bad" Ataraxia said. "Everybody kept positive, which is fantastic—especially [support player] KanyeLife. He never gave up. He was always upbeat, always positive."

That ability to keep their heads in the game ultimately turned that game around, and the momentum from the win carried them through the decider. Then they defeated Fnatic 3-2, claiming a spot at the World Championships; finally they beat SK Gaming 2-0, earning the European title. Both of those victories were at the expense of teams that prioritised their star players—Xaliea for Fnatic, Realzx (and increasingly maniaKK) for SK.

Aquila's playstyle stood out to me because, unique among the Smite teams I watched, they valued objectives and efficient rotations over raw individual fighting power—something that the game emphasises given its focus on action. They are extremely disciplined (a little like 6.79-era Alliance or recent Virtus Pro, Dota fans) and I wasn't surprised to hear that they're known for how seriously they take match preparation.

"I'm kind of strict on the guys" said Aquila coach Job 'CaptCoach' Hilbers. "Around some of the other teams, there's not really a strict format. I set up a training schedule, make sure that everybody's on time and that they get everything they need. I make sure that they can fully focus on the game."

There's this notion that creeps around the competitive gaming scene that preparing beyond a certain point is trying too hard: that it's better to win without the effort, if you can, and that strat spreadsheets should be the preserve of teams whose shirts are already covered in sponsor logos, rather than the ones that want to get there. CaptCoach sees it differently: preparation is something that comes naturally as a consequence of the team's hunger to win.

"We keep very close track of what other teams are doing" he says. "And something that a lot of teams forget is that you yourself also need to look at what you are doing. We analyse ourselves like we analyse others so we know what they're going to see—what our weak spots are. Then I want to eradicate those."

Self-knowledge is, I think, the difference between a good team and a potentially great one: it's the answer to ego, and ego is pretty much the root of all evil in a competitive context (the caveat here being that evil is fun.) "There are teams where you have star players that get pulled ahead" CaptCoach says. "I try to keep everybody level, make sure that everybody's comfortable. That's my most important job."

I wish that 'comfort' was more highly regarded, as an attitude to competition. Comfortable players don't rage or look for somebody to blame: they don't demand particular heroes or roles or lose their minds when told what to do. It is, inevitably, harder to identify heroes to worship when what makes a team special is the fact that they have no heroes; but it's also important. The community would do well to celebrate the successes of teams that genuinely and seriously treat each other as equals—no matter how cheesy those prematch fist-bumps can be.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer
There is only sadness in Aztec. Sadness and moss.

Valve shoveled some new maps into CS:GO last week, and a couple of them are quite good. Where do these new P90 playgrounds rank alongside CS capitals like de_dust2 and de_inferno? I took a moment to rate every map in the current build.

A few things:

  • I m excluding maps that aren t in the current rotation (e.g. de_blackgold)
  • I m also excluding Demolition and Arms Race maps, because c mon
  • I m mostly judging these maps by how they play in 5-on-5 Competitive mode, which is how you should be playing CS:GO (regardless of your skill level)

The key criteria here is: Would I play this map instead of the one below it? 

RANK MAP COMMENTS

1

de_mirage

Mirage is your favorite bagel, toasted evenly. Mirage is a warm, unembarrassing hug from your grandmother. Mirage surfaces the best things about CS:GO. Every entry point in Mirage presents interesting, complementary risks and rewards. Pushing cat to B as a Terrorist is a great example of this: you have to smoke the A connector to do it safely, but that action in and of itself expresses your intention to bring the bomb to B. Adjacent map areas, like apartments and underpass, or ladder room and sniper window, have strong relationships to one another. Map timings at mid window, A ramp, the van at B are all deliberately tuned. The bombsites are tough to take and relatively tough to defend, and the CTs have sneaky options to turn defense into offense in apartments, underpass, and palace. Play Mirage.

2

de_season

FMPONE took an average-looking, underappreciated CS map and gave it a gorgeous, high-contrast makeover for Operation Vanguard. The revamp not only gives Season a coherent, original theme for the first time (Japanese laboratory), it also improves how it plays. Patches of bright mustard yellow (on bombsite B) and leaf green (on A) punctuate the sterile white, improving map orientation and making it easier to spot enemies.

3

de_inferno

CTs have a positional edge on Inferno, but I love that the Terrorists have plenty of options for outsmarting, out-aiming, or overwhelming them. And I love the way Inferno challenges you to throw smart grenades. When and whether to smoke mid, or how you flash into B takes intuition and practice. A series of T-shaped intersections facilitate this: mid, arch, at the banana exit to bombsite B. And unlike hilariously one-sided maps like Aztec, the CTs must make hard decisions about which areas of the map they feel comfortable giving up, like boiler or the busted car inside banana.

4

de_dust2

The Toyota Camry of Counter-Strike. Dust2 is reliably fun but a victim of its own popularity. It has the easy to learn, hard to master quality we value in games, with the sniping lane down mid being a great example of the latter. Re-taking bombsite B, despite three entry points, is satisfyingly tough for the CTs. Both teams have to hurry to occupy the junction at long A, a perfectly-timed early-round flashpoint. It s wonderful. Can everyone stop playing it, please?

5

de_cache

Cache is delicious oatmeal: a bit bland, but healthy. No corner of Cache is superfluous—its uncomplicated three-lane structure is gimmick-free. The tiny vent entrance to B is about as unconventional as Cache gets. That leaves us with a pure competitive map—it couldn't be more obvious that Cache was co-designed by a pro player.

6

cs_office

Office is simpler than a one-color Rubik s cube, but I have a lot of affection for this comforting camper s paradise. Blowing holes in the mundane, corporate setting remains a big part of the appeal. Shoulder-peeking and entry grenades are the name of the game for the CTs: Office is about small-scale execution of these maneuvers rather than larger map-level tactics, and I like its focus for that reason, but it s also a map that ll earn you bad habits if you overplay it.

7

de_facade

I m still getting the hang of Facade. I like its raised ledge at mid, which overlooks a pair of dust2-like double doors, forming a treacherous no-man s land. I like the complex configuration of bombsite B, and that it s countered a bit by open windows that beg to have flash grenades thrown through. On the other hand, rotation from one bombsite to another is cumbersome and slow, especially from A to B.

8

de_nuke

I guess it s possible for Nuke to be more CT-sided than it already is. For instance, the Terrorists could spawn inside a room filled with hungry cobras, or inside an Olive Garden that s just run out of breadsticks. Nuke s mid-less configuration and the rafters above A put the Terrorists at a major disadvantage. There s also some lingering sound problems on the map, especially with Z-axis audio behavior. Despite these issues, it remains a mainstay: the same asymmetry that makes it tough for the Ts gives it a unique feel: no other map stacks its bombsites atop one another, for example.

9

cs_workout

Do you even yoga, bro? This is actually a really nice gym. But it kind of looks like a school? Anyway, Workout is a colorful three-lane map with some interesting stuff happening around T spawn (an awkward middle stairway; a pool area with plentiful hiding spots). I ve had enjoyable rounds on Workout, but mid, the long lane to T spawn, and the middle fountain area are a bit too spacious for 5-on-5 play. It can suck the fun out of the map if the hostages spawn closely together, too. I also don t like how viable the autosniper can be for Ts on this map, but Workout gets points for style and color from me.

10

de_overpass

Overpass' unusual layout is both its appeal and a tiny shortcoming, I think. B is one of the most unique bombsites in the game, an exposed concrete perch that the CTs have an elevated line of sight on. The map prompts plenty of tough decisions: A is tougher for the Ts to take but easier to hold. CTs can set themselves up to flank if they scout the tunnel connector aggressively, which can be countered if one or two Ts lurk silently there.

11

de_train

No classic CS map is more argued over than Train. For many matchmakers it s a mainstay, but some displeased players have gone so far to revise the map themselves. One thing s certain: the Terrorists face rough odds on bombsite A—even rushing at full speed, the CTs are always able to put themselves in a better position more quickly. Dark areas in the train tunnels put the Ts at further disadvantage. For better and worse, the map takes a ton of coordinated grenades to solve on the Terrorist side, making solo-queueing on it a pain.

12

de_marquis

My rounds on Marquis have been inexplicably positive, despite all the late-round wandering the map inspires. Terrorists face a collar-tuggingly terrifying route to A on this Operation Vanguard newcomer: long, narrow, and then uphill. B isn t much better, a bite-sized bombsite that s unusually vulnerable to frags and firebombs from three potential entrances. Some of the hiding spots and elbows underground feel pointless to me. The subway setting is at least a convincing combination of weathered graffiti and loose equipment.

13

de_bazaar

I ve been having an okay time with Bazaar since it released last week. It s a conventional three-lane map with an AWP-friendly mid, albeit with a couple variations: its connectors are weird (like the S-shaped zig-zag from mid to B), and mid has a left- and right-side entrance for both teams. One thing that s missing here is some decor: Bazaar is 80% unpainted walls and grey brick, giving the map an unfinished feel. More landmarks would inspire better map callouts, too.

14

cs_backalley

CS 1.6 map Backalley has found its way back into the game. I enjoy Backalley a lot in casual play, where throwing bodies at chokepoints to solve problems becomes standard tactics. In 5-on-5, though, the map s vertical areas become pretty superfluous. I like the urban, vagely criminal feel of it, but its biggest issue from a competitive standpoint is that the CTs only have one narrow, deadly entry option on either side.

15

de_dust

Dust2 s big brother has effectively been retired from competitive play altogether, and these days it s valued for its nostalgia. The route alterations Valve made to Dust when CS:GO released were welcome, but no amount of reengineering can change the fact that both bombsites are absolutely buried in CT turf. It s a piece of history, but hasn t held up as well as most of CS stock maps in Global Offensive.

16

cs_assault

Assault is the siege-iest of CS' campy hostage maps. The CTs' entry options are universally bad, clumsily mitigated in CS:GO by the addition of glass windows on the facility rooftop. Pressure through these skylights forces the Ts to turtle even more, opening up chances for braver CTs to break through the front and back doors. There's not much for Ts to do here but make like paranoid conspiracy theorists and point their guns at their own doors.

17

cs_italy

Like Assault, rounds of Italy drag on longer than seasons of Dragon Ball Z. Valve tried to lure lazy Terrorists away from the hostage house by moving one of the prisoners into the wine cellar near the center of the map, but old habits die hard: Italy is still a haven for selfish snipers. Though it d definitely be higher up on this list if the Pavarotti song that played on the radio in CS and CS:S hadn t been cut from the map, presumably for copyright reasons. Lawyers make bad map designers.

18

de_aztec

Huitzilopochtli, Aztec god of multiplayer maps, is not pleased. Someone at Valve clearly didn t make the correct sacrificial offering. In anger, Huitzilopochtli conspired to give CTs every conceivable advantage: bombsites that are steps away from CT spawn, a bridge that crosses the open air, a horrific ramp, and double doors that open out into two AWP lines for the Terrorists. Temple of Doom indeed.

19

de_cbble

Hey, I ve got an idea: let s make a map with a massive courtyard overlooked by sniper nests that no one will ever, ever use. Cobblestone in its current form has no business being in the competitive rotation. The action strictly happens around the bombsites, where the Ts have to make treacherous crossings in the open in order to plant the bomb. That said, this moment by f0rest was one of my favorites from the ESL One Cologne tournament.

20

cs_militia

Militia s days as a charming pub map in CS 1.6 are well dead. Its art embraces the hostage theme in a way I like (sewers, creepy sheds), but the extensive modifications Valve made to the front yard are messy, and they haven t done much to make Militia more than a misshapen sniping arena. 5-on-5, you can go multiple rounds without seeing anyone depending on which route you take.

21

de_vertigo

Moms don t let their babies grow up to design square-shaped maps. Vertigo s OK as a meat-grindery, 12-on-12, casual romp, but as a competitive map it invites no interesting tactics or tough decisions. Let s review the Terrorists options: 1) attack up an exposed ramp 2) attack up an exposed stairway. There s no backtracking, secondary routes, or opportunities for trickery: just two teams headbutting. Don t.
PC Gamer
Why I Love

In Why I Love, PC Gamer writers pick an aspect of PC gaming that they love and write about why it's brilliant. Today, Phil explains why he loves a character most people only love to hate.

What's the best stealth class in Team Fortress 2?

No, you're wrong.

It's not the Spy. You can't be the best stealth class if you've got a watch that literally makes you invisible. That's cheating.

The best stealth class in TF2 is the Scout. And he is a stealth class. He's frail, but fast quickly killed by a Heavy's minigun or an Engineer's sentry, but able to retreat and reposition for a different approach.

There are two things, specifically, that I love about the Scout. The first is the way he moves. I adore games that offer interesting methods of locomotion. The Scout is fast, and has a double-jump that lets you change direction mid-air. This makes slipping past, around or away from enemies feel great. It's no longer good enough for me to get where I need to go. I need to get there with style.

Stealth is an important part of this. A great Scout will, to the enemy team, appear to be everywhere at once: on their control points, patrolling their corridors and running full bore into their front line. Battles are about the constant flow of position—of where you are relative to everyone else, and of where you need to go in order to be where they least expect. It's not just that you can outrun your opponents; it's that you can outmaneuvere them. This challenge is why I've spent 300+ hours in TF2, and almost 50 hours as its annoying, scrawny shotgun wielder.

The second thing I love about the Scout is that he's a jerk. The Scout's job is to be annoying. There are specific feelings for being killed by each of TF2's classes. Being killed by a Heavy or Pyro feels like the continuation of some natural order. They are forces of nature (or, at least, of fire and meat). Being killed by an Engineer, Spy or Sniper is more cerebral. It's a tactical death—a specific and immediate punishment for a mistake. Being killed by the Soldier or Demoman is annoying, because you'll swear it was a fluke, and also because deep down you'll know that it wasn't.

Being killed by a Medic is, for the most part, humiliating. It's the Medic. The clue is in the name.

Being killed by the Scout is infuriating. The level to which it's infuriating is the result of a complicated formula based on a) how much you are currently sucking, b) how much your team are currently sucking, and c) if the Scout has a Force-A-Nature equipped. I have been specifically and graphically told how infuriating it is in hastily typed strings of four-lettered anger.

I should come clean here: I'm not just a Scout, I'm an unreformed Scout. The abuse is perverse positive feedback. It's how I know I'm credit to team.

For me, both of these loves combined into a single, terrible playstyle when Valve introduced King of the Hill mode, and specifically the maps Nucleus and Sawmill. Both are small—filled with side-routes and escape points. More importantly, both are covered in traps.

A scenario: a Heavy is capping Sawmill's centre point. An opposing Scout is running directly at his back. The opposing Scout has a Force-A-Nature equipped. He gets in close, fires, and watches as the shotgun's knockback flings the Heavy into the spinning buzzsaws. Do you know how angry the Heavy player feels in that moment? Conversely, do you know how elated the Scout player feels?

Based on his abilities, Valve's portrayal of the Scout is perfect. He is a jerk, through attitude as well as deed. It's not just a hint as to how he's best played, but a reward to anyone who manages to kill him. As fun as it is to kill with him, I recognise the catharsis for those who get revenge. In this way an uneasy balance is achieved.

PC Gamer

November 16th, 2004 was a red letter day on both sides of the screen. The original Half-Life had redefined the FPS as an immersive experience instead of merely a series of missions, and no-one expected its follow-up to do anything less. Few were disappointed. In City 17, Valve created one of the most coherent and ambitious worlds ever seen in gaming—and if it looks a little primitive now, it s because so many since have followed in its footsteps. BioShock Infinite s opening for instance works almost entirely to Half-Life 2 s now dog-eared playbook, offering greater fidelity and a more exciting city, but recognizably the same style.

What Half-Life 2 really brought to the industry wasn t new ideas… though it absolutely had them… but demonstration after demonstration of how things both could and should be. Alyx Vance for instance was an effective sidekick and a fun character, but it was her ability to make a connection with the player through things like eye contact that elevated her above her others—something shared by fellow Source engine game Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines, especially with characters like Jeanette and your pet ghoul Heather. She could shoot a worried look. She could smile, and have the smile go further than her lips. She could go directly from being your wing-woman to interacting with the world, from having conversations to fixing something, all as smoothly as Half-Life managed to never break perspective as you went from random lab geek to savior of two different worlds. She d even climb and vault over things instead of simply walking around the old fashioned way, easier as that would have been to script.

That sense of flow is what really defined Half-Life 2—sequences bleeding into one another to create the feel of an unbroken journey (give or take a loading screen). It was a game of smooth traversal around the maps, of combat bleeding into story, and each major section, most famously zombified Ravenholm, casually experimenting with the formula. Every cool bit offered something new and most left us wanting more, even if the radical shifts did take away much of the original Half-Life s thematic consistency. Every not-so-cool bit, like the dull start of Sandtraps (a vehicle section that paled in comparison to what Valve was able to pull off by Episode 2) was short enough not to be that big a deal, and something else was always on its way. While admittedly the story sequences are interminable by modern standards, the action was all about peaks and troughs that allowed both intensity and time to savor the craft.

On top of that came the details; a hundred things designed to be absorbed rather than directly noticed. The soundscape for instance, with the Combine announcements using medical terminology to describe uprising—Gordon Freeman as a staph infection —or the Combine s logo—an outreached claw almost, but not quite, absorbing a small world. It s a subtle detail, but one of many told through level design rather than audio logs or cutscenes. Others include visiting rusted playgrounds of a world without children, and seeing the empty seas that have left ships high and dry—the terraforming inflicted on the natural world mirroring the shift from old and human to new and alien that you see throughout City 17.

One of the most subtle, though much borrowed since, is the way that Valve tends to show new mechanics off three times—first with no pressure, then some pressure, and then for real to be sure the player has grasped and understood it, before it becomes an assumed skill. The gravity gun for instance. First you just move a solid box into position to meet Alyx. Then her robot Dog throws other boxes at you for you to catch. Then, it s zombie fighting time.

Speaking of fighting zombies, we can t overlook the physics engine—used in Ravenholm to let you hurl sawblades. Half-Life 2 was one of the first FPS games to go big on physics, for two basic uses. The first was, honestly, showing off. They were a novelty then, which came through in a lot of puzzles like pushing barrels under a platform to be able to cross it. Looking back, they re a little eye-rolling. At the time though, they were pretty cool. It s no secret that Half-Life 2 was at least in part a demo of Source, with these bits standing out even at the time as largely the equivalent of early 3D card lens flare effects. Cool, but gimmicky. When it showed them off, or put us in a vehicle, it was at least partly saying Look what we can do!

The big benefit though was creating a world that felt right, in stark contrast to the largely static worlds of the previous generation; of games like Return To Castle Wolfenstein and Medal of Honor. Again, yes, it s a bit showy to have a guard at the start insist you pick up and throw a cup into a trash can just to shout PHYSICS! What mattered though was that from there you both feel the benefit of them in every interaction with the world, big and small, and immediately start bemoaning their absence in any game that doesn t have them. The rolling and floating of flaming barrels in water. Debris flying off as it felt like it should.

It all added, in much the same way that the original Half-Life s responsive skeletal animation system instantly made conventional frame-based animations intolerably stiff. When Valve called its behind-the-scenes book Raising The Bar, it wasn t kidding. Half-Life 2 was an amazing game, but its crucial, lasting influence was less about the new things it did (as important as they ve been) as showing how the familiar deserved to be done.

Unforeseen consequences

Which of course brings us to its shining achievement—Steam. To sum up Steam s unpopularity in 2004 would leave no words left to describe ebola, lawyers, or Piers Morgan. And not without cause. It was buggy, it was ugly, there was no missing that Valve was outright forcing it down our throats out of nowhere, and the much crappier bandwidth of the day made being told to download games of this size almost offensive in its arrogance. It would be a long, long time before Steam even got close to the service that at least most of us know and love today, instead of its name just getting tacked onto the words ing pile of shit.

But. With Half-Life 2, Valve had a game that managed to get the necessary traction to create the service we know today, and while nobody would claim it s perfect, nothing else has done so much to legitimize and make digital distribution work. Much as it took Apple to break the music industry s obsession with DRM on MP3 files, it took Steam to show the whole industry that the game had changed. The idea that you d be able to redownload your games in perpetuity for instance was heresy to companies that at best wanted that to be another service. Being able to download them onto any machine instead of them being locked to a single PC, or maybe three, or five? That just wasn t done. Valve was the first major company to build a digital download service that people actually wanted to use, that made the experience of buying games online better. Without Half-Life 2 though, who would have used it? Without that audience, who would ever have agreed to let a competitor sell their games? Half-Life 2 didn t just give the FPS a shot in the arm, it changed the entire industry.

It wasn t a perfect game. It was far more a series of cool things than Half-Life s journey, it was heartbreaking to be taken out of City 17 almost immediately in favor of being consigned to the countryside, the story was primitive and a few of the set-pieces dragged on far too long. It held up pretty well for years, but looking back, yes, it s now a bit long in the tooth. Few games though have had a more lasting impact in so many ways, or can be deservedly held up as both paragon and pioneer. Fewer still have done it so well, they re still being copied a decade later.

Now then, Valve, about that Half-Life 3…

PC Gamer
PC Gamer

Three Lane Highway is Chris' weekly column about Dota 2. Artwork is 'Tidehunter' by MikeAzevedo.

I'm playing through Dragon Age: Inquisition at the moment. It's great—probably my game of the year—and you should  read about that elsewhere. Its greatness isn't what I want to talk about right now. Yesterday, I made a decision in the game that actually broke my heart. I picked a dialogue choice from a list and something happened that made me so unhappy I had to take a break from the game. I thought about it, and talked to Phil, our News Editor, who has finished the campaign, and then I went back and unmade that decision. Normally, I would never do that. But this time I decided that I didn't want to be sad and so I loaded a save and picked the other option from the list.

That is how 'regret' most commonly manifests in your experience of playing a game. You go back and replay the section and alter your decisions, or play with more skill, and you bring about an outcome that you're happy with. Even in competitive games, where exact repeats are less likely, there are still scenarios that you can vow to approach differently: next time, they won't get the flag out through the back entrance. Next time, I won't fall for a Dark Templar rush.

Dota 2 is a little different, at least in my experience of it. The individual components that make up a given competitive scenario are so complicated that you never really get repeats: you might experience a base race more than once, but it's very unlikely that you'll ever experience the same base race again. Your hero, your friends' heroes, your enemies heroes; who's alive, who's dead, who has buyback; items, ultimates, cooldowns. All of these things matter enormously. They all factor in to the decisions you make, and when you make the wrong decision it can be as heartbreaking as watching a tragedy unfold in a singleplayer RPG.

Last weekend I played another round in the games industry amateur Dota 2 league,  The Rektreational. My team, Venomancer? I Hardly Know Her, doesn't really practice. Actually, there's no need for 'really'—we don't practice. I jump into games with Pyrion, Shane and Phill from time to time and play with Pip a little more regularly, but as a stack our only experience of playing together is these matches. This means that the first games are always a little rough.

Our first game against League of Legends (best team name in the tournament, there) was more than a little rough. And we should have won, but I made a big mistake. With their carries dead but our ancient exposed we charged down mid and went straight for the throne. As Tidehunter with a Refresher Orb, I was sitting on a double Ravage: I felt confident that we could push through the three remaining supports and take the game. But they weren't there.

LOL pulled an Alliance-in-TI3 and bought Boots of Travel, closing in on our ancient as we took down their tier four towers. I should have teleported back then and there, but I didn't have a scroll. Stupid. I hesitated, thinking there might still be defenders in their base, and waited slightly too long before running to their fountain to buy a town portal and jump back. I ran from the fountain, Blink Dagger on cooldown, to try to get their supports in range of Ravage. I was maybe 200 units away when our ancient exploded—and among those tumbling fragments of our game-critical glowy rock garden were little shards of my self-regard. I was gutted. And you can't go back and fix that.

I'll never encounter that scenario again, and I'll never get to unmake that mistake. It just happened that way. One of the things that can be so frustrating about learning Dota 2 is that you can learn to recognise the mistake but the process of implementing that knowledge takes years to bear any kind of fruit. Another example: last night, in a JoinDota League match, my team successfully ganked a way-too-farmed Spectre carrying an Aegis. As soon as she fell we got ready to fight again. A thought wormed through my mind: their Tidehunter probably has Ravage. Brewmaster probably has Primal Split. They've got time to get here. We're probably already--

dead.

Whose fault was that? I genuinely do not know. Perhaps we were only delaying the inevitable. Perhaps I should have said something, or said it more clearly. Maybe the other members of my team should have seen what I saw coming too, and overcome the natural human urge to cooperate enough to back off on their own. Trying to unpick that game-ending catastrophe is like trying to unpick any other act of irrecoverable bad luck and failure—the unshakeable minor grief of missing the bus to somewhere really important. Except with wizards.

You can vow to do things differently next time, but that's only realistic to a point. You've probably learned something, but you'll probably never know: next time will always be different, and the reasons for your success and failure then won't necessary have much to do with how much you do (or don't) learn now

Instead, the conclusion I've arrived at is this: that making a mistake is, in some ways, its own reward. The feeling of recognising a mistake, horrible though it might be, is the only sign you are going to get that you are improving at the game. You were not a good player in that moment, but you are aware of some of the reasons why. You can never guarantee that you'll fix those problems, so you have to learn to derive satisfaction from your awareness of them. There are no repeats. But there is always the ongoing linear progress of your understanding, a mass of experience that can only ever be grown, never diminished, by the things you regret.

I still wish I'd teleported earlier.

To read more Three Lane Highway, click here.

PC Gamer

Time again for Valve to unleash CS:GO players upon six newly chosen community maps. Operation Vanguard is the fifth such event, and is now available for purchase. With it, you'll not only get official server access to the community maps, but also a new "Operation Campaigns" system.

"A Campaign is comprised of a series of missions," explains Valve. "Completing a mission results in a Vanguard case drop, or a random drop from an existing weapon collection. Complete a sequence of missions within a Campaign to earn Challenge Stars and upgrade your Operation Vanguard Challenge Coin."

In addition, Arms Race mode has received an update—adding new rules and three new maps. To see a run-down of the how the mode now works, head over to Valve's official guide.

Vanguard is available now. For a full explanation of its changes, charge over to the Operation's micro-site.

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