Dota 2

In the PC Gamer Q&A, we ask our panel of writers a question about games. This week, the theme is neglecting loved ones. Which game have you snuck off from family to play during the holidays? Let us know your suggestions in the comments. 

Jody Macgregor: Terminal Velocity 

Terminal Velocity was one of the only shareware games I owned the full version of, thanks to a rich uncle who was my main source of videogames. (He also gave me a copy of the original Warcraft, which I still have in a jewel case somewhere.) It was a flight sim that played like a first-person shooter, similar to Descent but with more open levels where you flew through the sky over alien planets. After I unwrapped Terminal Velocity I spent the rest of the holiday ignoring the rellies to play it, and I still remember the way trees popped into sight before the ground they sat on, the way Target Destroyed appeared up in big white letters every time you turned an installation into a blocky explosion, and the sections where you flew inside the planet through hexagonal tunnels and I always hit the sides.I tracked down a digital copy a while back but still haven't played it again. It's enough to know that it's there in case I ever feel the need to get away from everyone. I bet I'll still get crushed by the steel doors that iris shut in the tunnels.

Andy Kelly: Euro Truck Simulator 2

Spending time with family and all that other holiday stuff is fine, sure, for a bit. But sometimes I get the urge. The urge to truck. This festive period I'll be enjoying a bit of Euro Truck Simulator 2, which has recently been expanded to include Italy. So while people are watching films they already own on DVD on the telly, peppered with adverts for January sofa sales, I'll be delivering 16 tonnes of ice-cream from Rome to Milan. But because it's the holidays I'll be doing it accompanied by rich chocolates and luxury ales. Keep on truckin'? I never stop, mate.

Philippa Warr: Dota 2

Let me tell you about a small, obscure game you may not have heard of: Dota 2. A few years ago it was a far bigger part of my life. Writing about it as a freelancer helped me pay my bills and playing it with a regular crew helped me build up a framework of friendships, new and old, after a horribly drawn-out breakup. As a result it ended up as part of my new routine and I leant on it during newly solitary holiday periods. Playing Dota 2 on my terrible laptop over Christmas in 2012 during an in-game event called The Greeviling is one of my fondest memories in gaming. It was daft, it was funny and it was time with people I love.

Tim Clark: Metroid Prime

Will anyone mind if I answer a console game? Probably, but on we go regardless. One Christmas I received Metroid Prime for the GameCube, and managed to make it to the first boss just as Christmas lunch was being served. Without being able to save before the boss, I refused to sit down and eat (bear in mind I would have been 26 at the time) until the fight was done. Somehow, despite the stress induced by my mother's obvious fury, I managed to down the boss with only a sliver of health to spare. But as soon as I entered the corridor leading from the boss room to the save point a small bat flew into my head and killed me. With it went several hours of progress. I sat silent for the most of the meal, cheeks burning with a mix of shame and resentment. The most magical time of the year. 

Samuel Roberts: Assassin's Creed Brotherhood

A few Christmases ago, instead of politely talking to my parents while they were making dinner, I sat in my room and played the challenge rooms of Assassin's Creed Brotherhood over and over again. First, it taught me that this game has some amazing kill animations, and secondly, I learned that Assassin's Creed's combat really isn't the best match for score attack modes. Still, I appreciate that they tried. 

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Valve News Network reported a couple of weeks ago that the venerable online shooter Counter-Strike: Global Offensive might be getting a battle royale mode at some point in the future. But modder Kinsi wasn't willing to wait for it to happen, so they went ahead and created one of their own. 

Called Go 4 The Kill—or Go4TK, to save time and space—the mod features a map more than four times the size of Overpass, and three to four times larger than the Source engine normally allows. As Kotaku explains, it accomplishes this feat by breaking its map into sections separated by mountain ranges: Crossing the mountains places you into what is effectively another map, but everything is connected so you can move back and forth seamlessly. Despite the size of the playing field, performance should be roughly equivalent to conventional CS:GO maps because there's very little "'unnecessary' detail," aside from what's required to provide cover for players.

While PUBG is commonly cited as the battle royale standard-bearer, Kinsi said the inspiration for Go4TK came from a different game. "With Go4TK my aim was to combine two games that I like: King of the Kill and CS:GO," they wrote. "It was mainly meant to be a challenge for myself to push the boundaries of whats possible with server-side only CS:GO modding. From the ground up I've carefully handcrafted everything, be it the map in itself or the plugin allowing for the actual gameplay to ensure the best possible integration." 

There are some significant gameplay differences between Go4TK and CS:GO. Bullet drop and travel time are modeled, running will not reduce firing accuracy, weapons have randomized inaccuracy but no recoil patterns, ADS (aim down sight) is very important if you want to hit what you're shooting at, and if you get shot yourself, you'll bleed—and if you don't do something about it, you'll keep on bleeding until you die. It is also, despite being much larger than conventional CS:GO experiences, a smaller-scale experience than PUBG: Kotaku says the maximum player count is 20, while the Go4TK site says players per game is "targeted at 49."

Go 4 the Kill was actually released back in August, and work has continued since. There have been setbacks as well, most notably the shutdown of North American servers in November due to lack of interest. Kinsi said on Twitter that they might be brought back online soon, "thanks to a generous Redditor," although how long they'll be kept around will depend on how much use they see.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

For the first time ever, the UK Gambling Committee's year-end report on Young People and Gambling has looked into "awareness and participation rates" of skin gambling (if you're not sure what that is, here's a primer). The report states that, "based on the description provided within the questionnaire," 45 percent of children aged 11-16 knew about skin gambling, and 11 percent said they had placed bets with in-game items at some point in the past. 

"'Skins' are in-game items, used within some of the most popular video game titles. They provide cosmetic alterations to a player’s weapons, avatar or equipment used in the game," the report states. "Skins betting sites allow videogamers to wager cosmetic items rewarded in-game or purchased for real money on a digital marketplace, accessible from the UK for several years." 

A BBC report on the Gambling Commission paper leads with the statistics on skin gambling and then says that roughly 370,000 11-16 year olds in England, Scotland, and Wales reported spending their own money on gambling at least once in the prior week. But the context is misleading: The number is accurate, at least within the survey's margin of error, but it includes all forms of gambling, including slot machines, scratch cards, and wagers with friends ("five bucks says you can't make that jump"). Furthermore, the figure "represents a continuation of the longer-term decline seen since 2011," when 23 percent of 11-15 year-olds reported taking part in some form of gambling during the preceding week. 

Prevalence of gambling with in-game items increases with age, from three percent of 11 year-olds to 14 percent of 14-16 year-olds, and was higher among children who had spent money on other forms of gambling over the past week, or who had played "online gambling-style games," like casino games, slot machines, or poker. In fact, the rate of playing those games matches the incidence rate of skin gambling, at 11 percent.

It's the ability to convert in-game items into cash that denotes the activity as gambling for the purposes of the report, rather than the actual conversion itself—the fact that the skins could be converted into cash, not whether they actually were. That's also how the concept was introduced to survey respondents: "When playing computer games/app it is sometimes possible to collect in-game items (eg. weapons, power-ups and tokens). For some games, it is possible to bet these in-game items for the chance to win more of them." 

"The Gambling Commission takes the view that the ability to convert in-game items to cash, or to trade them (for other items of value) means they attain a real-world value and become articles of money or money’s worth. Where gambling facilities are offered to British consumers, including with the use of in-game items that can be converted into cash or traded (for items of value), a gambling license is required," the report says. "Tackling operators making gambling facilities available to children is one of the Gambling Commission’s priorities." 

In other words, it's the people running unlicensed gambling sites who are liable to be targeted by the Gambling Commission, and not the games themselves, or the companies who make them. In fact, earlier this year the commission successfully prosecuted YouTuber Craig "Nepenthez" Douglas and his business partner Dylan Rigby, who ran the FUT Galaxy website that enabled gambling on real-world soccer matches using FIFA 17 virtual currency. But that currency could also be exchanged for real money, which fell afoul of the UK's Gambling Act and cost the duo £255,000 ($340,00) in fines.   

"Because of these unlicensed skin betting sites, the safeguards that exist are not being applied and we're seeing examples of really young people, 11 and 12-year-olds, who are getting involved in skin betting, not realizing that it's gambling," Gambling Commission chief executive Sarah Harrison told the BBC. "At one level they are running up bills perhaps on their parents' Paypal account or credit card, but the wider effect is the introduction and normalization of this kind of gambling among children and young people." 

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

The FTC has finalized its settlement with Trevor "TmarTn" Martin and Tom "ProSyndicate" Cassell, the streamers who used their YouTube channels and other platforms to enthusiastically promote the skin gambling site CSGO Lotto without any indication that they happened to own 42.5% of CSGO Lotto. Some of Martin and Cassell's videos showed them achieving extraordinary wins on the site, and worked with other popular YouTuber friends to produce similar videos with titles like "1% CHANCE?! (CSGO Lotto)."

The initial settlement, reached in September, set new standards of disclosure on the two and the site, forbidding them "from misrepresenting that any endorser is an independent user or ordinary consumer of a product or service." 

Per the settlement, Martin and Cassell are forbidden from misrepresenting endorsers as independent consumers, must "clearly and conspicuously" disclose their endorsements and connections with other endorsers, submit a compliance report to the FTC in one year, and maintain a variety of records relating to their accounting, consumer complaints, marketing material, and personnel for the next 10 years.

No actual penalties were imposed, however, which didn't sit well with a few members of the public who took advantage of the commission's invitation to submit comments on the decision. "I am appalled and disgusted with this ruling. These two deserve a hefty fine, if not jail time, for knowingly misleading their largely adolescent fanbase into using a gambling website that they owned," Jack Thorpe wrote. "The items that were being traded on CSGO Lotto had real money value, and these two were pocketing millions from rigging a system that they owned." 

Another, using the name Maloney, noted that Martin and Cassell had "purposelessly deceived their audiences by pretending to have found CSGO Lotto and recommend to use it when in fact they owned it from the beginning." 

"I believe this deliberate action deserves a larger punishment than just warnings to not do it again," they wrote. "A precedent needs to be set in order to stop these malicious acts from further occurring." 

A third respondent, Christopher Jahn, acknowledged that the CSGO Lotto site had a clause in its TOS stating that users must be at least 18 years old, but then moved on to the obvious: "Let's be honest here, what teenager is actually going to abide by that, let alone even read it? Can you imagine a modern day teenager saying, 'Well, I'm not quite 18 yet, guess I'll be a law abiding citizen and go do something else'? No teenager is going to do that." 

These were the only three to comment, and their words were not enough to have an impact on the ruling. 

The full text of the FTC's CSGO Lotto settlement is available here, and you can get a closer look at what caused all the trouble in the first place in our explanation of CSGO skin gambling. A photo of clearly chastened TmarTn participating in a recent Call of Duty: WWII promotion is below.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

CS:GO skins and all other Steam Market items are subject to a $400 maximum listing price. Items are often sold for greater sums through key trades, a sub-currency of the CS:GO economy. A single CS:GO key costs $2.50 USD and can be sold on the Steam Marketplace. To break through the $400 ceiling, you convert your listing price to a key value. If you want to sell an item for $500, divide your listing price by the key value, 500 by 2.5: 200 keys. Most people use third-party trading websites to list CS:GO’s rarest wares, but once a trade is made, those keys can be sold back into the Steam Marketplace.

There are some skins in our list that definitely break that cap, but due to both the extraordinary rarity of these items and their inconsistent prices in the key market, we’ve pulled our best estimates from varying trading sites. These are subject to change on a whim, but remain impressive no matter how transitory.

[Updated 11/30/2017]

Guns

Souvenir AWP: Dragon Lore, ~ $4200 (10,000 keys)Dragon Lore, Field TestedThe Cobblestone Collection

The original Dragon Lore skin originally fetched a hefty $10,000, but this commemorative skin still commands a quaint $4,200, almost as if to say “Why have my scope flash off the morning sun when I can just use these totally rad gold stickers?”

This particular Dragon Lore commemorates the Grand Final match of the 2015 DreamHack Cluj-Napoca CS:GO Championship between Natus Vincere and Team EnVyUs, and is autographed by MVP Denis Koslin.

AK-47: Fire Serpent, $3200Fire Serpent, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Bravo Collection

I’m no economist, but does it say something that this skin is basically three times as expensive as a real-world AK-47? This holiday, please think of the less fortunate arms dealers, and buy this commemorative memento from the Operation Bravo: Ruins map. Let’s see a Precious Things statue spit fire like this.

M4A4: Howl, ~ $3700 (1500 keys)Howl, StatTrak Factory NewThe Huntsman Collection, May 2014

Turns out crime still pays. OK, technically it's mundane internet art theft,  but this bit of contraband still stands as one of the primo skins for competitive CS:GO enthusiasts, and it’s only getting rarer. 

The Howl's extraordinary price is due to the unusual controversy that followed it after release, which included the gun's removal from distribution—but not from owners' inventories. CS:GO stopped dropping new Howls long ago, so the lucky initial owners of this lion-faced piece of copyright infringement own one of the most coveted status symbols in the game. 

P90: Emerald Dragon, ~ $550Emerald Dragon, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Bravo Collection

Asian artwork is always in good taste. Just ask your local tattoo artist. Hopefully your aim is a little more straightforward than this poor lizard, because he’s all over the place on this skin. Remember, kids, always assign a designated dragon.

Might as well pick it up now, since it’s currently less than half of its original $1,000 price tag.

AWP: Medusa, ~ $1400Medusa, Minimal WearThe Gods and Monsters Collection

While this fetching gorgon skin demanded a hefty $400 upon release back in May of 2015, it’s only risen in value since, topping out currently at about $1,400. You might say its high value is set in stone… I’ll show myself out.

AK-47: The Empress, ~ $750Empress, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Spectrum 2 Collection

Finally, you too can be the belle of the ball, the becky with the good hair, the yas queen. Look, what do you want from me? It’s a pretty lady with blonde locks that would make Reinhardt blush. This skin helped ring in the Chinese release of CS:GO just last September, so if you’re looking for some fresh paint, have at it.

AUG: Akihabara Accept, ~$500Akihabara Accept, Factory NewThe Rising Sun Collection

Anime is trash… and so am I. The Akihabara Accept still commands a decidedly not-trash price (a remarkably consistent $500 average since release, though some have sold for over $1,000), so I guess we’re stuck with visions of pink-haired teens slaughtering us from afar. God bless Japan.

Five-SeveN: Hyper Beast, ~$200Hyper Beast, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Operation Hydra Collection

Doom’s floating sphere of teeth, the Cacodemon, has got nothing on this sinister-looking Swedish meatball. If you pull the trigger, it’s like wiggling its tongue. If you want a little extra spice with your meatball, the Hyper Beast skin can also be purchased at considerably lower rates for the AWP, Nova, and M4A1-S.

 MP9: Bulldozer, ~$250Bulldozer, Factory NewThe Assault Collection

You’ll be a bulldozer in the eyes of your enemies with this skin: Loud, yellow, prone to making odd noises when you back up. The Assault Collection skin pack hasn’t been part of the regular loot drop in CS for a few years, so it’s gone from selling like dirt to plowing cash.

AWP: Boom ~$400Boom, StatTrakThe eSports 2013 Collection

With a classic comic book framing, this skin shows off its entrepreneurial spirit. No need for boisterous cries of “Boom! Headshot!” when you can just cut out the middleman. I look forward to the eventual Disney-owned shared universe.

Souvenir USP-S Road Rash, ~$400Road Rash, Factory NewThe Overpass Collection

Remember when mom would take you to the mall for new clothes, but your enlightened 13-year-old self just had to have those pre-torn jeans? This is like the gun equivalent of that. Why didn’t you stop us, mom?

This skin dropped during the ELEAGUE Atlanta 2017 CS:GO Championship Grand Final Match, and is autographed by MVP Peter Rasmussen AKA “dupreeh” of team Astralis.

M4A1-S: Master Piece, ~$2900Master Piece, Souvenir, Factory NewThe Overpass Collection

If you look closely enough, you can see a faint homage to the Mona Lisa smile between the first squiggly line and the fifth, just behind the lettering that reminds you of a passing train car.

This skin was dropped during the ESL Cologne 2015 CS:GO Championship’s Quarter Finals match, and is signed by MVP Håvard “rain” Nygaard, then of Team SoloMid.

AK-47: Red Laminate, ~$450Red Laminate, StatTrak, Factory NewThe eSports 2013 Collection

They took an AK-47, dashed it with some nice red paint, and poured laminate all over it. It’s the Flamin’ Hot Cheeto of guns. Get this one while it’s hot, because it’s been rising from a modest $300 to a $450 average since October 2016.

AK-47: Fuel Injector,  ~$320 (156 keys)Fuel Injector, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Wildfire Collection

Yellow. The color of sunshine, bees, and the light you try to ignore while driving. Throw caution to the wind with this simple skin (sold at a remarkably consistent $400 average) that will leave your victims wondering how that oversized banana got the drop on them.

AK-47: Wasteland Rebel,  $425Wasteland Rebel, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Vanguard Collection

As far as war chants go, “MAKE THEM CRY!” ain’t too bad. It certainly rests alongside other such classics as “YOU DON’T EVEN GO HERE!” and “HEY, WANNA FIGHT?”

For you Counter-Strike lore hounds, the Wasteland Rebel’s flavor text indicates it’s a favorite of Naomi, a bodyguard to Operation Bloodhound Terrorist leader Valeria Jenner

AWP: Oni Taiji, ~ $145Oni Taiji, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Operation Hydra Collection

“Taiji,” more commonly referred to in the West as “Tai Chi,” is the ancient Chinese philosophy of supreme ultimate state of undifferentiated absolute, infinite potential, and the oneness before duality. You know, yen and yang. Pretty heady stuff for a gun with a demon on the butt. While it’s currently on a downswing price-wise, it might not be a bad idea to pick up one ASAP considering Operation Hydra recently ended.

AWP: Pink DDPAT, ~ $130Pink DDPAT, Souvenir, Minimal WearThe Overpass Collection

At some point, Counter-Strike scientists asked “if Barbie had an AWP, what would it look like?” The Pink DDPAT pairs well with any seasonal outfit, be it for a jaunt at the mall, or in the official Barbie DreamCamper. Sleep well, Ken.

If you’re worried about getting dropped by cross-map headshots, maybe take a chance on the DDPAT at the lowest price it's seen since release three years ago. This souvenir skin commemorates the 2017 PGL Krakow CS:GO Championships, was dropped during the Group Stage match between SK Gaming and Immortals, and is autographed by MVP Fernando Alvarenga.

M4A4: Royal Paladin, ~$320Royal Paladin, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Revolver Case Collection

The Royal Paladin is a proper statesman’s rifle. An elegant leaf engraving, fine ivory, and enough gold to fix at least a few mouthfuls of teeth. Though it’s had some significant dips, the Royal Paladin has maintained an impressive $350 average price over two years. That’s monarchy for you.

AK-47 Neon Revolution, ~$155Neon Revolution, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Gamma 2 Collection

Pink as a clown’s bum, with “ANARCHY” emblazoned in spray paint on the side. It’s a rifle with all the quiet modesty of a Jared Leto acting role. Wait, when did this skin come out? Summer of 2016? Oh, no. *Checks flavor text.*

Well, at least something is producing a better return-on-investment than that trainwreck.

USP-S: Neo Noir, ~$120Neo Noir, StatTrak, Factory NewThe Spectrum Collection

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Counter-Terrorists on fire off the shoulder of bomb site A. I watched grenades glitter off the skybox into our spawn from across the map. All those moments will be lost in time, like lag in the rain.

The USP-S is one of the few guns on this list with roots as a fan favorite from Counter Strike: Source, so maybe a few of those epic moments can live on with you in the end.

Knives

Karambit: Lore, ~ $1400Lore, StatTrak, Factory New

It’s a knife called “Lore,” but I’m not exactly seeing any further exploration of the Counter Strike world beyond a rad visual design. Still a better love story than Destiny. Ha, commentary.

Comes with a custom knotwork paint job, and it shows. The skin originally sold for $400, a mere penance compared to the $1,200 minimum you’ll likely find these days.

M9 Bayonet: Night ~$620Night, Factory New

Sleek, yet simple. Dark, yet pointy. Seems like as good an excuse as any to yell out “I AM THE NIGHT!” over and over again. If, like its flavor text describes, it’s “the bite at your neck,” this skin might just bleed your wallet dry.

M9 Bayonet: Crimson Web ~$950Crimson Web, Factory New

Some knives are silver, some are black, some are even the color of the rainbow. This little buddy does you the solid of getting all red and nasty before you even start to work. Thanks, champ. Also spreads jam really well.

Gloves & Stickers

Moto Gloves: Spearmint, ~ $700Spearmint, Minimal Wear

Wash the taste of a bad match out with these minty mittens, at least until all your friends are asking for a piece. Warning: Do not ingest gloves, especially ones that taste like pine trees.

Hey, at least after spending upwards of $700 (up from $400 a year ago) on gloves, you have all the right in the world to growl “and I’m all out of bubblegum.”

IBuyPower (Holo) ~$4500Marketplace Link

You thought the IBuyPower sticker was something else back when it debuted at $400 in 2014, huh? Well, Mr. Moneybags, hope you're ready for a second mortgage, because this increasingly rare sticker now tops a majority of all CS:GO skins for a lordly $4,500 average.

Although the “Contraband” Howling Dawn sticker goes for about $200, the first-edition esports stickers are by far the priciest. Among them, Team iBUYPOWER’s holographic sticker reaches a whole other level, due to the fact that the team was banned by Valve and dissolved after the discovery that they fixed matches for their own benefit

Half-Life 2

A rustle. A breath. A bang. Everything about a good videogame sniper rifle is sexy, sleek, and dangerous, from the look of a long steel barrel to the echoing crack of gunfire heard for miles around. We love playing games with great sniper rifles not because of how they look or sound, though, but because of something much deeper and darker: we want to play god. The allure of the sniper rifle is the allure of the divine power to reach out—way, way out into the distance—and snuff out a life.

It’s twisted, but that really is the heart of it. For proof, compare the sniper rifle to its Big Boomstick cousin, the shotgun. Both are typically slow to shoot, but they hit hard when they do. Both are loud. Both make explosions of fire and gore.

But a sniper rifle is unusual because its entire purpose is to make a fight unfair. We want to see the enemy without being seen. We look our enemy in the face without being in danger. Invisibility, invulnerability, and instant kills: the sniper rifle is a cheat code with a trigger. This is what Zeus feels like when he throws thunderbolts.

Today we’re celebrating the sniper rifle by talking about how it changed games, and all those pieces that make it a great videogame weapon. It starts with distance.

How to make a great sniper rifle 

Counter-Strike's AWP locks down entire sections of a multiplayer level. The AWP s power isn t just in killing, but in threatening to kill.

Almost all of the godlike power of a really fun sniper rifle comes from its ability to shoot at long range, so let’s start there. A great sniper rifle has to have a scope that lets us see deep into the microscopic horizon.

The best recent example of this is PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, where your ability to see other players is your most useful skill. There’s something so disconcerting about running across an open field late in the game, looking around, and seeing no one. You know other players have to be close, but the hills seem quiet. This is where PUBG’s rare scopes come in. An 8x or, inshallah, the 15x scope brings you all of god’s many powers: eliminate a contender from the island in one shot before they know you can see them at all.

Counter-Strike’s AWP is a legend itself, and arguably it helped start the "all-powerful bolt-action sniper rifle" trope that we’re celebrating today. Counter-Strike is a game where split-second accuracy and twitch reflexes decide every battle, and using the AWP demands the patience of a tortoise and the reflexes of a hare. If you’re good at it, the AWP locks down entire sections of a multiplayer level. The AWP’s power isn’t just in killing, but in threatening to kill.

Giving players a better view from the inside of a multiplayer melee is one thing, but sniper rifles can do so, so much more than that. Games that focus on realistic simulation turn sniping into an advanced physics problem that only the best shooters can manage to solve under pressure. Throwing a tiny piece of metal at a target a mile or two away—so far that you have to account for the Earth moving as it rotates—only makes a great sniper shot feel more god-like.

Arma 3’s military sandbox is the best rifle simulation you can play today, and it only gets better with community-made mods that model everything from air pressure to wind speed. Making a shot at one or two miles away stops feeling like marksmanship and starts feeling like flying a spaceship to the moon: up a bit, left a bit, now turn this dial and flick this switch at the same time, and don’t forget to breathe. But only after you pull the trigger.

Arma 3 may have the most accurate long-range sniper shots, but the most famous must be from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare’s best level, "All Ghillied Up." Working your way through long-abandoned farmhouses in Chernobyl's radioactive exclusion zone, there aren't even animals around to break the silence. The tension grows as you sneak past soldiers and into town. When it's time to take the shot with your M82 sniper rifle, music stirs as we watch a little red flag dance around in changing wind, holding our breath and waiting for the perfect moment to throw the lightning.

Bring the noise

It’s obvious that a good sniper rifle has to be loud as all hell. I understand that there are some that prefer their sniper rifles to be utterly silent for stealth reasons, but these poor souls are mistaken. A sniper rifle has to sound like the Earth breaking because, again, a good sniper rifle is the fist of god.

When it comes to noise, nobody does it like the boxy brick of a rifle in HALO: Combat Evolved, a hideous piece of technology burdened with the equally hideous name SRS99C-S2AM. We’re not here for looks, though. The Halo rifle has a boom that rocks around any level followed by reverberating echoes. It’s the echoes that really get me. And it’s not just the loud noises: the SRS99C is a symphony of little beeps and whirs.

Even though the reloading sound is pretty good, it’s the only thing wrong with the SRS99C. Since it’s a semi-automatic rifle, it lacks the the iconic, metallic bolt-action clanks that come with the best sniper rifles. Racking the action on a bolt-action rifle sounds so good, that even in our ode to the greatness of shotguns, we had to admit that maybe, just maybe, bolt-action rifles sound even better.

The sound of thunder and clanking machinery is even more jarring, more fantastic, when it’s contrasted with total silence and tension. Once the silence is broken, it’s OK to chime in with a really good soundtrack, as seen in this great clip from Far Cry 2.

History lesson: the first sniper rifle 

A well-made sniper rifle is a smoothly oiled machine, a clap of thunder you can hold in your hands, and the fist of an angry god all rolled into one.

After celebrating all that makes a good sniper rifle "the cheat code of weapons," it might be obvious how difficult it is to build a game around a worthy sniper. Giving the player god-like powers makes it hard to design levels and enemies that challenge them—and of course, you can’t tone down the sniper rifle without ruining the whole damn thing.

But for a long time, difficulty balance wasn’t the thing that stopped videogames from featuring sniper rifles, it was technology. In the early years, one of the things that games couldn’t really do was distance; we had height and width, but no depth.

There were some strong attempts, though. In 1988, one of the first sniper rifles ever depicted in a game came from the French videogame Hostage: Rescue Mission. The game came out on platforms like the Apple II, the Commodore 64, and the Amiga. In the game, a police sniper sneaks around an embassy full of hostages to reach a vantage point, then uses a myopic little scope to scan the windows for bad guys.

But without 3D spaces, there couldn’t be any real distance. Though conventional wisdom claims that the first true sniper rifle in videogames was in Goldeneye 007 for the Nintendo 64, the truth is actually much closer to PC gamers’ hearts. A full year earlier, in August 1996, Quake Team Fortress released as a mod for Quake. Included among the Soldier, Spy, and Engineer was the Sniper. Snipers came equipped with a "Sniper Rifle," a menace that could kill at distance with one shot—as long as the player was fast enough and had great eyesight.

In March 1997, LucasArts released Outlaws, a western-themed shooter that seems to be mostly forgotten today. Those of us who played it, though, saw something new. Attached to the standard lever-action Winchester rifle was a sniper scope that magnified objects in 3D. As far as I can find, this real-time 3D magnification had never been done before at the time. Outlaws did it five months before Goldeneye launched.

LucasArts was sort of a pioneer in gaming back then, but I still think it’s unlikely that Outlaws started a trend. It’s more likely that the time for the first-person sniper rifle had just arrived. In the next year alone, 1998, we saw zoomable, first-person sniper rifles pop up in Half-Life, SiN, Starseige: Tribes, and Delta Force. Multiplayer games in particular started to play on larger maps, and the sniper rifle quickly became a staple for long-range battles. In 2000, the original Counter-Strike launched the AWP, and Deus Ex brought sniper rifles into a free-form immersive sim setting.

By the time Operation Flashpoint (the pre-cursor to Arma) launched in 2001, Battlefield 1942 arrived in 2002, and Call of Duty released in 2003, the sniper rifle was an essential part of any videogame that included guns at all.

Lasers, etc.

Not all sniper rifles throw lead. Despite my grandstanding up in the "Bring the noise" section, a rifle that shoots lasers or—gasp—silently flings arrows can still be a lot of fun. The obvious example here is Half-Life 2’s incredible crossbow, a hideous sci-fi monster that nailes people to walls with superheated pieces of rebar.

The joys of Half-Life 2’s crossbow are numerous: the all-seeing perspective of a decent scope, the one-shot power of that glowing slab of iron pinning a Combine soldier’s body to the architecture.

Even the loud, bass-heavy thunk and twang of the crossbow, though obviously not as good as a huge boom, is really nice to listen to—and possibly even kind of musical? The best crossbow noise doesn’t come from the crossbow at all, but from the slightly muted, high-pitch whine of the "soldier down" Combine alarm heard from a long way off.

For laser-throwing sniper rifles, the powerful Darklance from XCOM 2 is one of our hands-down favorites. A shot of boiling, angry red death rays flying at aliens is, in general, pretty fun, but the Darklance has another edge. Unlike every other sniper rifle in the game, soldiers can fire and move in the same turn. If you do it right, a sniper armed with the Darklance can flit around the edges of a map, firing and moving, smiting and disappearing. Darklance might not give you the joy of a first-person perspective, but its power is no less biblical.

In conclusion

Videogame sniper rifles are rad. Though they can be monstrous in multiplayer games and their effects can be more pornographic than 10,000 dicks on parade, a well-made sniper rifle is a beautiful thing. It’s a smoothly oiled machine, a clap of thunder you can hold in your hands, and the fist of an angry god all rolled into one.

But for all its power, the reason the sniper remains so compelling is how well it's balanced out by its limitations, and all the tension they bring. Missing a shot can mean an eternal few seconds of reloading, standing naked in front of the world. That moment can give way to panic, and without a cool head, you're lost. So goes one of the greatest sniper shots ever captured on video.

There's one more tool in the sniper's belt, which forgoes range, its greatest asset, to make you feel somehow more omnipotent. If there's a more rewarding shot than the no-scope, an impossible doming that spits in the face of the sniper's intended balance, we don't know it. The no-scope defies nature and reason. It's the ultimate trump card. 

Using a sniper well is an instinctive skill or a physics problem or both, and great games use them to make you feel unstoppable. Long live the scope.

Counter-Strike: Global Offensive

Loot boxes, which burst open to reveal randomized rewards in games, don't exist because they're good for game design. They exist because the industry wondered: how do we charge each player the maximum amount they're willing to spend for as long as we can keep them spending? The answer already existed in a model proven successful decades ago by baseball and Magic: The Gathering cards.

In his 2013 book, Uncertainty in Games, Greg Costikyan describes the success of Magic's card packs: "...When you purchase and open a booster pack, you are always uncertain what you will obtain—and may experience delight at finding a new card that works well with others you have, or disappointment at receiving cards that duplicate ones you already have, or worse, quintuplicate them—meaning you already have the maximum of this card you can use in a single deck. This is, of course, one reason Magic's business model is so effective: there's always a temptation to buy more cards, and players can be induced, in essence, to spend the maximum amount they are comfortable spending on their game, whether that be a few dollars or a few thousand."

Like Magic packs, loot boxes turn the experience of getting stuff, rather than the stuff itself, into what's for sale, and encourage us to keep chasing the delight of getting what we want. They 'work' because they offer an uncertain outcome, and uncertainty is a component of good games, whether it results in a botched saving throw in D&D or a lucky bounce in Rocket League. A box which may or may not contain something rare is not sinful on its own—it's fun. It's adding money to the mix that's the problem.

I appreciate that Rocket League, CS:GO, Rainbow Six Siege, Overwatch, and other games only offer cosmetic items in loot boxes, and Overwatch in particular is fairly inoffensive as you can work toward skins without purchasing anything but the game. The way Star Wars Battlefront 2 implemented loot boxes, however, shows that the biggest companies are testing the waters: how much can we put in these things? An entire multiplayer shooter's library of upgrades? They tried. 

When a progression system is wrapped up in loot boxes which can be purchased with real money, it isn't a fun progression system, practically by definition. If you've made something players can pay to skip, then you've made something worth paying to skip. With Battlefront 2's premium currency temporarily removed, this is hilariously obvious. There is currently no reason for Credits, the non-purchasable currency, to exist, as their only purpose is to abstract achievement so that it can be spent like the premium money, turning 'achievement' into 'grind,' a paycheck rather than a trophy. Not fun. Loot boxes are surely also why generic upgrades can't be applied to multiple classes, and why there's an overcomplicated crafting system—there had to be something to buy even after 20 hours of play. Also not fun. 

Bad game design which transparently exists to encourage spending is frustrating, especially in a game that already costs $60. What may be worse, though, is that by pairing cash and games of chance, EA and other big publishers are endangering every developer by inviting the scrutiny of politicians.

Are loot boxes gambling?

Buying loot boxes, like gambling in a casino, can potentially be addictive.

Buying loot boxes, like gambling in a casino, can potentially be addictive. "We know that the dopamine system, which is targeted by drugs of abuse, is also very interested in unpredictable rewards," said Dr. Luke Clark, director at the Center for Gambling Research at the University of British Columbia, in a recent interview with PC Gamer. "Dopamine cells are most active when there is maximum uncertainty, and the dopamine system responds more to an uncertain reward than the same reward delivered on a predictable basis."

Yet loot boxes are not legally considered gambling in the US and elsewhere, at least according to precedent. A series of 1996 lawsuits brought against baseball card manufacturers under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act claimed that limited-run "chase cards"—rare, valuable cards that might appear in a pack—constitute an illegal lottery. The suits were not successful. A similar suit against Nintendo in 1999, which claimed that Pokemon cards constituted gambling, was also dismissed.

Last year, The Washington State Gambling Commission ordered Valve to "take whatever actions are necessary" to put an end to third-party CS:GO skin gambling sites, where players could bet valuable gun skins on the outcomes of esports matches, among other things. The Gambling Commission did not, however, take aim at the practice of delivering skins randomly. It is seemingly legal to sell boxes—physical or digital—with unknown contents, some more valuable to collectors than others. It's a practice familiar to toy collectors, sometimes called 'blind boxes.'

Above: Hell.

It's tempting to read recent anti-loot box statements from politicians as a win, but legislators getting involved in game design is uncomfortable.

What's the legal difference between loot boxes and roulette? Mainly, it's that in a casino I put down money hoping for it to return to me, whereas when I buy a key for a Rocket League crate I know the money is spent—the gamble is whether or not I'll be satisfied with my purchase. That is an important distinction. However, if the contents of a loot box can be sold for a cash profit, which most can be through sanctioned marketplaces or EULA-defying grey markets, the distinction blurs. Still, unlike gambling, your possible reward is never zero, and the in-game items can't be turned in to the publisher like gambling chips for cash. Their value entirely depends on the value collectors assign them. So, it's different, but is it different enough?

While the 1996 lawsuits against baseball card manufacturers alleged that it was not different enough and failed, that doesn't mean legislators will never successfully amend the law. It's unlikely to change, but it's still up for debate. Ebay's policy, for instance, plays it safe by requiring the contents of 'grab bags' to be listed in order to avoid sales which might constitute illegal lotteries in some states. In reality, though, I was easily able to find multiple listings for 'surprise boxes.' Whether they are or aren't lotteries by law is unclear. Do we want them to be?

Whether they are or aren't lotteries by law is unclear. Do we want them to be?

It's tempting to read recent anti-loot box statements from politicians as a win—we don't like loot boxes, and they're saying they'll get rid of them—but legislators getting involved in game design is concerning. A ban on charging for uncertain rewards would end Hearthstone, Magic: The Gathering, and all 'blind boxes' and 'grab bags' outright—you would not be able to buy anything without knowing its exact contents, or perhaps at least their value—and lawmakers wouldn't necessarily stop there. It could be just the in they need to form government-run ratings boards for games, which I oppose completely.

It's not far fetched. In 2005, US Senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, Tim Johnson, and Evan Bayh sponsored the Family Entertainment Protection Act, which would have put the ESRB under federal observation and fined stores which sold Mature games to kids under 17. In 2012, Donald Trump tweeted that videogame violence "must be stopped." Nothing has come of these intentions to regulate the sale of games, but if certain game systems were deemed gambling, you can be sure that 'the danger to our kids' would become a standard talking point again.

Meanwhile, mobile games haven't needed the element of chance to succeed in selling premium currencies. The legality of Clash of Clans-like schemes (premium currencies that directly translate to boosts and bonuses and power) isn't in dispute. So, if loot boxes were declared illegal, we'd get a small victory in pushing game publishers away from design we don't like, but not necessarily toward design we do, at the expense of increasing government scrutiny which could harm small developers who have no part in this. 

As much as I want to stick it to corporations, a legal solution is worrisome. And given the precedent, it's also unlikely to succeed. We're talking about defining Magic: The Gathering and baseball cards as illegal racketeering, an accusation they've weathered successfully for years.

Above: Hell.

What to do

They botched one of their biggest launches of the year, ate a bunch of negative press, and could've avoided it all.

The dopamine rush described by Dr. Clark is real, and its easy to see how loot boxes could get children and people who are prone to addiction to overspend. For that and many other reasons, I'd love to get rid of them, if not by forcing indie game developers to submit their games to their state's gambling control board for inspection. Frustratingly, though, I doubt the catalyst for change will be reduced profits. 

The truth is that loot boxes are fun to open. I've purchased keys for Rocket League crates—because I must have the coolest car—and spending $10 here and there hasn't left me with regrets. Many probably feel the same way, so I'm doubtful that 'vote with your wallet' is going to force meaningful change. When they're relatively inoffensive, people are going to keep buying loot boxes, and blaming individual players pointlessly sets us against each other, instead of the people actually responsible: exorbitantly-paid executives and board members. 

All I can recommend for now is that we keep calling out obnoxious implementations of loot boxes. We may not like what we get when Battlefront 2's premium currency returns, but that EA removed it the day before launch shows that player criticism had a significant effect. They botched one of their biggest launches of the year, ate a bunch of negative press, and could've avoided it all. Whether they end up making money on Battlefront 2 anyway, or losing money, they may think twice about the nature of their in-game purchases next time.

Inside the industry, I don't expect any individual to risk their job by publicly criticizing their bosses—we recently spoke to insiders about loot boxes, and they all asked to remain anonymous—though I can't imagine the average game developer employee loves designing simulated slot machines. On that note, there's a lot of work to do on the industry that, while seemingly unrelated, would help. Namely, an end to reliance on temporary contractors, crunch, and high turnover, and reasonable profit expectations that don't require every game to pull in half-a-billion dollars per year in microtransactions.

Above: What buying currency in Battlefront 2 looked like, before it was removed.

I do think it's understandable that publishers want to earn revenue from existing owners if they're providing a service. Servers cost money. But it feels pretty obvious that they've slowly been working toward something they knew we didn't want, hoping that if they turned up the heat gradually—first pre-order bonuses, then microtransactions, 'games as a service,' and finally cribbing the MTG model—we wouldn't notice that the system is designed to encourage overspending on items. 

Of course we noticed, and so have legislators, reigniting the 'gambling for children' collectable card game debates from the '90s. Collectible card games managed to slip away from the controversy, but now that it's back, the games industry has to reckon with the ethics of how it applies game systems to monetization, as well as the way it produces games and the profits they're expected to make. If they don't back off, at least a little—say, by only putting cosmetic items in boxes and always providing an alternative way to get them—someone else might make a decision for them.

Half-Life

Way back in 2012, the Black Mesa mod for Half-Life had lofty plans to entirely rebuild the game in the Source engine.

If you'd been awaiting the release of much-anticipated the Xen levels, we have bad news—it's been delayed again, despite the mod moving from a free-to-play to Early Access model in order to take on new staff and strengthen the development team.

"We are truly sorry for getting everyone's hopes up and then delaying... again," said project lead Adam Engels via a recent statement. "We worked very hard to make December, but we are not yet ready. As a team, we take FULL responsibility for that. We have an internal deadline we are confident in, and we will be getting everyone more details as we get closer to that date.

"Thank you again to our community and Early Access supporters. The funding from Early Access has allowed us to hire many new talented developers, and has allowed older developers to put more time in the project. Simply put, Xen has proven to be an enormous undertaking, and while we are managing it to the best of our ability, it is proving to take longer than we estimated."

But while Xen release has been pushed back, there will nevertheless be an update next month. Focusing initially on improving stability and "enabling the new tech on the Earthbound section of the game", the final chapters will drop once everything's "fully stabilised". Tweaks include lens flare, texture blends, and improvements to the dynamic lighting—for the full breakdown, pop by the update on Steam.

You can pick up the Black Mesa mod now for $8, saving 60 percent off the full price. 

Half-Life 2 also continues to thrive, and Gunship Mark II's work-in-progress Half-Life 2: MMod is also gearing up for release.

Thanks, GameInformer.

Dota 2

Dota 2 has reworked its Ranked matchmaking system, swapping the old stacking matchmaking rating value (MMR) for a range of Seasonal Rank Medals. With it, the game's inaugural six-month Ranked Season has also kicked off.   

As detailed in this blog post, the new system represents players' "highest performance level for the current season"—meaning medals reflect their highest rank, despite the tier they play in. "A Seasonal Rank Medal never decreases in rank once you’ve achieved it. Initial calibration games will be seeded roughly based on your previous skill," reads the post. 

Across seven levels—Herald, Guardian, Crusader, Archon, Legend, Ancient, and Divine—progression is hinged on a five-star system, which looks something like this:

The post adds: "Your performance in both Party and Solo games is considered when evaluating your skill and determining when your Medal gets upgraded, with Solo games having a bigger impact. In order for players to achieve either the Ancient or Divine Medals, only Solo-game performance is considered.

"This update also expands the Leaderboard system to include many more players. Players with 5 stars on the Divine Rank Medal (the highest rank) will now have a leaderboard number listed with the medal that broadcasts their position amongst other players. This leaderboard position will always be displayed alongside the Medal, and will be visible to all players in the game and on your profile."

Half-Life 2

We may never see a third Half-Life game, but Half-Life 2 continues to thrive—not least by way of its ever-intriguing community and catalogue of player-made mods—despite its age. 

Gunship Mark II's work-in-progress Half-Life 2: MMod has been around for some time, however is now gearing up for release and has a new trailer. Let's check that out first:

Despite first announcing the mod back in 2014, the creator says real life distractions have since hindered their progress—before Mark Laidlaw's 'Epistle 3' bombshell kickstarted their interest. Learning of what could have been has now inspired the mod's third and final iteration, which is now due in 2018.

"Development of v3 started right after Epistle 3 from Marc Laidlaw. You can guess, I was devastated, as many of us were," says Gunship Mark II on the mod's ModDB page. "People were saying 'That's it, Half-Life is over, Half-Life is dead'. But then it struck me: 'Bullshit', I said, 'We'll show 'em how dead it is'. I got fresh Source 2013 code base set up, I've got my tools ready, I've got Visual Studio installed, and I've started porting features from older iterations of HL2MMod, while simultaneously enhancing them and cleaning up the code. 

"Some parts of the code were rewritten from scratch, some features are totally brand new, a lot of features were ported from City 17: Episode 1 mod, for which I am super grateful. I've made brand new particle effects for everything, I even did a couple of live streams to show some features off and to tell people that I am not dead."

Again, Half-Life 2: MMod is due at some stage next year. More can be read via the mod's ModDB page, and can be seen via the following GIFs:

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