For years, Dust 2 was the most played map in the most played game in the world. It was a favourite for both casual and competitive players.
In the words of Australian CS:GO commentator Danny Kim, Dust 2 is the chorus in the grand song of Counter-Strike. The esports scene has dipped into many maps over the years. But when it comes to Dust 2, everyone sings a little louder, because we all know the words.
Somehow, all the intricate nuances of the map seem to come together perfectly on Dust 2. While all FPS fans have their favourite maps, there’s a level of consistency about Dust 2 that means even over ten years after its creation, it’s still considered to be the greatest map ever made. It turns out, however, it was almost something completely different.
The Unrecognisable Dust 2
For the direct sequel to Dust, creator Dave Johnston got serious. For the first time, he broke out his sketch pad and planned out his geometry. He envisioned civilians hiding behind shuttered windows and extruding buildings marking its perimeter. His pen conjured angles and lanes that would favour both close-quarters play and long-range engagements.
Maps like Dust and Dust 2 played a big part in the success of Counter-Strike. Not only because they were fun, but allowing the community to make levels allowed creator Minh ‘Gooseman’ Le to focus on development. “One of the rules we had when we talked to our level designers was to not put more than three divergent paths, because players don’t like that,” Gooseman told us.
Johnston’s sketches were radically different to the Dust 2 we know today. Having chronicled the creation of Dust and Dust 2 on his blog, Dave Johnston talks about spawn locations and bomb sites in completely different places. There was even a hollowed out bomb site at the top of the mid ramp, and it’s only when sending the map to Counter-Strike co-creator Jess Cliffe that these sites were shifted into their modern zones:
At first glance, it might not seem radically different to the Dust 2 we know and love – but take a closer look, and this map would offer an experience that’s a world apart. Just think: Terrorists could be rushing through the underpass and engaging CTs through the double doors to plant the bomb at the top of mid-ramp.
“It was only after the first few playtests that Jess Cliffe suggested moving them to where they are today,” Johnston told us. “And so clearly he saw the lanes as fundamental to the success of the map – but I didn’t notice them at all!”
Since the beginning, Cliffe wanted every Counter-Strike map to consist of 2-3 lanes. Dust 2 offered a little more — with mid’s catwalk splitting up into something more like 3.5 lanes.
According to Johnston, “The area between T spawn and bomb site B felt a bit like a silo, so adding the staircase route helped rectify that and add more depth. Similarly, site A had a balcony that had to go somewhere, and it just so happened to be easily connected to mid.”
Each element of Dust 2 has a certain magic that conjures 20 years’ worth of stories. We took a stroll through Dust 2 with creator Dave Johnston to reminisce piece-by-piece on the map that became synonymous with the most played game in the world.
Mid Double Doors
In Dust 2, much like its modern offspring Mirage and Cache, controlling the middle is essential.
“I didn’t want a wide line of sight (LOS) between the two areas either side of the door,” said Johnston, “As it would expose those running from A to B to players sat on that mid ramp. The double door is a bit of a staple of the Dust design, so it was also another opportunity to tick off that box.”
Blocking that line of sight was important even after the spawn points and bomb sites were shuffled. The surrounding area is perhaps the most changed from its original design, and you can head to Johnston’s blog to see the original nooks and crannies that were smoothed over.
After the switch-up, Johnston did some quick runs to make sure the Ts and CTs would enter each others’ sights at roughly the right times. But there was one major line of sight that slipped under the radar…
Mid Sniper Line of Sight
We can’t talk about the mid double doors, of course, without mentioning “that” line of sight from all the way back at T spawn. In casual play, this view offered some tight sniper duels with enormous risk/reward — rolling the dice with an AWP at double doors could get you killed a few seconds into the round.
“Originally this wasn’t a LOS I wanted to exist!” says Johnston. “I was aware of it when I built the map, and I tried to design the geometry to minimise it as I think I felt it could be abused – but that was before the spawns moved. After the T spawn moved to its current location, it took a life of its own – although I didn’t realise how advantageous this was until long after the map was released. If I had spotted its potential at the time I might have closed it down completely, as I would have hated to be the CT victim of an AWPer camping at the T spawn as I rushed to site B.“
Like many Dust 2 enthusiasts, we’re glad it does exist. As CS fanatics will know, the LOS instantly became a tide-turning factor in competitive play, offering Terrorists a way to see how many CTs were crossing over to the B side of the map, helping them make informed decisions on which side to attack.
Later versions of Dust 2 would expand this line of sight. There was room to strafe while remaining in your enemy’s crosshairs, and Terrorists could see if CTs were rushing into Lower Dark.
Whereas the first Dust had a split ramp on either side, they weren’t the main attraction, since most attacks went through the tunnels. Dust 2 put the split ramp right in the middle of the map.
It’s an inherently interesting map element, since strafing on a ramp requires players to correct their aim vertically as well as horizontally — on the ramp, there’s no easy version of “keep your crosshair at head height.”
In addition to the additional aiming challenge, Johnston saw the ramp as “a way to gently transition players from one elevation to another, as they’re both less jarring and less visually expensive – both for humans and graphics cards – than stairs.” They’re also a way to provide cover where there wouldn’t be any otherwise.
“In the case of this split ramp, I enjoyed how two players can be above and below each other without knowing about each other, and the gentle ramping makes for some interesting CQBs when they conflict.”
B Tunnels and Bomb site
It was never possible to throw a grenade from the T side of B tunnels into B, which was a technical artefact of how Johnston built the map. Grenades would bounce off the sky, right back towards the thrower.
Although Johnston never played CS at a competitive level, the louder footsteps and stronger bullet penetration in 1.6 led to Upper Dark being a prime area for wall bangs. Those who got skilled in pinpointing locations based on sound alone, or perhaps just memorised the usual camping locations from the other side of a wall, could score easy kills through multiple feet of concrete.
Johnston didn’t anticipate these superhuman plays: “I was, of course, aware of wall thickness affecting gameplay, but I never for a moment considered the many surprising opportunities Dust 2 provided for this ability to be used in ways that were not entirely… realistic.”
In an example of competitive and casual needs aligning, the hole in the wall at B bomb site was a crucial inclusion. It offers a third, albeit less ideal entry point, not to mention more opportunities to peak and throw grenades through.
Johnston believes without it, not only would the wall be affected, but the path to B would be dull and narrow:
“I think without that hole, all we have is a long, feature-less wall with a double-door and a lot of dead space below where the hole was,” he says. “The rocks would have to be brought in closer to the road, and this entire area would have felt more claustrophobic and closer to a corridor than an arena in which interesting fights could take place, not to mention how much harder it would become to enter site B. By adding that small, slightly awkward route in, the bomb site became more interesting and dynamic, and the adjoining area could become larger and more engaging with additional areas of cover.”
Just down the road is Dust 2’s version of the underpass, which was eventually decided upon as the CT spawn. Though originally, CTs were going to spawn in what’s now known as Long A.
This area has a second function though, as once a bomb site is taken on either the A or B side, defenders must rotate. They can choose the risky CT spawn area with its long lines of sight, or they can spend more time rushing through Short A and/or B Tunnels. Smokes in this area would make things even more hazardous for a CT schlepping all the way across the map.
It didn’t take long for CTs to discover they could get into Short A quicker by boosting themselves onto these boxes. Terrorists used to typical rush timings would be caught off guard.
“Like many of these elements of Dust 2, it wasn’t planned at all,” Johnston told us. “The crates were intentionally placed there to remove a potentially exploitable camping spot, and I ensured the crates were not tall enough to be useful on their own, but I didn’t foresee it being used as a boosted route nearly as much as it is.”
One of those “didn’t notice until you said it” things about Dust 2 is that the rock wall (along with the inclusion of stairs) is a completely new element, independent of Dust. Many Counter-Strikers barely noticed it — but in the mapmaking community, it was somewhat of a badge of honour.
“I think this was probably just a regular wall originally, but looked weird due to the height of the surrounding geometry, and couldn’t be very tall due to the effect it would have on the sunlight entering the area,” he told us. “It’s so silly to look back on it now, but at the time, being able to make good-looking rock surfaces in Half-Life was one of those ‘killer’ skills level designers would seek to master, and so ultimately this became an opportunity for me to show-off a bit and solve the problem at the same time.
“It also helped that it added a distinct visual feel to the map, separating it from the rock-less Dust and Cobble and breaking up the monotonous 90 degree corners that dominate Dust’s visual identity.”
If B side is the close-quarters area, and middle offers a bit of both, then Long A is for those wanting to engage with a bit of range.
Even though the A bomb site was originally planned to be elsewhere, there’s a clever line of sight from the Long A pit into the bomb site that makes it just dangerous enough to be interesting to plant or defuse the bomb at A.
With such an ideal space for sniper battles, we were curious as to what mapmakers had to take into account, given Counter-Strike’s somewhat controversial inclusion of a one-hit kill weapon in the AWP. Especially since the original AWP would insta-delete with even a leg shot.
“In Dust, I invested a lot of time configuring the crates within the underpass to restrict the ability of a single sniper-rifle to lock down that route, and tried to ensure players always had a way through even if only armed with a pistol. This is why both maps have so many crates – nearly every one of them is placed to either restrict a LOS, change how players enter an area, or reduce the playable space to make for more interesting gameplay.
“With the original spawn placement of Dust 2, I didn’t see this section as being so troublesome. Obviously this changed when the spawn points moved to their final positions, but I neglected to address it at the time.”
Johnston played with risk/reward at Long A. The pit offers short-term safety to either the defender or the attacker, but they’ll eventually need to come out — a tougher task if they’ve lost the line of sight.
Pushing up Long A, Counter-Terrorists also have the option to camp at this little enclave:
At their own risk, of course. No one wants to be the one jumping to safety after losing their line of sight with five Terrorists pushing up the lane.
The Legacy of Dust 2
Dust 2 skyrocketed to become Counter-Strike’s most popular map very quickly. Just like the Dust 24/7 servers, there were Dust 2 24/7 servers, and although Dust 2 was recently removed from the competitive map pool, it owns a whole category of map in the menu.
For a period in Counter-Strike: Source, Dust 2 was one of the very few balanced war maps. It enjoyed inarguable superiority in both the casual and competitive space, not to mention introducing physics so that we could shoot barrels over the bomb to frustrate defusers.
Every FPS game has its iconic map, but the dominance of Counter-Strike globally and the dominance of Dust 2 within that makes this arguably the greatest map ever created. It would also be far and away the most played map – though the recent battle royale games like PUBG, Fortnite, and Apex Legends might be contenders, since they’re all played on one map.
As the Counter-Strike scene evolved, its demands changed. Back in 1999, it was a challenge just to get everyone rushing in the same direction. Now, even lower ranked players are fluent in map positions and buying strategies.
This has led to maps becoming more complex. There are larger bomb sites with more lines of sight and more physics, leading to more intricate strategies and spectator-pleasing tricks.
But the 3.5 lane formula of Dust 2, and the 2.5 entries of its B bomb site, have been emulated in many modern maps. Cache and Mirage, two current tournament favourites, have fundamentally the same layout — the latter even using a split ramp at mid.
In some ways, Dust 2’s success was a fluke. But at its core there was good, intentional design which has reverberated to modern maps ever since.