‘Counter-Strike’s Unusual Map Inspirations Are a Testament to Its Originality

Jordan Oloman

Everybody who has ever set foot in a Counter-Strike lobby has a map preference. Whether they’re Dust purists or Prodigy posers, countless arguments have played out over VOIP from the time of Teamspeak to the days of Discord. But have you ever really thought about where your favourite Counter-Strike maps came from?

20 years of intentional team-killing, painting over sprays and getting teammates stuck in doors have led us here, the year of our lord 2019. Valve’s deeply influential, peerless shooter is still alive and kicking, and we think it’s high time we put aside our differences and ask some serious questions about the game’s aesthetics.

The fascinating thing about Counter-Strike maps is that they are weirdly unassuming. Modern AAA shooters are obsessed with framing their multiplayer matches around death-defying flashpoints in history, the threat of nuclear war or reactive crumbling skyscrapers fogging the brain as you grind to prestige.

Yet not many of these Michael Bay-esque efforts have quite the verbal reverberation as something like Dust or Italy, modest arrangements of geometry that have since become behemoths, forever etched into the annals of eSports history. We did some research into the aesthetic inspirations behind these maps to homage their unique staying power, looking at their real-world counterparts in an effort to decode what makes them still so iconic decades after their release.

Dust & Dust 2

Dust 2 Global Offensive
Dust 2, as depicted in 'Counter-Strike: Global Offensive'

Facing Worlds, Blood Gulch, 2Fort… Dust (and it’s iterative follow-up, Dust 2,) is arguably the greatest FPS map ever created. Any Counter-Strike player worth their salt knows every nook and cranny, and most gamers who have controlled a rifle with a mouse and keyboard have heard of it at some point in their lives. It has the most famous golden arches in the world, second only to McDonald’s.

Despite the skybox originally looking like the mesa from Half-Life, it’s inspiration is even more obscure. Designer Dave Johnston based it on a set of Team Fortress 2 screenshots straight from Valve, which vaguely look like a Middle-Eastern or North African city centre. You can see that most clearly in the Global Offensive remastering of Dust, which is far more symbolic and grounded than Dust’s rudimentary beginnings.

Dust 2 was inspired by this 'Team Fortress' screenshot

Yet realistically, I think it’d be insane to try and pin down the geographic inspiration of one of gaming’s finest works of architecture. This is the product of a mastermind crate-placer. A perfect storm from a de_DaVinci that defies all geographic boundaries. Long live Long A!


Italy as depicted in 'Global Offensive'

Like a basil-laden Margherita verified by the Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana, de_Italy is reliable, nostalgia-inducing and enjoyable to the last bite. Dust’s charming European little brother, this endearing slice of Italy is hard to pin down on a map. The beauty of this ambush-friendly hostage level is that it doesn’t opt for iconic Roman landmarks or Venetian canals, it situates itself in a humble part of the country, complete with bleeding eggplants, North American plug sockets (don’t ask) and of course… chickens.

A street sign with the words ‘Bixio’ (Supposedly a reference to the real-life town of Brixen) has led many to suggest that it is framed in the far north of Italy, an amalgamation of the architecture of its main cities, Verona and Milano. In that sense, it could be any street corner and marketplace in the boot.

Despite being called Italy, it's actually this Norwegian street that looks the closest to the seminal CS map. Photo by Eirik Mykland.

Some eagle-eyed fans point to a small city in Norway (as pictured) for the most coincidentally similar street structure, but It’s legacy is retained in how it evokes the spirit of Italy without being an exact replica of one of the countries most beautiful cities. Bellissimo.


Cache, as depicted in 'Global Offensive'

Another iconic map with an unclear backstory, Cache for me is where things get serious in the competitive map rotation (before it was swapped out for Vertigo.) There’s something in the air – it’s Counter-Strike’s theatre of dreams. Where the frags come out and the Deagle saves the day. Most players have had a clutch defuse on Cache, and if you haven’t it’s on the way. But what is the secret sauce? What about this map that makes each corridor so memorable?

It looks like its real-world location can be traced to the vicinity of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Pripyatconfirmed by a bit of noclip tomfoolery. Signs found by fans list the Ukranian acronym for the plant, and most obvious is the clear replica of the Reactor No. 4 tower which is visible from most spawn angles.

Photo of the Chernobyl power plant in Pripyat where Cache draws its inspiration, taken by Carl Montgomery in 2006.

This is perhaps responsible for the tense atmosphere, as Reactor 4 was destroyed with the disaster, meaning players are standing in the wake of one of history’s most devastating catastrophes, or just before it. Try not to think about that too much next time you’re stealth defusing whilst 1 v 3.


The iconic map Office, as depicted in 'Global Offensive'.

Dunder Mifflin for dorks, Office is another map synonymous with Counter-Strike that has had its novelty immortalized by custom games, it’s claustrophobic corridors demanding careful scouting and tactics when played competitively. It’s the perfect training course for new players and spearheaded the ‘shooter map in an absurd civilian setting’ trend that most FPS franchises later latched onto as a result.

The devil’s in the details, down to the functional vending machines, the PCs which drop parts every time you shoot them and the faux motivational posters about camping and sniping – “feel like a player without actually joining the game.”

We couldn't find an office that looked close enough to the map, so here's Micheal from Dunder Mifflin

Truly, it looks like the internals of any crippled civic centre in the North of England, but the brutalist architecture and Russian-American heritage of its talented designer Alexander Manilov (and the building’s proudly placed U.S flag) suggest otherwise. A corporate bastion in Michigan or New Hampshire would be the safest bet given the dreary layers of snow.


Zoo, as depicted in 'Global Offensive'

A modern community map that has quickly become a fan favourite due to its careful balancing and gorgeous visuals, Zoo is indicative of the future of the Counter-Strike map scene and currently sits in the reserves group, with the chance it could be added to the active duty pool in the future. Monkeys jibbering during the intense wait to spawn make a great first impression as you traipse through vacant exhibits and aquariums on this bomb defusal sensation.

It stinks of the same ingenious guano that birthed the classics, by offering players an absurd, exciting toybox to perfect and populate with shortcuts and flanking manoeuvres.

Photo by PerryPlanet.

The map is quite clearly based on the San Francisco Bay Area, given that it’s framed in front of the imposing Golden Gate Bridge. Though, it looks like the map makers Squad and Yanzl also used Pittsburgh’s PPG Aquarium as inspiration for the indoor part of the map, as can be seen in this handy series of comparison shots.


Infero, as depicted in 'Global Offensive'

Unlike other maps in this list, stone cold classic Inferno is one that is based on a genuine location rather than just homaging a culture’s architecture or landmarks. As can be seen from this series of comparative snaps taken by Reddit user u/Dirshis,the similarities between the map and the San Juan Capistrano Mission are obvious, down to the remains of the church, the style of roofing and the arch doorways of the mission. Even the pond found near the B bombsite is the same, complete with koi!

In real life, the remains of the San Juan Capistrano Mission are found in Orange County, California.

Photograph by Robert A. Estremo.

The structure itself was built in 1776 by Spanish Franciscan Catholics, seeking to bring religion to the natives in the colonial period when it was part of the proclaimed Province of New Spain under the Spanish Empire and not an American state. You learn something new every day! Think about that next time you’re buying your items at spawn.


Aztec, as depicted in 'Counter-Strike'

One of Counter-Strike’s most iconic and intriguing maps, Aztec takes players out of the urban environments often relied on and transports them to the remains of the Aztec civilization in Mexico. Whilst it isn’t easy to pin this one down to a specific site, there are a few archaeological sites that will feel like deja vu for avid Counter-Strike players.

Teotihuacan is the first, the religious centre and staging post for a set of impressive Mesoamerican pyramids, arranged around a central monument.

Aztec's real-life inspiration, Avenue of the Death and Pyramid of the Moon Teotihuacan, taken by Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz.

The main difference at this site is the Avenue of the Dead, the main street that leads between the two temples before opening up into a square surrounded by pyramids. Whilst Aztec is one of the more open maps in Counter-Strike, it is far more enclosed and claustrophobic in-game to keep the gameplay tight and interesting.

Similarities can also be seen with El Tajin, a city of Mesoamerica found just outside of Veracruz in Mexico that has since become a world heritage site. This site is more enclosed, and the main feature, The Pyramid of the Niches has potent similarities to some of Aztec’s architecture when compared to the in-game vision created by Chris Auty.


Santorini, as depicted in 'Global Offensive'

A little less vague than other maps, de_Santorini is on the nose about its influences, with the instantly recognizable Cycladic architecture that has made the city of Oia in northern Santorini so famous being one of the first things you see when you leave spawn. Recreating Santorini in multiplayer maps appears to be quite the popular thing, given that Overwatch has opted for the same style with Illios.

As well as the whitewashed walls, there are lots of Santorini’s world-famous rich blue church roofs to be spotted in this map by legendary community creator FMPONE, also responsible for Cache and Season.

Taken by Wolfgang Staudt from Saarbruecken, Germany.

Despite the fact that the serenity of the Cyclades has been undermined by the military operation at play, lots of the architecture is still intact, including one of the maps most iconic locations, a precarious-looking archway with a bell tower above it that can be rung by shooting them in-game. This appears to be inspired by the church of Panagia Platsani found again in modern Oia , situated in the northern-most peak of Santorini. At least the map isn’t still an unpopulated volcanic wasteland like Ancient Thera is in Assassin’s Creed Odyssey…


The map Nuke, as depicted in 'Global Offensive'

Consensus on the internet tends to compare Nuke’s power plant urban architecture to either Harz in Germany in older Counter-Strike games or Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania as of the Global Offensive revamp. The latter being the more interesting set piece, given the fact it was the site of a partial meltdown and radiation leak.

Photo from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

You can see the two power station structures in the background of the map from most angles, and the intricacy and business names found on the outside of buildings “Cedar Creek Nuclear Power Plant – The safest plant in the world.” are telltale signs of a power station. The above statement veiled in irony giving the number of bullets fired on this multiplayer map every day…


Overpass, as depicted in 'Global Offensive'

Introduced in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive, Overpass is a bomb defusal map created by an internal team at Valve. As your team pushes through brutal urban structures and into sewer tunnels, you might notice the giant tower visible in the background of the map. This is the Fernmeldeturm Nürnberg, a telecommunications mast which is known for its egg-like shape. It’s an imposing figure on the landscape which resides near a motorway and canal.

Overpass' real world inspiration, in Bavaria, Germany. Taken by Eigenes Werk.

Eagle-eyed fans have noted that you can see the Prague Castle in the skybox of this map, making things even more confusing, but it’s safe to say that Overpass is situated in Bavaria.


Assault, as depicted in 'Global Offensive'

A hostage rescue map set in urban America made by Lari Muuriasisniemi, Assault was brought back for Counter-Strike: Source and Global Offensive due to its popularity, bolstered by its use in custom games like Prop Hunt and its unique level design.

Chicago Transit Authority station known as Belmont, taken by Flickr user Zol87.

In the latest iteration of the map, there’s a homage to the town of Riverside from Left 4 Dead, but its main inspiration is clearly a Chicago Transit Authority station known as Belmont, given away by a street sign (complete with handy co-ordinates) hanging from the elevated structure next to the stairs in the ‘Street’ section of the map.


Cobblestone, as depicted in 'Global Offensive'

As we know it now, Cobblestone is part of the Active Duty pool and a popular map for fans, but it had humble beginnings as an English farmhouse-style set of structures created by Dave Johnston of Dust fame. Recounted in his 2014 blog post ‘Cobbles and Castles,’Johnston notes that whilst he initially intended to make “An enormous castle. A haunt for tourists and ghosts, probably,” he ended up settling for the “Ye Olde Anonymous Farmhouse” look after trying to make a map with similar design principles to Dust framed around a castle (and struggling.)

In Counter-Strike: Global Offensive the map was revamped and turned into an actual castle, though the real-world location is still a bit of a mystery. The Medieval mise en scene could place it anywhere from Sintra’s Quinta da Regaleira in Portugal to a lost castle in the Pyrenees

Photo by Sylx100.
Jordan Oloman
Geordie Journalist & Documentarian With Bylines at IGN, Kotaku, Rock Paper Shotgun, GamesMaster and more.