Few games have ever been as focused as Valorant, the new free-to-play, competitive first-person shooter from Riot Games. The company decided to shove just about everything that isn’t the gameplay to the side. This made the game’s excellent mechanical design its most important feature.
Valorant is Riot’s first game since releasing the famous League of Legends way back in 2009, & that release taught Riot some important lessons. One could improve character selection, balance, map design, & just about every other aspect of the experience over time, but to have any hope of the game taking root over the long-term, one has to start with a base that is absolutely rock-solid. With Valorant, that base is incredibly solid.
Riot Games makes the gamer think that it’s the player’s fault when something goes awry in a match, rather than blame it on cheating, balance, or anything else. If the losses belong to the players, so will the wins. Valorant has an impressive anti-cheat system that has been working well thus far. It also has an impressive deployment of including top of the line servers to reduce latency. These are all designed to support the ideal, & this is a great effort to multiplayer design & execution. We can see this approach in the game’s design itself. It takes ideas from other existing competitive first-person shooter games.
How is Valorant played?
The main game mode is fairly simple. Two teams of five players square off, with one team on offense & the other on defense. These teams switch places after 12 rounds. The first team to 13 wins takes the game. The game goes into overtime if both teams are tied on 12 wins. Here, the team that wins the next two consecutive rounds takes the game. An inability to do so means the game goes on until a winner is decided. The teams could decide to draw the game if the scores are still tied after two rounds at any stage in overtime.
The attacking side attempts to plant a bomb called the spike at one of the sites on the game’s 4 maps. This has to be done in 1 minute & 30 seconds after a round starts. The defending side has to stop this either by killing everyone on the attacking side or by defusing the planted spike. The players have only one life per round (with the exception of certain ability usages). This means either side can win simply by killing everyone else on the other team.
There are eight ranks: Iron, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Diamond, Immortal & Radiant. The first six are divided into three parts (e.g. Iron 1, 2 & 3). Players who are new to the game get the first two ranks, whereas veterans & pros get the latter two or three.
This action might sound familiar to those who played Counter-Strike or similar games in the past 10 years or so. However, Valorant departs from the formulae of those games with its characters called Agents. Each player gets to pick one out of several Agents at the beginning of a match. These Agents have their own abilities, adding an extra level of strategy. They also cannot be changed until the match is over.
The guns bought at the beginning of each round have aggressive recoil & spray bullets all over the place unless controlled properly. The weapons all fire somewhat slowly, each with a satisfying & unique booming sound. The challenge is to control the direction of those bullets. The first shot might be off-target, but the player can win the duel by adjusting the aim to get a headshot. It is always thrilling to win these fights, & they almost always come down to who has the quickest & best aim. Learning to control recoil is one of the game’s most rewarding & challenging mechanics.
The game isn’t shy of making shots fly wild when running. The first couple of shots would be relatively inaccurate, but most shots involve stopping entirely & shooting at targets. This doesn’t slow the game’s pacing at all. It comes down to aim as well as who began the engagement with a better physical position. This is where map knowledge comes into play. Most fights involve both players throwing down in a fair, face-to-face duel. However, it is also possible to get behind someone & catch them unaware if one has superior map awareness. One of the game’s great joys is learning how to anticipate enemy movement & getting stealthy kills. Having only five maps helps in that regard.
Story Mode: Needed or not?
Riot has compromised on the personality of the game. The visuals make it look as though it’s a shooter without much in the way of a strong story or characters. The game has enough flair to avoid the dour, military-sim look of Counter-Strike or Rainbow Six: Siege. There’s only hints of some kind of connected story, but nothing else. Riot has focused more on the mechanics of the game, rather than investing in a story mode. If the latter is poor, it could put off potential audiences so this is a good move in my opinion. The game rewards thoughtful play, quick reflexes, & technique.
A Winning Combination
While gunplay is king in the game, focusing on abilities is also important. Each Agent in the game has an ultimate ability, which they earn by getting kills or getting killed, a signature ability, which is refreshed for free every round, and two other abilities that can be bought — though they don’t disappear like the guns do if you die without using them. The agents keep them until they’re used, which means they can be purchased again next round.
What’s remarkable about Valorant’s abilities is how well they work together. For example, Brimstone is a character that can call smokes from the sky. One can start to learn all the best places to put the smokes to help the team by playing him. In a round, an attacking team’s Sova might shoot a Recon Bolt onto an area to locate enemies. If it finds a player, the opposition’s Brimstone can call down smoke in that area to hide him. Now the defender has to either retreat and give up the site or push through the smoke into the line of fire.
But the real fun starts the round after a successful attack. Should the defending player return to the same position? Should he move somewhere new? The attacking side will have to figure that out & decide on the best way to fight back. Making accurate, educated guesses on what the opposition will do is an important skill. Catching an attacking team looking in the wrong direction as a defender can sometimes let one win a whole round single-handedly.
Sage is an exception in this case. She can heal teammates, create a wall that can stop enemies in their tracks until they break through it, make a slow field that reduces the movement speed of anyone trying to get through, and a resurrection move that can bring a dead teammate back to life. Her uniqueness made her a must-pick character until recently when the impact of her abilities was reduced. This was done so as to ensure she wasn’t always picked, leading to more agents being used.
The five maps in the game currently look simple & feel small. These have straightforward designs, & limited angles of attack. This doesn’t mean the maps aren’t fun. There are areas that are exciting to attack & defend. Riot has done this by mixing up long & short angles, complicated cover placement and changes in elevation, or unique rooms and odd corners. They decided against using mechanics like teleporters (except in one map) or closable doors. The fundamentals still create the best battlefields, and Riot has shown it understands the fundamentals of good shooter level design. Other improvements will come with time & refinement.
A safe bet of one’s time
Riot has proven to be responsive to its community in the past. After the beta, pro players and streamers complained that accuracy returned too quickly after players stopped running. They reworked the system to force players to come to a more complete stop before they could again shoot accurately. This made movement in the game fairer. Riot also brought over League’s proven monetization model to Valorant as well. Players spend their money on gun skins through microtransactions. There are also battle passes that provide banners for a player profile, keychains for the guns & sprays to earn.
Players only have access to five of the several Agents (which are locked) when they begin the game. But more come quickly as Riot gives a player two character unlocks within the first five or 10 games. The rest have to be earned over a longer period of time, or purchased directly for real-world currency. It takes around 20 matches to earn a new character that has its own unique abilities.
Valorant runs smoothly on even lower-level systems, making sure players don’t need to spend large amounts of money for a competitive advantage. The game’s recommended specs are reasonably low and should keep one competitive even on aging hardware. This is clearly meant for everyone who has the desire to put in the practice time, not just those who can afford higher-end rigs.
The game may still be more promise than reality in some ways, but what already exists is strong enough to bring in players and keep them there while Riot refines the experience. It is at a fantastic starting point, and there’s every reason to believe it’s only going to get better from here.