With last year’s Teamfight Tactics and this year’s Legends of Runeterra, Riot Games looked to grow their image and legacy beyond being the developer that made League of Legends.
They don’t just want to be the studio behind one of the biggest IPs in the gaming world. They want to be a company behind multiple. The comparisons to Blizzard Entertainment invite themselves and, with the arrival of Valorant, they feel more and more accurate.
Billed as the fusion of Overwatch and Counter-Strike, the shooter is Riot’s attempt to grow their brand beyond the single fictional setting that all their previous games have been tied to.
Even if it’s got the same free-to-play structure and emphasis on character found in their developer’s other games, Valorant sees the studio behind the world’s biggest MOBA shift genres, settings and even game development tech. Where the engine powering their other games was built in-house, their first shooter relies on Unreal. In some ways, all this is a big gamble. In others, it's an all-too-predictable continuation of the developer’s track-record.
Riot have always been exceptionally good at reinventing the wheel and Valorant adds another notch to that legacy.
Stealing from the best
Set in a science fiction-flavoured vision of the near future, Valorant’s setting and story somehow manages to be more vague than even that of Overwatch. Each match of the multiplayer shooter puts you in the shoes of a highly-skilled (and fashionably-dressed) agent but it’s not super clear what’s at stake, what you’re fighting over or who you should be rooting for.
Who is Valorant? Is it me? Why are we fighting?
Lines of in-game dialogue and a cinematic cutscene released at launch give some context to the action but it’s all very vague - even if the tone is intriguing enough that I want to learn more.
Nevertheless, the primary game type in Valorant is a cleaner and shorter take on the round-based gunplay found in Valve’s Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.
One side is designated attackers, the other: defenders. Each round, attackers are tasked with planting the spike (a timed explosive charge) at one of the bomb sites before time runs out or eliminating their opposition in the attempt. The defenders are out to prevent this.
The side that secures thirteen rounds first wins. However, after twelve rounds, the two sides swap roles.
Matches of Valorant unfold gradually and are rarely decisive. Smashing through your opponent’s defenses in the first half is no guarantee that your team will be able to hold it together once you’re forced to play on the other side of the table. As hectic as individual skirmishes can get, it’s usually best to pace yourself - since rounds can go as long as forty minutes.
Compared to lightning-fast shooters like Overwatch, Apex Legends, Call of Duty or Destiny’s Crucible, the average Valorant match can feel like an eternity. Thankfully, there’s also a faster Spike Rush mode that lets you get in a quick fix without potentially committing to a full match. This first-to-4 format gives everyone a random weapon and spike each round, making for a faster, more furious affair.
Like Counter Strike, Valorant also lets you buy new weapons and armor between rounds with kills, victory and spike plants endowing your budget with extra funds. However, unlike Valve’s round-based tac-shooter, you also have to save and spend money on your character’s abilities.
At launch, Valorant has a total of eleven playable agents. Riot gives you the first five for free. The rest are unlocked through play but you’re able to shortcut that process through the game’s microtransactions.
The roster here isn’t quite as diverse as something like Overwatch or Apex Legends. Most characters conform to the archetype of being a human with a gun. There are no mechanical-hamsters here. Instead, Valorant’s agents fall into one of four categories.
Duelists have offensive abilities that make them better for engaging the enemy. Sentinels favor defensive play and punishing enemy aggression. Controllers are able to deny the enemy team space and vision while Initiators are ideal at scouting and tracking the enemy.
Where in Overwatch the only real cost to using your abilities is time, Valorant asks you to purchase charges of your abilities ahead of time. By design, this encourages you to be more deliberate about your abilities. They don’t cost that much in-game money but they cost you something, which makes you think more about when and where you want to use them.
It also places a hard limit on the number of abilities that can be deployed within a round, making things easier to keep track of. Once you’ve seen the enemy Phoenix deploy his fire-wall ability, you know he no longer has that ability at his disposal. That knowledge is power.
As with Overwatch, the visual and sound design in Valorant is supremely polished. The guns roar and the animations delight. At the time of writing, the game only features four maps but the environments involved are decently diverse and filled with nifty details.
Valorant currently lacks the cosmopolitan charm (and volume) found in Overwatch or Rainbow Six: Vegas but what’s here is no less replayable and sure to expand over time.
Like Counter-Strike, Valorant also uses sound design in a number of interesting ways. Listening for the footsteps of your opponents, while muffling your own, is often critical. In addition, each kill scored rings out a note that’s an octave higher than the last, with the short-melody played upon victory injecting further euphoria into the thrill of triumph.
Of course, if you’re coming to Valorant with a background of playing other tactical shooters like Counter-Strike, you’re going to have something of an advantage.You’ll know what an eco-round is. You’ll know that crouching yields the most accuracy and you’ll probably be pretty familiar with the guns in the game.
As someone doesn’t have that background, I was surprised with how Valorant uses in-game calls to teach you these higher level tactics. Rather than feed me a tooltip telling me that my money pool will reset at the end of the first half, I’d overhear an in-game comrade remark on it during the brief lull before the start of a round.
That being said, there’s definitely a learning curve to Valorant that there isn’t with much of its competition. Even if the snappy time-to-kill makes individual play more impactful, it’s nowhere near as accessible as Overwatch. While that quality is going to appeal to some audiences, it’s going to turn-off others.
If you’re a newcomer to this style of shooter, you’ll probably need to play a dozen or so rounds before you can start to think and move at the speed that the game demands.
After a week of regular play, I feel like I’m starting to get the hang of it. I’m starting to understand that there are no bad weapons, only bad situations. I’m still often a little slow on the trigger but I’m starting to think more about how I can use my abilities to create opportunities where I don’t have to be the fastest gunslinger on the battlefield in order to win.
Like League of Legends and Legends of Runeterra, Valorant is free-to-play but funded through mostly-cosmetic microtransactions.
As previously mentioned, additional agents are either unlocked through play or purchased using real money (approximately AU$15/per agent). There’s also an in-game store that sells weapons skins and accessories. Some of these are able to be evolved using the game’s secondary currency - turning one-time purchases into long-term progression paths.
Finally, there’s a battle pass (also priced at approximately AU$15) that rewards cosmetic upgrades for the guns and agents in the game. If you’re on the premium tier, you’ll earn a reward every level. If you’re playing for free, you’ll get something every five levels.
The Bottom Line
So long as you’re willing to learn by losing, there’s an immensely rewarding multiplayer experience to be had with Valorant.
When the clock is ticking, your team is communicating properly and the fighting is at its fiercest, Valorant’s dynamic gunfights feel incredibly rewarding in a way that many other shooters just don’t. It’s been a long time since I’ve played a multiplayer game that causes my spare time to seemingly evaporate in the way that this one does.
It helps that Valorant is so enjoyable to watch. Even if you get eliminated early, the tension inherent in spectating a team trying to salvage things keeps you engaged.
They say if you swing at the king, you'd best not miss. Valorant doesn't - but whether it's prepared to follow-up feels like another question.
It feels like Riot looked at Counter-Strike and Overwatch and said, hey, we can make a better one of those. In some ways, they did and right now, that's enough. Whether that'll change in the months to come remains to be seen. Blizzard have shown a willingness to radically reinvent Overwatch over the last four years and Counter-Strike continues to be popular.
Valorant is a strategic shooter where the drawn-out tension of defensive play can be just as thrilling as rapid-fire offensive maneuvers, improvisation can be just as effective as premeditation and it’s never too late to line up the unlikely string of headshots that flips an impending defeat into an unlikely victory.
Valorant is available now on PC.