There’s a song from a band called The Long Winters that goes “It’s familiar, but not too familiar. But not too not familiar” and for the life of me I can’t think of a better phrase to describe Riot Games’ new free-to-play tactical shooter Valorant. While the game may not be completely original, the fusion of genres, the quality of life improvements, and some nifty additions to a familiar formula make up a solid base game that’s incredibly addictive and fun-to-play.
Valorant’s gameplay is a marriage of your favorite hero shooter and Counter Strike:Global Offensive. It lifts the core gameplay of CS:GO (weapons and economy, round-based bomb planting/defusal, gunplay) and dresses it up with the lore, personality and game-changing abilities of games like Overwatch or Paladins. Judging from what we’ve played so far, the combination of genres works out really well, serving up elite, no-frills gameplay with refreshing levity, charm, and dynamism.
The gunplay in Valorant feels tight, powerful, and above all, well-balanced. This comes as no surprise as the guns in the game are direct analogues to the ones in CS:GO. From the selection of pistols, to the holy duo of assault rifles (the Vandal and Phantom are just functionally the M4 and AK-47) to their cleverly-named sniper rifle, Operator (called out as “Op” which is a homonym for CS:GO’s “AWP”) these are guns that are all functionally the same as their counterparts in the other game.
However, it’s the addition of skills and ultimate abilities that really serves as the spice of life for Valorant’s gameplay and helps it become more than a sum of its parts. Each of the characters add something new to the traditional shooter formula. A majority have some version of walls, smokes with unique properties to deny angles and entrances to a site. A few characters can even heal themselves and others which throws the typical dynamic of engagements on its head. These are all on top of some very unique abilities such as cameras, tripwires, teleports, drones, rocket launchers and earth-shattering explosions that go through walls which freshen up the combat while making each character feel incredibly fun to use all while staying well-balanced.
Above all, the quality of life improvements that Valorant has made to the CS:GO gameplay goes above and beyond in making the experience fun and functional. There’s the context-sensitive pings that mark a location to point out key areas and enemies which, although isn’t as sophisticated as its peers in other games, is very helpful regardless. There’s also the mini-map that’s just about the most helpful mini-map that we’ve seen included in a first-person shooter. It shows lines of sight, enemies’ last known locations, player skill usage, and skill placement as well as the radius of noise that your footsteps make. Players can also call up the mini-map to make more accurate pings on it, making area control and the overall information battle much easier to digest. This is where Valorant shines, like a great chef, it takes the familiar and adds just enough spice and seasoning to make it into something special.
At the time of writing, Valorant has 5 major game modes. The main one being the Unrated game mode, which is a traditional 5v5 round-based, Spike (read:bomb) Planting/Defusal race to 13 points with each team choosing from a roster of 11 heroes to form their squad. A team cannot select duplicates and there’s no hero switching
For those looking for a quicker experience there’s Spike Rush which is a shorter version of Unrated, racing to only 4 points, attackers all have Spikes, and all players spawn with all their skills refilled and equipped with the same weapon which is randomly selected each round. There’s also a barebones Custom Game option for those looking to play with friends.
Valorant has also released their Competitive ranked game mode post-launch which features 8 ranks with 3 tiers each, with the highest rank being Radiant. The ranking is geared towards individual performance at first then shifts towards actual match results at a certain point. The system was tuned with the prevention of smurf accounts in mind as well as keeping the player experience fair.
Finally, there’s Valorant’s exceptionally robust Practice mode, which goes above and beyond any other shooter’s training mode. From the highly customizable shooting range where you can train your flicks and test spray patterns for different guns at various distances, to straight-up situations on how to secure a site to plant and defuse at different difficulties, Valorant’s practice mode gives players a lot more tools to master the game than your average shooter. For a skills-heavy game like this, its commitment to helping you get good at it is absolutely well-appreciated.
Let’s talk about characters a bit more. With no hero switching in any of the game types it’s a testament to Valorant’s design and balance that all their agents are useful on both the attacking and defending sides of the game. Additionally, in terms of overall character balance, the initial group of 11 agents (6 available from the get-go, 5 unlockable) pretty much share the same power levels. They’re all categorized into distinct roles such as Duelists, Initiator, Controller and Sentinel. There are some standout agents but they don’t feel overpowered and broken. On the other side of the spectrum it doesn’t feel like there’s an agent that’s completely underpowered as well. Every Agent has utility and functionality that are useful for most situations and Valorant does a good job of keeping everybody viable and relevant in the meta. We’ll see how additions to the roster will affect the balance in the future.
From a visual standpoint however, the agent’s designs are a bit lacking. They are beautifully rendered in a charming, angular art style but the design elements are pretty tame and understated–I would even dare to say, a little generic. The roster itself does what it can to fit different nationalities but it doesn’t exactly take huge leaps in diversity or representation. Additionally, every one of the initial 11 agents more or less share the same exact body type with only some negligible differences. The result is a cast of characters that’s not strikingly distinct from each other. Some characters such as Breach and Brimstone or Omen and Cypher will sort of blend together at times to those who are not yet well versed in the game.
As far as the characters themselves go, there is some subtle amount of personality in there but not nearly enough to hang your hat on. This is a shame since the voice cast really did a good job in bringing these characters to life with unique and interesting voices. The voice lines themselves though are often pretty “Plain Jane” as they come serving more as tactical callouts rather than avenues for personality. It would have been much more ideal if a fun middle ground was found between the two approaches.
In terms of overall art design, Valorant shot for a look that toes the line between realistic and cartoonish which results in visuals that’s rarely ever boring to look at. Its use of color is largely ingenious with mostly pastel hues livening up the usual drab of tactical shooters and the striking cel-shaded like look of the game’s effects make them eye-catching and gorgeous by contrast.
When it comes to narrative, Valorant doesn’t have much in terms of backstory. There are bits and pieces hidden in the different maps and a few voice lines that hint at an overarching narrative but these are all very vague and unconfirmed.
Valorant’s level design is a huge high point. Each of the game’s 4 maps feel very distinct and have a lot of nuance to them from a micro and macro gameplay standpoint. Various corridors, flanking/lurking spots and sniper perches all provide each of the maps with subtle quirks on top of their own unique signature gimmick. For example, Bind has one-way teleporters where teams can pull a quick flank or switcheroo; Split is focused on controlling the middle area; Haven has 3 bombsites, and Ascent has bomb doors that help close up the site. All four of the initial maps are fun to play on and each map offers a decent tactical challenge for all skill levels.
Extra content and unlockables in Valorant are all cosmetic, aside from playable characters. These are acquired through a number of ways: Contracts, Battle Pass and the Store. Contracts are the character-specific in-game reward tracks that quantify your in-game points through playing games and completing weekly goals which will unlock sprays, banners, etc., and eventually a playable character. Once unlocked a character is yours forever even after the eventual character rotation system comes into play. The Battle Pass nets you cool rewards on both the Free or Paid track. You can also purchase Weapon Skins in the Valorant store through microtransactions via Valorant points which can range from 300 to 1250 PHP (5 to 25 USD) )which seems like a fair price for skins if not a little bloated. However, the point of the matter is that the skins and other microtransactions are completely optional.
You can also use Radianite points to upgrade some weapon skins with new visual audio effects, and you can even trick them out with a cool finisher that pops up when you kill someone. Radianite points are redeemable through Valorant points with the smallest sum being 1600 Valorant for 20 Radianite. This I feel is a little steep considering the fact that upgrades to skins usually cost around 10-15 Radianite amounting to roughly 600 PHP (12 USD) per 1-2 upgrades. However, once again these are all at the behest of the player and not in any way mandatory.
Perhaps the most controversial element of Valorant is it’s aggressive anti-cheat software, Vanguard. The program goes beyond traditional anti-cheat measures by always being active from startup and even when you’re not playing the game. As such, it tends to eat up a lot of your memory and monitors your data even though you’re doing something unrelated. This has resulted in several reports of gaming rigs slowing down and flat out crashing from the constant activity. It’s a serious concern that may be a potential deal-breaker to those unwilling to risk their privacy and their system’s health.
Valorant is a fun, polished shooter that doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel. It just puts a new, refreshing spin on a classic formula which makes it a blast to play.
As it stands, a lot of the game, from the story to the characters’ personalities, to unlockables and game modes, feel very bare. However, what is there- immaculate gunplay, inventive level design, and a willingness to spice up tactical shooter conventions-is a solid framework to build on and add upon.
Given that the game is free, Valorant presents players with a lot of value and incentive to pick it up and get good at it. Gamers that are even remotely interested in competitive FPS games, who are willing to brave the privacy and performance risks of its anti-cheat software, should definitely give it a try.
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