Valorant Takes Aim at the King

I’ve been excited to play Riot’s Valorant for a long time, and not just for the sake of the game itself. I’m a long-term Counter-Strike player and, over the decades, have seen that series evolve as its potential competitors, for the most part, came and went. While other games’ viewing figures vary wildly and some eSports scenes are gone as fast as they blow up, Counter-Strike: Global Offensive has been a consistently growing and dominant presence among competitive shooters. Few developers can directly compete with a juggernaut like this and the rare example that carves out its own niche, such as Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six: Siege, does so thanks to distinct mechanics, constant iteration and support.

For all the criticism aimed at Valve’s support of Counter-Strike: Global Offensive over the years – and there is a never-ending supply – the fact is that the developer has got a lot right. The in-game economy obviously followed from the experience of Team Fortress 2 but, unlike in that game, Valve has been cautious about keeping the competitive experience pure (that is, until the Shattered Web update, which added character skins for use in competitive). You can reasonably say that, while CS:GO as a package is now unrecognizable from the game that launched in 2011, at its heart it is fundamentally the same game. If it ain’t broke, and all that.

This conservative strategy has served CS:GO well but, no matter how well-supported the game has been, it’s now nine years old. So my hope with Valorant was not just that Riot would make a game I love, but one that would give another game I love a boot up the backside. From the off, Valorant impresses with the kind of menu design and general polish that only years and many programmers can buy, and some of the quality-of-life improvements make aspects of Valve’s shooter feel archaic.

This might seem ridiculous, but the single thing that most impressed me in Valorant is a menu option. Central to the magic of CS:GO and Valorant is the match economy, whereby players gain money each round depending on performance. So success begets success, and individuals have to manage their money as a collective: in particular, good teams will spread their cash around and buy weapons for each other.

Buying for your teammates has been around for as long as Counter-Strike has been around. So retrospectively it is mind-blowing that this is and remains an entirely player- and chat-driven element: you have to ask your team during the limited ‘buy’ period, not all of whom may be responsive or on chat, and if you’re not playing too well it can be awkward at best, or lead to abuse at worst.

Valorant lets you right-click on a weapon in the buy menu, and then your character will request it. Your teammates can see this, hear an automated shout-out, and anyone with the cash can click the ‘purchase’ option that appears next to your name. One right-click automates something that is absolutely central to how these games work. Among the many small improvements made by Valorant, this is brilliant and an undeniable improvement over the status quo.

Automated call-outs are not new to the genre but Valorant sets a new standard. No automated system could replicate the synergy of team chat, though often in these games one finds that their team does lack chat, and so this not only has an important role but also enhances human chat: your character will call out when they spot enemies, and icons will appear on the map for as long as they can see them, meaning you can focus on adding to that baseline with additional information.

A post-match timeline lets you analyze your performance over individual rounds

You might find it strange that I’ve focused on these elements without yet talking about the shooting. That’s because these elements of team co-ordination and map information are absolutely foundational as to whether Valorant can compete with Counter-Strike. The latter has been one of the best competitive experiences in gaming for over twenty years not just because of its crisp, precise mechanics or outstanding map design, but because at its core it depends on team communication and strategy.

The major distinction between the two games is Valorant’s roster of characters, each of which has three abilities (two of which have to be bought) and one ultimate ability (which charges through kills and orbs found on the map). My current favorite is Raze, an explosion-loving lady whose kit encourages aggressive play: her basic ability is a throwable grenade that explodes into mini-grenades; the two purchasable abilities are a ‘boom bot’ that drives around looking for enemies to explode on, and a satchel charge that’s manually triggered; her ultimate ability is a good old-fashioned rocket that deals massive splash damage.

These abilities are not as simple as they seem. Much of Valorant lies in using a given character’s tools to work out where the enemies are, and then utilizing that to engage with an advantage. So with Raze I mostly use the Boom Bot as a distraction, something that I can send round corners to attract fire and clue me in on where enemies might be. If it indicates there’s an enemy there then I might use the satchel charge to ‘rocket jump’ out of cover, hoping the surprise will let me land a shot, or if there’s an angle I’ll use my grenade to force them to abandon that position and move into the open.

This is a minor or major theme in every character’s particular toolset. Sova, for example, is an archer who has a radar arrow to spot enemies, a little flying robot that can ‘pfft’ tracking darts into anything it spots, and then a shock arrow that can use this information to land and cause area damage. His ult is three massive shots of electricity that go through walls. Cypher uses cameras and tripwires to the same end, with an ult that uses a dead enemy to expose their teammates’ positions. Which is great if you’re playing as Breach, whose abilities can fire dazing and damaging shockwaves through walls, or Omen, who can teleport short distances, obscure vision, and flank unwary foes with ease.

As should be clear, each character’s abilities are individually powerful, but it’s hitting the right combinations that can make them over-powered. The classic Counter-Strike strategies are all here: entering with flashes and smokes, hitting multiple points of entry at the same time, faking aggression, or defuses. But the sheer range of utility layered atop this makes defending and attacking sites a different game depending on each team’s composition. Some teams suit hyper-aggressive plays and have the means to enter and overwhelm sites, while others pick and prod around the map looking for information, before slicing through a weak point when the enemy’s guard is down.

As a straight-up shooter Valorant’s ‘gunfeel’ is exceptional, and it had to be. The Counter-Strike principles are followed like holy writ from on high: any movement destabilizes your aim, and combat comes down to picking precise headshots when all around you are spraying like madmen. The sensation of a successful headshot is instantly communicated through the enemy avatar’s crumpled collapse and an exquisitely tuned sound effect that escalates across multiple kills. When you nail three in a row in quick succession, it feels for a second like a rhythm game.

The gun selection is parsimonious but refined. Essentially Valorant identifies the Counter-Strike guns that are most central, and has whittled its own selection down to the key distinctions. So whereas CS:GO has half-a-dozen shotguns, Valorant offers two: but these two are basically the economy option, the 900-credit Bucky, and the luxury automatic Judge at 1,500 credits. Similarly, the four assault rifles cover the important bases: the 2,100-credit Bulldog is the FAMAS equivalent, serviceable but cheap; the 2,700-credit Guardian is a single-shot headshot with no automatic fire (this reminded me of Halo’s DMR); the Phantom and Vandal are the premium options at 2900 credits, our AK-47s and M4s if you will, with the Phantom doing slightly less damage overall but firing faster.

There are also two machine guns, two heavy guns, two snipers (the premium option is called The Operator: as in, AWP-erator), and five pistols. What matters is that this selection of guns covers all the bases, for my playstyle at least. I enjoy flitting between weapons depending on how a match is playing out, and whenever I want to be a sneaky shotgun man, sniper king, or simply give myself a chance in an eco round with a better pistol, Valorant has the gun I need.

Valorant’s economy operates in the same way as, you guessed it, Counter-Strike’s example. Each half of the match begins with a pistol round and 800 credits per player, and if the team is performing well you’ll have more money, and if you’re doing badly you’ll have less – though if a team loses rounds on the bounce, the game starts to give them extra cash to help their chances of a comeback. Valorant’s beautiful perfect buy screen includes buttons to tell your teammates you’re saving, or have extra credits and can buy for them, yet another improvement.

I haven’t played enough Valorant to be definitive about this, but my gut says that the economy here is slightly more generous than CS:GO, while still providing that rhythm and structure to each match. When you’re on top the money can be endless, to the extent that you lose a round but still have the money for two more full buys. When you’re underneath there will be rounds where it’s better to save, or buy like a Yorkshireman, but you only ever end up truly bankrupt when a team ignores reality and keeps on spending everything every round (and still losing).

Suffice to say, Valorant at launch looks like a serious competitor to Counter-Strike. Even without the abilities, this would merely be an excellent shooter. With the abilities, you can see the possibilities and combinations going sky-high. And of course, Riot’s League of Legends business model has always been about expanding it with new characters, and re-making old ones to keep them relevant, so one would expect this side of the game will only get stronger.

Valorant is free-to-play, and at launch offers a premium pass that unlocks extra cosmetics as you level up, which costs just under a tenner. You start with five characters unlocked and, after a few nights’ play, I’ve unlocked two more. Unlocking the roster does feel slightly grindy but there’s no need to put money into this unless you want to, for now at least, because everything else is cosmetic.

Where Valorant stumbles is in more minor issues which, hopefully, can be improved over time. The script is pretty terrible, with most of the character shout-outs at the beginning of rounds inviting a cringe rather than camaraderie. This is especially noticeable perhaps because CS:GO’s script is a masterpiece of world-building through flavor text, to the extent that teams love quoting the lines to each other (“Gear up. We’re not going on a windy walk here”). The only time Valorant’s shout-outs raise a smile for me is when Phoenix, a character that Riot should be paying Dizzee Rascal royalties for, gets a kill and quips “look sharp”.

The aesthetic side suffers from the obvious comparison, which for once is not CS:GO but Overwatch. The art style here has the advantages of clarity, scalability, and a bright color palette – then again Overwatch has all that too, with bags more charm. This is a good-looking game, and I don’t really have any beef with the style… but I don’t love it. I doubt we’ll see anything like the level of fan adoration for Blizzard’s characters replicated in Valorant’s community.

But the things I love in Valorant are many, while the problems are minor and few. Who knows what the long-term holds but this is a seriously impressive tilt at the competitive shooting king, and while its debt is obvious Riot’s designers bring enough new ideas to render it distinct. Valorant has the precision, it has the rhythm, and it serves up thrilling matches with real consistency. CS:GO is one of those games I return to again and again because, for me, no other competitive game has ever come close to the feelings of excitement, tension, and teamplay it can create. That is, until now.

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