Editor’s note: This review is currently in progress to allow more time to experience more of Valorant in a post-launch environment. We’ll update and finalize the review as the author digs deeper and plays more of the game.
Think Counter-Strike with hero elements. That’s the elevator pitch for Valorant, Riot Games’ first foray into competitive first-person shooters. I say that not to disparage Valorant, though. In fact, that’s what I love most about it, especially since it executes on the formula extremely well. Valorant thrives because of tight, tactical gameplay and a mix of character-based abilities that provide a necessary strategic layer. Although it’s a slim package with limited features and barren presentation, Valorant has the potential to be great.
The core mode of Valorant revolves around five-on-five matches where one team (defenders) defends bomb sites while the other (attackers) tries to plant at bomb sites, switching sides about halfway through a best-of-25. The stakes are high as everyone gets only one life per round, and the focus on precise gunplay with low time-to-kill leaves little margin for error. You also have to consider the team’s economy–depending on performance, money gets distributed to players each round which is used to buy gear before the round commences. This factors into a team’s decision to buy better equipment or save for future rounds. In turn, each round ratchets up the intensity as the tide of advantage can shift at any moment or between rounds.
Valorant’s dynamics are enough to sustain it as a competitive shooter worth investing time into because winning itself is an intrinsic reward built on the merits of strong gameplay.
Valorant isn’t your typical shooter where spraying and wild jump shots will get you to top fragging. Every gun has specific recoil patterns, and understanding how to handle what you’re equipped with is step one. Learning how to effectively peek around corners as you move into firefights or hold specific sightlines to anticipate enemy activity comes next. There’s a distinct, tempered pace to how it’s played, further emphasized by the importance of sound. Footsteps will tip you off to the direction and distance of enemies, where they’re trying to push on the map, and sometimes hint at their general strategies. This is all to say that Valorant maintains a certain calculated design that ushers in the fun mental aspect you’d expect from a good tactical shooter.
Agents themselves (11 in total) introduce an essential X-factor to the mix. While the easy comparison is Overwatch, Valorant’s Agent abilities function more like gear in a loadout. Most are subject to limited uses per round and charges have to be bought (but thankfully carry over even if you’re killed). Knowing how and when to execute these abilities is absolutely essential to grasp, especially when teams fire on all cylinders.
Reviving a teammate with Sage’s revive ultimate can be a game-changer, while her ice barrier can cut off dangerous sightlines at key moments. And her healing spell could just be the difference in whether or not a teammate comes out alive in a firefight. Phoenix on the other hand can lead offensive pushes with his curveball flashbangs, AOE fireballs, and damaging firewalls. And another personal favorite, Jett, has the gift of mobility that let you either throw off opponents, get better vision of the action, or simply charge the enemy aggressively.
It’d be tough to break down all 11 Agents’ abilities, but know that most of them come down to catching enemies off guard or debilitating them as you approach firefights, and some offer support to teammates. Agents are also designed for one of four role designations to help facilitate proper composition. While there may be a little overlap in terms of what certain abilities do, each Agent has the capacity to be effective without feeling like a chore to play. Understanding their use cases will put your team in a better position to win, but you’ll also know how to react when you see your opponent using same tactics–it all seems well-balanced so far.
This time-tested demolition mode remains an enticing context for thrilling FPS moments because of how much it stresses player skill and executing strategy, just like Counter-Strike or Rainbow Six Siege. But it cuts both ways as the experience can sometimes devolve into frustration. It’s not necessarily Valorant’s fault; rather, it’s inherent to this style of game.
Being stuck with a poorly coordinated team will make these long-winded matches feel like a drag. You’ll be understandably punished for leaving, and the team will proceed with one less player who won’t be backfilled, compounding the disadvantage. It’s one area we can expect the Valorant experience to improve when ranked matchmaking comes around; however, we won’t exactly know how it’ll manage player skill levels until it’s implemented. Squadding up with friends mitigates the problem, of course, and at least in my experience, random teammates have been willing to work together and coordinate more often than not.
Full matches are a considerable time investment–Valorant itself indicates that they can last 30 to 40 minutes, which is expected with these kinds of games. There is also a bite-sized mode called Spike Rush, where the buy phase is dropped in favor of randomized loadouts, all attackers carry spikes (the bomb), and all Agent abilities (except for Ults) get fully charged at the start of the round. You’ll find power-ups like hyper speed, damage boost, or Ult charges on the map to play it up as an arcade-style mode. It’s a best-of-seven match that runs about 10 minutes, so you can get your fill without the long-term commitment. It’d be nice to have other variations on this mode since Spike Rush negates some core strategic elements and feels a bit too short for the time it takes to get started, but it offers a welcome change of pace when you want it.
Currently, Valorant features four maps to play at random. Haven is the only one to feature three separate bomb sites, but other than that one, each map feels quite similar. Some have key map features like Ascent’s A-site shuttered door and Bind’s cross-map teleporters that accelerate site rotations. That said, the maps are designed with balance and symmetry in mind, so they make for proper competitive battlegrounds.
A lot of this sentiment can be attributed to Valorant’s bland art style. I understand it’s meant to be a low-spec game that can run on old hardware, and the visuals make it easy to distinguish what’s happening on screen. Given Riot’s emphasis on esports, the direction of prioritizing function over flash makes sense. But it doesn’t negate the fact that Valorant isn’t particularly exciting to look at whether spectator or player.
To its credit, Valorant’s character designs bring in a touch of charisma to the game (although some Agents seem quite similar to heroes we’ve seen before). It’s a somewhat diverse roster with slick-looking Agents, but the game loses out on their potential by mostly relying on generic personalities and tired character tropes. There isn’t much of a world around Valorant, and in the age of games like Apex Legends, Overwatch, and even Riot’s own League of Legends, an element of fanfare goes missing for the time being.
Aside from its tight core gameplay loop, Valorant adopts modern progression mechanics to motivate you to keep playing. You’ll earn XP through completing matches and daily goals are set so you can earn some hefty extra XP. Then you have Contracts, which are essentially progression tracks that’ll receive the XP you earn. These then unlock cosmetics and Agents of your choice (you start with five in the base roster). Since I used a reviewer’s account, several gun skins and 10,000 VP (premium currency) were included to unlock all Agents. At the moment, it’s tough to gauge the integrity of the microtransactions and rewards system, but this will be an aspect to analyze as I march closer toward the finalized review.
Right now, Valorant has a strong foundation in its gameplay, and of course, that’s the most significant part for an FPS of this style to succeed. Although it doesn’t break new ground, the dynamic of sharp gunplay and Agent abilities would make Counter-Strike and Overwatch proud. Valorant easily captures the competitive highs of a good, intense match at the risk of pigeonholing you in a bad one. However, outside the two available modes of standard unranked and the modified Spike Rush, there isn’t much else to it. It’s important to keep in mind that these types of games are always evolving and I’ll be taking that into account as things change and put more time into it. Regardless, Valorant’s in a good state–it’s not great, but it certainly can be.