Valorant is a PC game that takes heavy inspiration from an incredibly popular first-person shooter, and improves on the formula in subtle ways that only a developer like Riot Games could. It borrows a lot of the underlying scaffolding, but adds just enough freshness to make you want to keep coming back for more. In essence, Valorant is Counter-Strike: Global Offensive with magic powers, but it’s much more than that, too. This is a game that uses one of the genre’s most beloved gameplay elements (you vs. me, with guns), and innovates on it in ways that have us very excited to see what the title has in store beyond its closed beta test.
For years, people believed that the developer’s name, Riot Games, was a bit of a dishonest title. Not because Riot Games isn’t a game developer—it is. The pluralized “Games” is what most people found troublesome. That’s because prior to 2019, since its inception in 2006, Riot Games had only published a single title: League of Legends.
Now, forgetting for a second that League of Legends became the most popular multiplayer game of all time, you’d be forgiven for having your doubts that Riot could pull a move like Valorant off. The company has no track record when it comes to releasing games that aren’t League of Legends-based (both the auto-battler Teamfight Tactics and card game Legends of Runeterra exist in the League of Legends universe), and even less (read: zero) publishing first-person shooters. Plus, if you ask anyone in the League of Legends community their opinion on how Riot handles character balance, the responses you get back will definitely need to be bleeped for content.
I had my doubts, too. When I first saw Valorant, I echoed what almost everyone thought: It’s Counter-Strike meets Overwatch. However, it’s more reminiscent of Dirty Bomb, a 2018 game that flew under everyone’s radar. In fact, Valorant shares almost all of its DNA with certain Dirty Bomb modes. But Valorant brings to the table the same thing Riot has brought to the table with every other game it’s released in the past year: refinement and innovation.
Tom Clancy’s Overstrike: Global Valorant
At its core, Valorant’s gameplay, map design, strategy and mechanics are wholly reminiscent of Counter-Strike, however there are flavors of Overwatch in the mix with the Skills/Powers/Ultimate system (an idea that developer Blizzard originally borrowed from League of Legends). Rainbow Six: Siege and even Team Fortress 2 are strewn about in the cracks, too.
The game is round-based, with two teams of five players going head-to-head on various maps where the only goal is for the attacking team to detonate a bomb on a designated site, or for the defending team to prevent that from happening. The game is played to 13 rounds; whoever gets to 13 round victories first wins the match, and the matches are split into two halves where each side swaps their position once.
Of all the Counter-Strike aspects that Valorant mirrors, the Buy Phase will probably be the most recognizable. You earn money at the start of each round, as well as every time you kill an enemy or complete an objective (which is also how you generate Ultimates, more on that in a minute). This money can be used to purchase guns, shields, and, specifically in Valorant’s case, Abilities. In Counter-Strike, this is where players would spend money on Utilities, such as smoke grenades, flash grenades, and defuse kits.
In Valorant, though, Utilities are replaced with Abilities, which are based on the hero you choose to play at the beginning of the match. This is where Overwatch’s influence comes into play. Omen is a Valorant hero who has a teleport mechanic and design aesthetic that are almost line-for-line ripoffs of Overwatch’s Reaper. The ice wall that Sage constructs is basically a permanent version of Mei’s main ability. For all intents and purposes, Raze might as well be called Junkrat and Sova is Hanzo.
Abilities are purchased with cash. Depending on the character, Abilities come with a number of set charges that can be spent during the match (or saved between matches, even after deaths). Some abilities are native however (Sova’s recon arrow, Jett’s dash, etc), and also work on either a charges-per-round or timed recharge mechanic. Ultimates, on the other hand, can only be acquired through play: either racking up kills or capturing “Ult Points” that are scattered around the map. Ultimates can be used once, and then they need to be recharged. The game’s deep-level strategy exists in how your team spends these abilities, where the characters land on the map, and how coordinated you all are with each other.
The characters have their own personalities, skins, voice lines, and many other things to monetize. Even though the game just entered closed beta, there’s already a store full of skins for your guns, which the average anywhere between $6 and $13 each. As of the closed beta there are only a limited number of skins for sale and no plans to add lootboxes, and a few gun skins can be earned through playing the game exclusively.
Since Valorant is a free-to-play game, I’m fine with the monetization, but I’ll also say that Riot seems to have almost purposefully steered clear from making anyone particularly likable in this game, and therefore my drive to buy skins for them is markedly lower than what I went through with Overwatch. Blizzard’s title, on the other hand, is almost overrun with cuteness. Mei is adorable, Bastion’s backstory is heartbreaking, and Reinhardt is a big, boastful oaf. The game is almost Disney-like in its cartoon-like aesthetic, and the skins Blizzard develops for its characters reflect that.
But what Overwatch doesn’t have is patience. That game is a frenetic, fast-paced arena-style shooter, while Valorant is a game that makes you take your time, think through almost every play ahead of time, and use Abilities as carefully as possible as the rounds progress.
Perhaps that’s why these characters make more sense in the world of Valorant. They’re more muted, both in movement and cartoonishness, though I’m excited to see Riot potentially expand on the setting and its universe through comics or videos the same way it has with Runeterra in League to add a bit more flavor to the characters and their designs.
If You Come at the King…
“You best not miss.”
If there’s one area that matters the absolute most to the top esports professionals, it’s performance, and Counter-Strike is no slouch in this regard. In fact, Counter-Strike is widely known as the best-optimized game in the world. Some players have finely tuned and overclocked their systems to run the game smoothly run at more than 900 frames per second (fps). Counter-Strike can probably also run on a system built in 2005.
So, if Valorant is trying to be the next Counter Strike, it better perform like it (or better). Luckily, in my time with the game, I never experienced a single hiccup with the engine or the network. The game runs well on low-end hardware, with the minimum requirements being just an Intel i3-370M CPU, 3.3GB of storage, and an Intel HD 3000 GPU to stay above 60fps. On my test system, one with an Intel i7-7700K CPU and Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 Super GPU, the game regularly stayed above the 350fps mark with all settings cranked to Ultra.
That’s well beyond the 240Hz boundary that monitors sit at today (but just under what’s waiting around the corner).
This isn’t all down to just the engine optimizations, though. Valorant, like Counter Strike, has an almost-barren map design ethos, with almost every unnecessary element being stripped away in favor of performance.
Network performance is spectacular, thanks to the many, many back-end improvements Riot has made with its server architecture. Annoying problems like peeker’s and lagger’s advantage have been accounted for, matchmaking has been optimized to keep everyone as close to below 35ms ping as possible, and every server is running at a 128 tickrate (compared to Global Offensive’s 64).
The result is a game where every time you get a kill or get killed, it feels earned. In the hundreds of gunfights I’ve had so far, there wasn’t one where I felt like the end result ultimately came down to a bad connection. Shooting is as crisp and clean as it comes, and on a competitive level you can feel the difference between what Counter-Strike offers and what Valorant is trying to do differently from the moment you enter your first match. This is how quickly the networks for FPS games will run in the future, and as a game designed from the ground up to last well into the next decade, it makes sense that Valorant is setting a standard for what’s to come.
Not Out of the Oven
As a former Counter-Strike obsessive who had played the game regularly from 1.3 through the end of Source, I can say with confidence that there’s a lot to love in Valorant that feels immediately recognizable and familiar. The rounds are just as tense and deep as they are in Counter-Strike, but the addition of Abilities and Ultimates creates a whole new level of team-based coordinated strategy that only the best tactical shooters out there today can achieve.
If you’re looking for the kind of mobility that you’d see in Global Offensive, this might not be the title for you. The game feels and shoots much more similarly to Counter Strike 1.3 than anything else, and sniping in particular needs to be done from a near-stationary position to be completely accurate. This might be a turn-off for some gamers, but the addition of Overwatch-like Abilities keeps the pace fast and dynamic in ways that Counter-Strike never could measure up to. There’s something unique on offer here, and it’s exponentially more enticing to play once you’ve started to crack the code of what the developers have buried underneath.
Everything from the character designs to the maps to the UI suggests this is a game that Riot intends to take well into the future, much the same way it has with League of Legends. The game is draped in a sleek modernism that will very likely stand the test of time (or, at least for the next few years). Valorant is still in closed beta, though it’s clear that most of what the company plans to launch the game with has already taken shape. I think the main menu splash art could use an update, and currently the preview only contains three maps, through Riot has said that number will swell as development continues.
When you make a multiplayer game these days, it needs to have plans for the future, and that’s exactly what I see in Valorant. Counter-Strike has stood at the top of its respective mountain as long as it has for a reason (the franchise turns 20 this year), and it’s clear that in developing Valorant, Riot’s strategy is: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it; improve on it instead.
If anything has a chance to kill the unkillable, it’s Valorant. As a free-to-play character-based shooter it will attract the Overwatch crowd, but as a hardcore strategic aim-based shooter with 128-tickrate servers it will easily rest in the top branches of esports, both in player count and online viewership. It’s been awhile since I’ve been truly excited about an upcoming shooter the way I am about Valorant, and I’m anxious to see what it means for the competitive gaming landscape in 2020.
Riot hasn’t confirmed a Valorant release date. Early projections were Summer 2020, however COVID-19 may have changed that. Recently, the company released a video update stating that the coronavirus pandemic has presented “challenges” for the team setting up the network infrastructure. We can’t say for sure what that means for the release date.
Either way, if you want to get into the closed beta before the game goes live for free sometime this year, keys are being released for anyone who connects their Riot account to Twitch and watches one of the streams listed here.