Nail-biting bomb plants, hip fire headshots, and magical flicks of the wrist are the tenets of Valorant. A single match from the closed beta of League of Legends developer Riot’s new 5v5 tactical hero shooter was enough to pique my curiosity. Now, 20 hours later, I’m utterly enamored with the brilliant implementation of its superpowered cast, superb gunplay and I’m gradually getting over my initial distaste for the art style. The learning curve is steep, but once the cogs of mastery started clicking for me, I could barely put Valorant down.
If, like me, you’ve indulged in a little Counter-Strike at some point over the past two decades, Valorant’s high-stakes round-based shootouts are immediately familiar. Teams are divided into two groups: attackers and defenders. Attackers carry the spike (a bomb) to one of several designated bombsites on a map, plant that sucker, and hopefully blow everyone sky-high. The defenders counter the attacker’s strike by attempting to kill them all off before they can pull that off, or by defusing the spike once it’s planted. Either fulfill your team’s objective or mow down the opposition to secure a victory, whatever works! Win 13 rounds and you’ll emerge from the match victorious.
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While the inclusion of boisterous, Overwatch-style ults in a Counter-Strike-style tactical shooter had me wary at first, the time-to-kill in Valorant is extraordinarily low: a single bullet can spell your end. It creates a spectacular sense of tension, encouraging scenarios where the sound of distant gunfire sends chills down your spine. Going in, I was worried ultimate abilities (ults) might hurt that atmosphere and homogenize strategy. Thus far, though, I don’t think that’s the case in practice: Valorant balances ults by making them cost points to use instead of putting them on a cooldown. You gain these by dying, picking up gathering nodes, and, most importantly: killing opponents.
On top of that, you need to choose which lesser abilities to buy into as well. I’m no stranger to perusing a weapons catalog at the start of a round, carefully mulling over whether I should buy a fancy machine gun or hold off, saving my hard-earned cash for later in the match. What’s new to me, though, is how Valorant cleverly injects some hero shooter DNA into the buy phase by making two or three abilities (it varies per character) of its 10 playable Agents purchasable rather than just be available on cooldowns. It takes time to get into Valorant’s rhythm, particularly if you’re not used to micromanaging an in-game economy in shooters.
Secret Agent Man
My go-to Agent is currently Sage, a combat medic with elemental frost powers. She has a barrier orb that walls off entrances and a slow orb that covers a portion of the ground in sheets of ice, but I have to fork over money I’ve earned to use them. If you want to maximize an Agent’s combat potential, then you’d better know how to budget abilities along with guns.
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It also helps that Valorant’s minimalist art style is tailor-made for combat readability in matches. Every visual cue, from a simple muzzle flash to an elaborate agent ult, is instantly recognizable thanks to the clearly defined art. When Sage throws her slow orb, it flies through the air with a bright blue sheen, contrasting well with the brown cobblestone of walls found in maps. Not even chaotic firefights will downplay an orb’s luster because of the emphasis on a less-is-more color palette. While I’m still not a fan of the bizarre character models and flat particle effects on their own, they come together in a way that makes engagements easy to understand from a visual standpoint, and I love that.
“There are two attackers left, and they’re rotating from bombsite A towards B,” my teammate warned over voice chat. “I’ll flank, hold them off until then.” My heart began to race. I was defending bombsite B by myself, and it was going to take some crafty deployment of Sage’s toolkit to make sure I didn’t eat any lead aspirin. So I quickly threw up an ice wall, blocking off the choke point to my right. If they wanted to get past, they’d have to blow my wall apart – giving away their position. So I crouched in a corner with my rifle trained at the bombsite’s second entrance to the left, anxiously awaiting the pitter-patter of footsteps. Then I heard some, and immediately tossed Sage’s slow orb in their direction. With the ground covered in ice, I took a peek to see if I’d caught anyone in my icy snare – and I did!
It was Raze, a demolition expert with an itchy trigger finger, and she was already midway through tossing her grenade ability in my direction. I quickly fired a three-round burst at her, with the final bullet hitting her between eyes, and a lava lamp-styled blood pattern erupted from her skull. It was a thrilling exchange, but there was no time to celebrate. “Nowhere to run,” shouted Sova, a valiant archer, from behind Raze’s corpse. That shout signified his ult, and he began launching massive energy-infused arrows in my direction. Luckily, my teammate finally arrived with his flanking maneuver and managed to snipe Sova from behind, saving my butt. Every match is a rush, and the hero-shooter tinge only increases the tension in the best way.
All the dazzling magic in the world won’t carry the team if you can’t aim well, though. Each gun at your disposal in Valorant has an elaborate and unique recoil pattern. I spent several hours at the in-game firing range, shooting away at practice dummies and trying to hone the finesse required to wield my favorite firearms properly. The Vandal rifle, for example, sways from left to right if you unload a full clip in one go. It only takes a shot or two to the head from the Vandal to kill an opponent, so spraying and praying is not only a waste of ammo, but all the noise from a booming automatic rifle will give away your position, too. Bullets will also fly all over the place if you try to shoot while moving. I had to learn how to plant my feet quickly, take a few burst shots, and then proceed.
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My first couple of matches were the marksmen’s equivalent of The Comedy of Errors. Instead of placing shots carefully, I strafed at full speed, unloading a clip on a doorway, praying someone would eat dirt on the other side. Bullets would ricochet all over, hitting every single, solitary molecule in the area – except for the enemy. Phoenix, a stylish pyromancer, one-shotted me with a sniper rifle, glancing at my body afterward as if to question my life decisions. To keep my spirit from being crushed I had to consciously remind myself that getting good at this game would take a lot of practice. So between matches I’d plug more time into the training mode, tapping into rules of carefully paced hip fire that Counter-Strike taught me as a kid. Hints of brilliance would flash before my eyes every time I snapped an enemy’s neck back with an exquisite headshot. That steadily happened more and more often, and seeing the fruits of my labor pay off in actual matches was tremendously satisfying. Valorant is a game for the FPS fan who craves a daunting competitive challenge, no matter how badly they get pummelled along the way.
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There’s oodles of depth to Valorant, and I’ve barely scratched the surface during my time with the closed beta so far. I still need to give some of the Agents and their abilities a test drive and work on my proficiency with the full arsenal of weapons, both of which and more will keep me plenty busy in the months to come.
Be sure to check back for the full review for Valorant, which will be shortly after it leaves beta – Riot has indicated that that will be sometime this summer.