In October, the makers of League of Legends announced an ambitious plan to roll out new games in entirely different genres. A fighting game, a card game, a possible action-RPG, and more—Riot Games is up to 10 announced “future” games at this point. That’s a lot for a company whose second legitimate game didn’t launch until last year.
Most of these new games are set in the League of Legends universe, one that we’re admittedly not bullish on at Ars Technica. That’s one reason why the biggest exception to the newly rising LoL-iverse caught our eye: Valorant.
Previously known as “Project A,” this PC-exclusive game was first teased as a “character-based tactical shooter.” That description, combined with brief footage, had us asking: was Riot seriously going to slam Counter-Strike and Overwatch together in such shameless fashion? The answer is a loud and clear “yes.” And after diving into the new game’s first public test this week, we’ve come away utterly impressed with this chocolate-and-peanut-butter combination. Shameless as it is, this early version of Valorant is already as thoughtful and compelling an entry in the online-shooter fray as we’ve seen in years.
On Brimstone, on Phoenix, on Sova and Omen…
For one, we’re glad Riot’s first full-blown FPS didn’t hop onto the battle-royale bandwagon. Instead, the studio has set its sights on Counter-Strike, the shooter series whose 2013 release CS:GO is still Steam’s best performer in the “concurrent player” category. (As of press time, it’s up to nearly 1.2 million people playing worldwide. Those aren’t Fortnite stats, but they’re no slouch, and that concurrent-player count continues to climb on a monthly basis since the game went free-to-play in late 2018.)
An average Valorant match will look incredibly familiar to CS:GO fans. This five-on-five combat game pits teams on opposite sides of a tightly designed map full of criss-crossing sight lines and hiding points, and teams take turns trying to either set a bomb or defuse it (or kill the other team’s members before a two-minute timer runs out). Before each round, team members get a limited in-game budget to buy weapons and shields, and all players get 30 seconds to pick through a shop and equip themselves (or hold their budget to spend more effectively in a future round). If you die in a round—which is likely, since weapons are deadly and one false move means you’re toast—you’ll wait until the round is over to respawn and try again. That there’s some serious déjà vu.
Valorant‘s significant difference comes from its slew of characters, as each player must choose one of 10 heroes before a match starts. Each comes with four abilities that can be triggered in the course of a match; the characters are otherwise identical in speed, gun selection, and all other apparent attributes. The first big difference compared to the obvious comparison point, Blizzard’s Overwatch, is that these abilities do not recharge in the course of combat. Some powers will automatically regenerate after each round of combat, but most must be purchased during the pre-round buy phase, and you can only carry so many per round. The exception is each character’s “super” ability, which can be charged either by killing opponents or “absorbing” orbs on the map (this takes a few seconds and is thus risky).
Another differentiation from Overwatch: most of these abilities are designed around CS-style tactics. In particular, many characters can create massive clouds and temporary walls, which can be used to either break sight lines or block map paths outright.
Five characters are unlocked for all players by default, and an additional five can be unlocked by earning experience points through gameplay. (Though the game’s closed beta includes real-world money purchases, the heroes cannot be purchased this way.) No team can have duplicates of the same character in a match.
S-tier fun for garbage-tier critics
I’ll confess: I went into Valorant‘s closed beta as a garbage-tier player. In spite of playing the earliest CS mods during my college heyday, I’ve never been fantastic at tactical shooters, even though I’ve kept up with various comers to CS:GO‘s throne. The only one we’ve seen really keep up a sustained fanbase is Rainbow Six: Siege, which emphasizes gadgets and destructible cover; most other attempts to usurp CS‘s popularity have hewed too closely to CS‘s model, usually without success.
But my hours of Valorant have flown by in fantastic fashion, and that quality is largely thanks to its nimble handling of these character classes. To be clear, these don’t turn the game into a run-and-rush explosion of superpowers. Careful, slow movement is crucial no matter what skill level you bring into a tactical shooter, and that doesn’t change with Valorant‘s range of character-specific abilities. The sounds of footsteps really matter in terms of revealing position, so you’ll want to hold the “walk” button by default (especially with how incredible Riot’s 3D sound-modeling tech works on headphones).
Instead, the character-specific abilities give new and inexperienced players a variety of ways to noticeably contribute through slow-and-tense combat—and more matrices to quickly adapt and learn from. Maybe I won’t kill anyone in a single round, but I’ll at least pop off my vision-blocking domes or enemy-stifling patches of ice. Doing that a few times, and communicating with teammates in the process, organically taught me where and when to toss those attacks. Like, maybe wait a minute. Look at my squadmates’ reveals of enemy positions. Redirect my abilities elsewhere on the map accordingly. What’s more, this learning process kept me crouching and sneaking through maps and led me to more organic opportunities to exchange bullets (sometimes successfully, too).
Riot also rolled this closed beta out in a clever fashion. You could only claim keys by watching other approved players’ streams, which Riot has tracked for code distribution over the past week. The resulting audience of closed beta players has been phenomenal, at least in my anecdotal experience. Every team I’ve joined has included helpful, focused players, all ready to offer tactical advice and guidance over their headsets—along with the kind of map- and character-specific knowledge that might only come from watching hours of pro players’ Valorant experience. (Speaking of: the closed beta’s four maps all feel like tactical-combat playgrounds of bliss, as each offers a different tack on the “rush a position and set a bomb” archetype. A given map might have two or three possible bombing points, and each is a playground of map-crossing routes, combat sight lines, and a wicked web of options for snipers and run-and-gunners to annoy each other with.)
While my playtime has so far been admittedly brief, caused in part by first-day server woes, every session included some kind of “gosh, why don’t more shooters have this?” delight. After my first match, I noticed a ridiculous dump of round-by-round stats that I could study. After my second match, I realized that each round’s bomb has a massive explosion radius, which forces the bomb-planting team to juggle a funky proposition: Do I stay closer to the bomb to shoot anyone who might defuse it? Or do I keep a bigger distance so I can escape its explosion and keep my gear for the next round, thus saving precious in-game cash? With every session, I felt more and more convinced that Riot knew what it was doing with its handling of every CS-equivalent scenario.
That subtle stuff drove me to type this out, even as a tactical-shooter novice. Valorant has me absolutely convinced that Riot can launch a legitimate contender to Counter-Strikes‘s throne. The questions of when that will happen, and exactly how its retail payment model will play out, remain to be seen. In the latter case, at least, this looks like Valorant will have an Apex Legends-styled economy, with new characters to be earned via gameplay and new outfits to be purchased with cash. Until then, I will continue playing—and watching—Riot’s inventive, impressive shooter debut.