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Jett from Valorant Image: Riot Games

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Valorant review: The stripped-down, skill-based shooter that’s only getting started

Riot has nailed the fundamentals

Austen Goslin (he/him) is an entertainment editor. He writes about the latest TV shows and movies, and particularly loves all things horror.

Few games have ever been as focused as Valorant, the new free-to-play, competitive first-person shooter from Riot Games.

The company has wisely decided to shove just about everything that isn’t the gameplay to the side, making Valorant’s excellent mechanical design its most important feature.

This approach makes sense. Valorant is Riot’s first game since it released the ultra-popular League of Legends in 2009, and that release taught Riot some important lessons. You can improve character selection, balance, map design, and just about every other aspect of the experience over time, but you have to start with a base that’s absolutely rock-solid to have any hope of the game taking root over the long-term.

And Valorant’s base, the action that’s going to support all those possible future additions, is about as solid as anything I’ve seen in the competitive scene.

It’s all about what the company calls “competitive integrity.” Riot Games wants you to always feel like it’s your fault when something goes wrong in a match, not an issue with cheating, balance, or anything else you can blame on Riot Games. If your losses belong to you, and you alone, so will the wins.

Valorant’s aggressive anti-cheat system, and the game’s impressive deployment — including top of the line servers to reduce latency — are all designed to support this ideal, and for the most part it’s a fantastic approach to multiplayer design and execution. Many studios have adapted to the future, while Riot Games seems to be planning for it.

This approach can also be seen in the game’s design itself, which takes ideas from plenty of existing competitive shooters and proves once again that execution is way more important than originality.

Managing expectations (and recoil)

Valorant’s main game mode is simple. Two teams of five players square off, with one team on offense and the other on defense. The teams switch places after 12 rounds, and the first team to win 13 rounds wins the match.

The attacking team attempts to plant a bomb, called the Spike, at one of the bomb sites on the game’s four maps. The defending team has to stop them, either by killing everyone on the opposing side, or defusing the bomb once it has been planted. Each player only has one life per round, so either side can win simply by killing everyone else on the other team.

A player in Valorant sniping an opposing player Image: Riot Games via Polygon

The action will sound familiar to anyone who has played Counter-Strike or similar games in the past few decades, but Valorant departs from the Counter-Strike formula with its characters, called Agents. Each player picks one of 11 Agents at the beginning of a match, and each Agent has their own special abilities, adding an extra level of strategy. Choose wisely when you start, however, because you can’t switch Agents until the entire match is over. You can’t switch to someone else in order to react to the other team’s choices, but then again neither can they.

I rarely feel claustrophobic due to this limitation, however. While games like Overwatch often feel like hero-based competitive games that happen to feature guns, Valorant is the opposite; a competitive shooter that happens to feature characters with tactical abilities.

Which works out just fine, because the shooting in Valorant is fantastic.

Getting the fire exactly where it needs to go

It can mean many different things when someone says that the shooting, or action, in a game feels good, so what did Riot Games do with the gunplay in Valorant that makes it work so well?

The guns — which players have to purchase at the beginning of each round, again like Counter-Strike — are weighty; they have aggressive recoil and spray bullets all over the screen if you don’t know what you’re doing.

The weapons all fire somewhat slowly, each with a satisfying and unique booming ker-CHAK sound when a round is expended, making every bullet feel like it matters. Your challenge is making sure those bullets get where you’d like them to go.

My first shot may be off target, but I can still win the firefight if I can adjust my aim to a headshot before the second bullet fires, even if my opponent is busy hitting me twice in the body. Winning fights like these is always thrilling, and they almost always come down to who has the quickest, and best, aim. Learning to control recoil is one of Valorant’s most rewarding and challenging mechanics.

A player getting two kills in Valorant
A headshot almost always wins the fight, even when the losing players lands several body shots
Image: Riot Games via Polygon

Valorant isn’t shy about making your shots fly wild when you run, either. You can walk, and your first couple of shots may be relatively accurate, but most serious fights involve stopping entirely and shooting at your targets. This doesn’t slow the game’s pacing; shootouts are resolved quickly enough that the actual pause usually lasts for a beat before the winning player or players return to running across the map.

The question of which player is going to get the killing shot is answered almost instantly in most cases, and it comes down to who has the better aim, sure, but also who began the engagement with the better physical position.

Which is where map knowledge comes in, as seeing the enemy at the right time is one of Valorant’s great joys. Most of your fights will involve both players throwing down in a fair, face-to-face duel, but it’s possible to get behind someone and catch them unaware, if you have superior map awareness and know how to get to where you need to be in order to surprise them.

Players spawn in the same places every round, so you should always know where enemies can be based on how much time has gone by and what strategies are currently popular on each map. Learning how to anticipate enemy movement, and getting the upper hand with stealthy kills or misdirection, is one of the game’s great joys, along with firing the guns themselves. Gaining that knowledge happens faster than you’d expect as well, since you only have four maps on which to practice.

A player in Valorant surprising two opposing players
Two players get taken out while looking the wrong way
Image: Riot Games via Polygon

Those are just some of the reasons the game feels so focused, however. Valorant runs smoothly on even lower-level systems, making sure players don’t need to spend large amounts of money for a competitive advantage. The game’s recommended specs are reasonably low, and should keep you competitive even on aging hardware. This is a game that was clearly meant for everyone who has the desire to put in the practice time, not just the players who can afford higher-end rigs.

One of the things Riot Games has compromised on in this area is personality. The visuals make the game look like … well, like a shooter without much in the way of a strong story or characters. Valorant has enough flair to avoid the dour, military-sim look of competitors like Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Rainbow Six: Siege, without bathing the game in the personality of something like Overwatch.

That lack of an interesting story or flashy characters is an interesting decision, but it doesn’t work against the final package as it exists today.

You’ll find hints of some kind of connected story as you play, but only hints. Riot just doesn’t seem concerned about the hows and whys of these folks or why they’re fighting, when what’s important is that the way they fight is enjoyable, competitive, and fair.

It’s yet another way Riot shows us what’s important to the studio in the early days of a game’s release. Besides, a good story wouldn’t change anything about the matches themselves, and a poor story may actively turn some people off. So why spend much time on it at all if you’re taking the long view?

A still from Valorant’s first cinematic trailer with Jett dashing past Phoenix
Phoenix and Jett faced off in Valorant’s first cinematic trailer
Image: Riot Games

The hyper-focused approach to Valorant means that thoughtful play, quick reflexes, and technique are always the most important things. You can be a huge Overwatch fan by watching the shorts or reading the comics, but here you can only engage by playing directly or watching others play.

The heroes aren’t all about stories or visuals, though. The important thing is what they can do, and that’s where things get interesting.

A winning combination

While gunplay is king in Valorant, the moments between shootouts are all about abilities. Each Agent in the game has an Ultimate ability, which they earn by getting kills or getting killed; a signature ability, which is refreshed for free every round; and two other abilities that can be bought — though they don’t disappear like the guns do if you die without using them. Buy one of these, and it’s yours until you decide to use it and then, and only then, must it be purchased again with money earned in each round.

What’s remarkable about Valorant’s abilities is how well they work together. When I first started playing, and everyone in the game was new, we threw our abilities wherever we thought they might work, and it was a learning experience to see how they created a kind of synergy almost on accident. We learned quickly how to use them together, and what kind of an advantage doing so gave us across all those rounds.

If you’re playing Brimstone, a character that can call vision-obscuring smoke grenades from the sky, you start to learn all the best places to put your smoke to help your team. It’s the kind of system that makes you feel competent for knowing one or two ways to use an ability, but mastery comes from the knowledge and wisdom to be able to mix things up on the fly.

In one round, the attacking team’s Sova might shoot a Recon Bolt — which reveals the locations of enemies — into a particularly defensive spot of a map. If Sova’s bolt finds a player, his team’s Brimstone can call down smoke in that area; now the defender has to either retreat and give up the site, or push through the smoke into the line of fire.

Characters shoot at one another in Valorant Image: Riot Games

But the real fun starts the round after a successful attack, when the defender has to decide whether they should return to the same position, or move somewhere new, and the attackers have to try to game out which decision the defender will make, and the best way to fight back.

Making accurate, educated guesses about what a defending player will do when you’re on the attacking side is a priceless skill, while catching an attacking team looking in the wrong direction as a defender can sometimes let you win a whole round single-handedly, all because you picked the best place to stand, and were able to take them all out at once.

This kind of back and forth creates Valorant’s intensely satisfying round-to-round, cat-and-mouse mind game around teams and abilities.

The one exception to all this, at the moment, is Sage. Sage can heal teammates, create a wall which can stop enemies in their tracks until they break through it, make a slow field that reduces the movement speed of anyone trying to get through, and a resurrection move that can bring a dead teammate back to life. She’s great in every situation, and no one else can do what she does, which makes her Valorant’s only must-pick character.

Competitive games are often filled with must-pick characters, so it’s a positive sign that Valorant only really has one, but it’s also a bit of a drag to see one in the game at all. especially with just 11 Agents (Riot’s already started nerfing her to help counteract this problem).

A space in which to kill

The four maps that are in the game right now feel early. They’re not unfinished, just simple, and maybe a little too small. Their designs are straightforward, and the angles of attack are often limited. They don’t feel like timeless classics that you can play forever; they feel like the first drafts that may lead to much better maps down the road.

There’s nothing wrong with this, for now at least. Riot wants this game to last, and seeing how players react to this opening salvo of battlefields is part of that process.

Characters shoot at one another in Valorant Image: Riot Games

None of this is to say that the maps aren’t fun — they certainly are. There are areas that are exciting to attack and defend, round after round.

Riot achieved this through clever design like mixing up long and short angles, complicated cover placement and changes in elevation, or unique rooms and odd corners, rather than additional mechanics that feel grafted onto each map, like teleporters or closable doors. The fundamentals still create the best battlefields, and Riot has shown it understands the fundamentals of good shooter level design.

The rest should, hopefully, come with time and refinement.

A safe bet of your time

Riot has proven to be responsive to its community through the release of League of Legends to the game’s current status as a competitive heavyweight. The past doesn’t always predict the future, of course, but it helps to know that Riot clearly knows how to keep players interested in strong, competitive games.

Riot has already taken a similar approach to the tactical shooter, as we’ve seen through the game’s beta. When pro players and streamers complained that accuracy returned too quickly after players stopped running, Riot reworked the system to force players to come to a more complete stop before they could again shoot accurately.

Suddenly, the movement felt much more fair, and the decision helped to lock in the game’s current, fantastic feel.

Cypher, Brimstone, and Sage from Valorant stand side by side Image: Riot Games

Riot also brought over League’s proven monetization model to Valorant as well. Most of the microtransactions are focused on cosmetic skins for your guns, and of course there’s a battle pass you can buy that provides banners for your player profile, keychains for your guns, and sprays to earn as you play.

Players only have access to five of the game’s 11 Agents when they begin the game, but more come quickly as Riot gives you two character unlocks within your first five or 10 games, while the rest have to be earned over a longer period of time, or purchased directly for real-world currency.

It takes somewhere around 20 matches — depending on factors like daily missions and your own performance — to earn a new character. The good news is that the characters are complicated enough that even just getting seven early on means you’ll never run out of tricks to practice and master while unlocking the other Agents. The purchase never feels like a necessity, nor will your play be impacted based on how much money you pour in, or keep out.

Valorant may still be more promise than reality in some ways, but what already exists is strong enough to bring in players and keep them there while Riot refines the experience. Valorant, as of this writing, is at a fantastic starting point, and there’s every reason to believe it’s only going to get better from here.

Valorant is now available on Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a download code provided by Focus Home Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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