After being provided early access by Riot Games directly, I figured it’d be appropriate to write up a review of Valorant, their latest game and first foray into the FPS genre.
For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been around gaming since we were loading things via cartridge and cassette, I’ve held positions as a games reviewer as far back as the late 90s and have been writing about competitive gaming for over fifteen years. Most of that work has been localized to FPS titles, although nowhere close to exclusively, and I’ve played and reported on every version of Counter-Strike including Condition Zero.
Some of those qualities might make you think I’m biased and I suppose there’ll be a grain of truth to that. I believe Counter-Strike to be the pinnacle of team based competitive FPS titles. I think most people do too. I think Riot Games do too, which is why their new game has so much in common with it. Hopefully because of that background, it makes me equipped to give some insight into why I have enjoyed my time with the game but also qualify me to identify some of its shortcomings. I will be dividing this review into parts and this one will focus primarily on the graphics and gameplay, with a more in-depth look at the balance and competitive aspects to follow.
The first thing that is worthy of praise is the overall design of the client. For many years, League of Legends players have had to endure a client that at various points looked awful, would frequently crash, was full of memory leaks and lagging issues, and just about any other problems you can envision.
Even as recently as two months ago, Riot, not exactly known for acknowledging their mistakes, admitted in a blog post that “the client is not in great shape.” This is a clean and modern client, free from clutter, and while player profiles might be a bit plain, everything else looks and functions great.
Menus pop out when you hover over them to create space, friends lists are very clear and prominently featured, stats from previous games are easily accessed and clearly presented. It puts some older game clients to shame, including League of Legends.
Public critique of Valorant’s art direction has varied wildly. Its more vocal detractors have dismissed it as cheap-looking, cartoony and bland in the way many mobile gaming titles have to utilize due to system limitations. Those who like the style praise its clarity, its cleanness and character design. Your viewpoint will mostly come down to what you are looking for in a game and how highly you value both graphical vibrancy and realism.
By now most will know that Valorant’s art director is the legendary Moby Francke, formerly of Valve and perhaps best known for his design work on Team Fortress 2. It’s obvious to anyone who played that game that Francke has gone back to that well for inspiration and it shows everywhere. The red and blue theme is woven into this game too, just more subtly. Cold metallic hallways lead into courtyards enclosed in warm pink and orange walls. Characters have that same gradient coloration from bottom to top. Broad strokes of color are used over small details. Characters stand out with a crispness when placed against the backgrounds.
Personally I think the art design in this game is very well done. It falls short of the greatness of TF2 but all of the principles that made that game something special to look at are applied here and can be improved upon as we get more maps, more characters and more mechanics. When you consider all the balls Riot were trying to juggle here, the fact they’ve not dropped one is worthy of praise. The game looks good while moving away from realistic depictions of war and violence, it performs well and doesn’t lose much of its fidelity when settings are turned down for lower-end machines, and there are none of the issues that impact on competitive integrity such as certain skins being “camouflage” on certain maps.
There’s a reason why the graphics are likely to be a bone of contention for many. There’s no getting away from the fact that when we think about competitive shooters, we think of those that lean to more realistic depictions of real world violence. It’s no coincidence that those that try to circumnavigate age restrictions by leaning into a cartoon style, such as Fortnite, are often dismissed as not having a high skill ceiling.
The perception is that because the game looks like it should appeal to children, that indeed children can play it, then the skill required must inherently be tailored to children. Often this is fine because the developers of such games aren’t trying to push them as hardcore esports titles and instead content themselves with the broader market share and revenue such an approach grants them.
In the grand scheme of things, none of this should matter but social media chatter does have a huge impact on perceptions around a game and until a hardcore community is fostered, what people say that might drive people away from a game absolutely matter. Those more traditional thinkers about what a competitive shooter should look like might be quick to dismiss Valorant but there’s certainly a more demanding competitive experience here than the packaging suggests.
Similarly the art design for the characters is also extremely good if just again falling short when compared to TF2. Similar to that game we can draw a lot of conclusions about the personality of each of the characters without it being explicitly said. We know Phoenix is immediately young, brash, arrogant but talented from the way he carries himself and pops his collar. We know Brimstone is the grizzled veteran who has seen it all from his gray-flecked beard and large frame. Similarly names, while hardly high literature, all tell us about their abilities and who they are. It feels informed from 80s cartoons (think Thundercats), which is no bad thing if you’re of my generation, but given a contemporary twist. It’s very good.
I want to congratulate Riot for avoiding the temptation to pad out the game with lore, instead letting players learn about characters from throwaway voice lines and Easter eggs. Keep it like that. As we’ve seen with Overwatch, once you start ramping up the amount of lore surrounding your game, you turn the casual player into freaks and crazies who care more about the narratives surrounding characters than things such as game balance.
Suddenly, in their eyes, a needed nerf becomes an “unforgivable attack” on a signature character and the people who play it. Weeks of bad press and screeching until the next drama comes rolling into town. There are some games that benefit from lore, such as RPGs, but online shooters are not one of them. The characters here are all distinct, unique and thematically strong. You’ll get all the benefits of the fan art and discussion without the crazies that act like Kathy Bates in Misery.
Simply put, I don’t need a cinematic about the time Brimstone took Phoenix on a lads holiday to Magaluf to appreciate the game and what these characters do in-game. Character-based shooters need to have enough about the choices so that we can appreciate the differences but also remain vague enough that they are your avatar on the server. You pick the skillset not the personality, as it should be.
So, onto the big question; how does the game actually play? In true Riot Games fashion, what they have looked to do is take concepts from already existing titles and simplify them for the purposes of mass appeal. The game’s DNA is about 70% Counter-Strike, 15% TF2, 10% Overwatch and 5% of new ideas and innovations that the developers have brought to the table.
There is again significant ambition in what is being attempted. All of the games it borrows from all have much steeper learning curves. This is most likely the rationale behind lifting so much from CS, even to the point that the main guns are like for like copies with knowing winks like the best sniper rifle being called an “operator” so you can ask for an “op” a close phenetic match for “AWP.” It is something that will be immediately familiar to the audience they crave to lure over. When I played with Riot staff, they called the guns by their CS names. It’s not so much a love letter as it is copied homework.
But if you are going to emulate something then choose the best. Were Oasis bad because they borrowed heavily from The Beatles, The Velvet Underground and Marc Bolan? How many tunes did the Rolling Stones steal from the blues? Here Valorant’s gunplay is undeniably satisfying. Bullets connect with a solid crunch, augmented at times by a chord strike of music that ramps up the adrenaline. There’s rarely a moment you feel that the game cheated you with poor hit registration.
Where the game fails to live up to CS’s impeccable standards are in two key areas: recoil control and quick-scoping. The time it takes a gun to reset after recoil and the general accuracy and spread make highlight reel spraydowns such a rare thing when compared to CS. There’s no getting around that, it’s just how things are designed right now. Those moments when a rush out of the b-site tunnels on dust2 is shut down in two seconds by a controlled AK spray will not be replicated here and maybe Riot don’t want them to be. Strange when you consider how close the game emulates CS in so many other areas.
By the same token because “quick-scoping” isn’t a feature of the game, combined with the slow movement speed, you’re never going to see an impossibly quick takedown of a push by one man with a big gun. There’s no risk versus reward consideration for playing aggressively in a defensive scenario such as this. You WILL be traded quickly because the game engine limitations do not allow for any other outcome unless the players you are against are woefully inept. No, patience is the way… Hold the angle, take the shot, readjust, hold an angle. This might be more in line with the real world mindset of snipers but who wants that when you can have a godlike aimer make a hero play only possible due to gamesense, reaction time and the luck you create from having the balls to try it?
I think overall hardcore CS players will be initially satisfied and then mostly disappointed. Valorant has the foundations laid down perfectly yet it has built little above them for those coming from Counter-Strike. Mostly those players will have to take the learning of the abilities and timings as the part that satisfies their yen for improvement because tap-tap gunplay is something any decent level CS player has already spent years perfecting.
I’ve been intrigued by people saying the game is CS with training wheels when many of the core mechanics handle like CS 1.6, the version most believe to be the one that required the most skill. Slower movement, absolutely brutal tagging (slower movement speed when hit by bullets) and slow recoil resets after spraying with a gun should sound familiar. Yet there is something fundamentally easier when it comes to mastery of this game over any version of Counter-Strike and I would agree a comparison to 1.6 would be a blasphemy of sorts, even though I suspect when someone does hardcore analysis the two games are closer than anyone would want to admit.
Even though Riot should get some mockery for their ludicrous statement that “you don’t kill with abilities” in Valorant, the dirty secret about the game is that, with one or two broken exceptions, a casual player can run around and pop heads without even thinking about their abilities. This obviously isn’t true of some of the games it borrows from but it is proof that Counter-Strike remains the largest ingredient in the game’s recipe.
To be clear, in Project A, shooting matters. You don’t kill with abilities. Abilities create tactical opportunities to take the right shot. Characters have abilities that augment their gunplay, instead of fighting directly with their abilities.
— nicolo (@niiicolo) October 16, 2019
The in-game economy also borrows heavily from Counter-Strike in how money is accrued and withheld yet it is infinitely more generous. While there are still requirements that you will need to save money some rounds to ensure a better gun and armour in another, you can almost always buy something that makes you viable if you want to disregard that. It’s another area where Riot have simplified a concept that might not be understood by novice FPS players.
Oh, and the buy menu and the way it works is actually the best of its kind that I’ve seen. Accidentally buy a weapon you didn’t want? Don’t worry, as long as you’re in buy time you can just take it back. Someone needs a gun bought for them? They request it via a button and you deliver it via a button. No more clumsy dropping a gun on the floor and risking someone else stealing it in pubs. You can request a buy three times, each time the voice line become more severe but after that you can’t request again, which stops irritating spam. I’d actually love to see Counter-Strike steal these features and implement them.
Overall I felt right at home in this game and I imagine most players will. It has stripped out a lot of the aspects that give CS its depth but what it gains in doing that is removes the intimidation factor. It has new player friendly heroes, it has clean gunplay, it is a pick up and play game that will have you settled in to the basics very quickly. Valorant also manages to throw up moments of pure joy, with abilities that require imagination and quick wits to use to their full ability.
Even in this closed beta phase I can tell you it has everything a game needs to have mass appeal and succeed in delivering those dopamine releasing moments that we all play for. Those of us from the Counter-Strike world may find it hard to disregard our elitist streak and not without reason but Valorant, upon release, will immediately sit alongside the best FPS games on the market. Go and look at all the other failed attempts down the years and tell me that isn’t an achievement. The long term success of the game will be determined by a steady stream of content and tinkering, which if Riot’s time in League of Legends is anything to go by will be forthcoming. At launch, the players will be there.
Continuing my review of the game, the next segment will focus mostly on the competitive aspects of the game and what needs to be changed before it leaves beta. I will also talk about its viability as an esport and what the future could hold in terms of tournament play. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll return for more of my thoughts in a day or two.