Platforms: PC (reviewed)

Valorant. A brand-new shooter for me to cut my teeth on. Let me just boot the game up, find a match and… immediately die.

Hoo boy. It’s gonna be one of those games.

The debate about whether games should be accessible for new players or deep and complex for the pros is one that has raged ever since pro gaming became a thing. In modern days we try to have it both ways, but some game designs just aren’t built for that. Valorant isn’t built for that.

You probably know a little bit about Valorant if you’ve been on Twitch at all for the last two months, but if you don’t, here’s a breakdown.

Counter-strike-ish

Valorant is a squad-based asymmetrical goal shooter from League of Legends developer and publisher, Riot Games. Thems some fancy words, but really all it means is that one team tries to place a bomb while another team tries to stop them from placing a bomb. Do this several times within the space of several quick arounds with cash doled out in between rounds based on performance and spent between rounds to get more weapons and upgrades.

Sound familiar? That’s right, Valorant is based off of the Counter-Strike formula, and this gives us a very useful parallel. If Overwatch was the spiritual sequel to Team Fortress 2, a more forgiving more accessible shooter based on team roles rather than twitch gameplay, Valorant is the spiritual successor to Counter-Strike, a game where people die fast and where one mistake can turn around a whole match.

Yes, people are going to say “but high-level Overwatch is the same way.”

You know what we mean! Take a couple of bullets as Roadhog and you are limping away. Take a couple of bullets as anyone in Valorant and you are dead immediately, and you ain’t coming back until the next round.

To be honest, I’m not very good at this. I was never good at Counter-Strike and all my shooter experience comes from games that are far more forgiving. Valorant was discouraging, demoralizing, and frustrating… and yet I kept playing it.

You see, Counter-Strike stuck around so long because its formula was good. It was the only thing that did what it did and did it well. Valorant is Counter-Strike but with a bunch of “what-ifs” thrown in to spice things up.

What if you had a cool ultimate technique that could teleport you across the map?

What if you could wall a corridor off with ice?

What if your grenades spread fire across the floor, slowing and damaging enemies?

What if your flashbangs created a persistent AOE effect?

Yes, Valorant is basically Counter-Strike but with magic powers, and it’s these cool abilities that keep the game from feeling stale.

A little personality

On the surface, every character in Valorant feels relatively the same. You are just a meat bag that carries guns. I know that Riot was trying to stuff these characters full of personality, but they really only feel like random shooter template characters 1-11. Case and point…. I can’t remember any of their names.

I can remember what they do though, and that’s the hook. The character you choose determines your abilities outside of gunplay. From your ultimates to your one-use abilities that you can buy in the store, each character will grant you a slightly different play style which can determine the outcome of a match.

Can… determine the outcome of a match… but will it? See at low levels of play, it’s not entirely clear how to best use a character’s abilities. You just sort of go into the game, spend your money on whatever looks cool, and die. That’s something you’ll be doing for a very, very long time. Once again, this is why I bring up the debate about games that are made to be accessible and games that are made to be deep. Valorant is deep, very deep. It’s not made for you. It’s made for pro teams.

Take the guns for example. To a newbie, they all seem like the same old flavors of assault rifle, sniper rifle, shogun, and so on. For pros, the individual trigger speeds and bullet spreads are going to matter so much, in addition to the cost of these weapons and the weapons their teammates are purchasing. Watching high-level Valorant is a treat. Playing it on the other hand…

Git gud

Look I’m not saying it’s impossible to get good. I’m sure there are lots of people out there “gittin good” right now. Just know that Valorant won’t hold your hand through any of it. It’s up to you to grind out your best play. Forget playing with randos. That’s a one way ticket to loserville. Oh and you better hope your connection is fast and stable and that everyone is playing with a mic, otherwise simple Steve is gonna run right into enemy fire and you are going to be a man down.

Valorant shines it’s brightest when everything comes together in a concert of strategy. If your teammate throws a AOE DOT fire  patch down on the ground, just to make the opponent run around the other side so they can get shot in the head by your rifle, that’s fantastic. If you toss out an AOE scout arrow to highlight where the opponent is, and your teammate uses their ult to shoot through walls to take them all out: magnificent. There are so many combinations and strategies here that will keep you coming back for more than just the rush of adrenaline you get for pulling one off.

But note - They are few and far between. The standard play cycle for a newbie is “OK guys what’s the plan- … Ah! I’m dead.”

Valorant exemplifies all the good things about Counter-Strike but also exemplifies all the bad things too. What does that mean? Microtransactions. Skins. Heck, it even takes a play out of Fortnite’s book and gives you a battle pass to keep siphoning away your money every month. It knows its fanbase. No one is going to casually play Valorant. Rather, this is meant for people who dive in so hard that they won’t mind dropping their money to get everything the experience can give them.

The biggest flaw in Valorant? It doesn’t feel done yet. There are only four maps and they all feel kind of samey. There are plenty of characters but… they all feel kind of samey too. Yes, there’s a big difference between the character that resurrects a teammate and the character who places down a poison cloud but, in between these match changing moments… they are just Jimmy With a Gun 1 and Jimmy With a Gun 2. Then again… I’m not sure how much Riot can change this without changing the Counter-Strike DNA that makes the game what it is. Still, a few more characters and stages would make each match feel a little less repetitive.

In the end, Valorant isn’t for me. Does that mean it’s a bad game? Heck no. In fact, I can see the great design decisions everywhere. Riot is very clearly trying to serve a fanbase that is fairly starved for new content. It’s just that I’m not part of that fanbase. You already know if you are. Have you spent a ton of time and money on Counter-Strike? Are you looking for a shooter where you live fast, die fast, and play a ton of rounds before the winner is declared? Well then Valorant is for you. If not? Well you still might enjoy a Twitch stream.