First Look: ‘Valorant’ is an expert, accessible blend of ‘Counter-Strike’ and ‘Overwatch’

What's all the fuss about Riot Games' upcoming shooter? We took it for a spin and discovered why its formula may just make it the next biggest Esport

When I got my beta key for Riot GamesValorant, I was sceptical of its potential to please me. I knew it was being built from the ground up to be an Esport, with a focus on tick rates and gun feel, as well as plenty of oversight from professional players.

Yet I was excited by the opportunity that Riot had preyed upon – it had seemingly found a space to thrive in between two legendary Esports – Counter-Strike and Overwatch, both of which have their own problems.

Counter-Strike offers plenty of slow subterfuge and hero moments, but it can also be overwhelmingly dry and serious – it’s seen by many to be inaccessible to the average player. In Overwatch, the lore-backed heroes and their intricate builds give the game a strong sense of character and approachability, but battle proceeds at a blistering pace and abilities clutter the combat. As a result, your input as an individual sometimes feels inconsequential.

Valorant’s mission statement is to blend these two popular concepts – a competitive shooter and a hero shooter – to make something charming but competitive, a game that can be enjoyed by casual players and Esports prodigies alike. And I’m pleased to reveal that I think they’ve done it.

I’ve managed to fully suspend my disbelief with Valorant. Despite having flings with Overwatch and Counter-Strike in the past, I know I’m never going pro, but I’m still enjoying it in earnest, and after nearly a week of play, I think I’ve figured out why.

Let’s start with the game’s framing. Valorant is a 25-round multiplayer shooter, with teams swapping sides halfway through from attack to defence and vice versa. The goal, if you’re attacking, is to plant the spike, an explosive device that will end the match and kill anyone in the vicinity if it isn’t defused. You can only plant the spike at certain bomb sites, and must first clear the bomb site of defending players so you can plant the spike safely. In many cases, the defending team may kill the attackers before they reach the bomb site, or the attacking team might kill every defending player, winning the round before planting the spike. It leads to unpredictable gameplay where every matchup feels versatile.

Rounds can end in a 1v5 ‘ace’, where one player takes out the entire enemy team, and some may end in a flawless victory, where one team takes out the other without losing a single member.

One bit of Valorant’s DNA that has been grafted over from Counter-Strike is the buy phase, which may at first seem unusual to those of us who haven’t played Valve’s legendary shooter. The buy phase occurs at the start of every round and offers you an amount of cash that is replenished between bouts based on your performance. This cash can then be used to purchase armament, including weapons and armour. Be careful about your expenses however. If you buy an expensive sniper and die before you can get any kills with it, you will have wasted that money, and you’ll start the next round incapable of buying your preferred weapons.

This may lead to a ‘save’ round where your team opts for cheap pistols and sneaky tactics, seeing if they can pick off an enemy to take their expensive weapon to forego their own purchases. Say there’s a planted spike which is about to end the round, and you’re the last defending player remaining. It’s a smart tactic to run from it, escape the blast and keep your weapons for next time. But if you’re confident enough to be a hero, you can try and take on the bomb site and wipe out multiple enemies on your lonesome. High risk, high reward.

There’s that versatile gameplay once more that demands that you think on your feet. This ‘economy’ aspect is absent in games like Overwatch and requires a strategic mindset and plenty of communication between team members. If one player is doing better than others, they can buy weapons for their comrades and help them out.

Of course, if teams win multiple rounds in a row, their economy will be booming and they’ll have an advantage. But crucially, that doesn’t happen very often, as players have plenty of options in their arsenal to think faster and play better to upend a team’s winning streak and swing the economy back in their favour.

This is the ebb and flow at the core of Valorant that makes it so addicting. The enemy team might have all the money, but that doesn’t make them better in a 1v1 engagement if you can tip the odds in your favour by being sneaky or using your character’s special abilities and their modest arsenal most effectively.

At the start of a match, you can pick a hero, but you can’t change that hero between rounds like you can in Overwatch. Each hero has a set of abilities, but they don’t feel inconsequential because powers can change the match quite dramatically if used effectively. The way in which these abilities complement a player’s shooting skills is the secret sauce behind Valorant’s fun factor. You might not be able to aim as well as the enemy, but you can outwit them and beat them that way.

If you use your abilities to provide information to your teammates, it will often help them clinch a round. For me, this is what I love the most about Valorant’s blend of DNA. I can be of value to my teammates, even if I can’t shoot as well as our main aggressor, whereas, in Counter-Strike, this is very rarely the case.

A good way to illustrate this would be to use Cypher, the hero that has quickly become my mainstay since launch. Cypher is a Sentinel, a defensive expert whose main role is to supply the team with information. He uses invisible trapwires to lock down flanks and his special ability gives him a spycam, which he can place on walls in enemy territory to watch and tag other players. His ultimate (unlocked based on performance or by picking up orbs in-game) has him reveal the location of every enemy player on the map using the corpse of a character on the opposing team.

If you’re trying to clear a bomb site, this information is a literal revelation and will win you the match, whereas in games like Counter-Strike, you’d just be relying on your aim and reaction speed. Valorant offers 10 characters as of right now, and each of them can quickly change the course of a match.

If you’re reading this without playing Valorant, you may see these abilities as overpowered, but their scarcity is what makes them so wonderfully complementary. Cypher’s ultimate is rarely available – you don’t receive it every round, and you have to purchase his other abilities with the cash you might need for your weapons. This means nothing is freely afforded to the player, and every round, you have to think about your finances and determine what worked and what didn’t.

Maybe the players are figuring out your trapwire and camera placement, or maybe you just want to focus on powerful weapons in a critical defence round. Each exciting round is a burst of adrenaline, and it’s honestly unlike anything I’ve played in a long time.

Unfortunately, Valorant doesn’t evade the toxicity that plagues other competitive shooters, and if you whiff shots or make mistakes when you’re starting out, players will shout at you and chew you out. If you’re hopping in soon, try to be constructive with your criticism and boost morale in your team! It’s an extremely new game and people are learning.

Regardless, by giving individuals agency beyond their aim, but balancing powers to make them feel scarce and special, Valorant breathes welcome fresh air into the competitive shooter space. I believe the game has cornered the market for competitive players who want to climb the ranks and get signed by a professional team, but it also offers something wonderful for teams of friends and casual players who just want to enjoy a well-designed and immensely fun shooter experience. Valorant has a bright future, and I’m excited to see what comes next.

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