Valorant Hands-On Preview: The Next Big Competitive Shooter

Valorant is the darling of the PC gaming world, but is it worth the hype?

Photo: Riot Games

Valorant, the new shooter from League of Legends developer Riot Games, has been generating a lot of discussions since it entered closed beta early last week. It peaked at almost 2 million consecutive viewers on Twitch, has streamers like Shroud teasing coming out of eSports retirement, and it even got #RIPFortnite trending on Twitter recently. 

As many of you know, fads come and go all the time in gaming. That’s especially true of the fickle world of video game streaming where new games are often temporarily elevated as top personalities jump between what will attract the most viewers. Once a game dies down, stalwarts such as Fortnite, League of Legends, and Call of Duty typically remain near the top of the “most-viewed” lists.

However, after spending a little time with Valorant, you get the feeling that it’s a little bit different. In fact, my initial impressions of Valorant lead me to believe that there are several good reasons why it could become so much more than just a fad and end up being one of competitive gaming’s next big things. To help understand why that is the case, let’s look at some of the things that define Valorant and help it stand out amongst some incredible alternatives.

Valorant Is Closer to Counter-Strike Than Overwatch

Early on, we heard that Valorant was going to blend ideas of Counter-Strike and Overwatch by combining tactical shooter gameplay with personality-driven characters that have access to unique abilities and even ultimates. While “Counter-Strike combined with Overwatch” proves to be an efficient way to describe what Valorant offers, you should know that it leans heavier into the Counter-Strike side of the equation. 

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Actually, Valorant’s main mode of play is, essentially, just Counter-Strike. It sees two teams of five players compete to be the first team to win 13 rounds. One team serves as a map’s defenders while the others are the attackers. The attackers are trying to plant a bomb on the map while the defenders are attempting to stop them from doing so. Both sides can also win by being the first to eliminate every member of the opening team. 

Like we said, it’s basically the familiar Counter-Strike formula. You even purchase weapons, shields, and abilities at the start of each round. If you’ve spent any amount of time with Valve’s legendary shooter, you’ll instantly feel comfortable with what Valorant is asking you to do. 

The Overwatch part of the equation comes into play you start to account for the unique abilities of each of Valorant’s playable agents. As it turns out, though, even that element of the game is somewhat muted.

Abilities Matter in Valorant (But They Don’t Define the Game)

Abilities are king in Overwatch. While skilled players can easily turn the tide of a battle well-placed standard attacks, even professional Overwatch matches are typically determined by the effective use of a character’s standard and ultimate abilities. 

That’s not necessarily the case with Valorant. In fact, you don’t even have access to a character’s full abilities at the start of each round. While every agent starts with a default ability that can be used at any time, you have to purchase the rest of  them using the same credits you use to purchase guns and shields. Ultimates, meanwhile, are charged through the course of play and by picking up a limited amount of orbs scattered throughout the map. 

What this all means is that you don’t see abilities nearly as often as you do in games like Overwatch. Granted, you see some of them during most matches, but money tends to be spent on guns and shields over certain kits. Ultimates, meanwhile, are rarely seen more than a couple of times from each character over the course of a full game. 

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More importantly, most abilities are closer to utility items than game changers. For instance, many characters have access to some kind of defensive wall or smoke grenade meant to alter the field of play in some way. Others are able to recon an area more efficiently using drones and 

Sonar. Some characters can even heal their teammate, and Sage’s ultimate can even resurrect a player (which is a huge deal in a Counter-Strike style game). 

That said, there is at least one character (Raze) who has access to a few offensive abilities that include devastating grendards and a rocket launcher. Early impressions suggest she is the most effective character (or at least the most annoying) due to her expanded offensive toolset, so it will be interesting to see how many future agents even have access to that level of damage dealing options. 

You Can’t Hide Bad Aim in Valorant

Considering that abilities in Valorant really only do so much from round to round, that means that the game’s guns are king. More specifically, again, just as it was in Counter-Strike, the most effective guns are typically the ones that reward consistent aim over full-auto shenanigans. 

As you might imagine, that’s going to be bad news for anyone who isn’t…shall we say “good” at first-person shooters. 

You often have just a few moments to take down your opponent after you’ve seen them. In order to maximize those moments, you’ve usually got to go for headshots. Because recoil is a big thing in Valorant, you’ve typically got to score those headshots with one of your first few bullets. The only times the above scenario isn’t really true is when you’re going up against somebody who also can’t aim that well. 

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It should be said that Valorant‘s emphasis on aim does lead to some truly incredible moments. During an early match, I had one of my few truly great moments of Valorant competence as I successfully aced a 1 vs. 3 encounter on a pistols round before defusing the enemy bomb with just moments to spare. Moments like that offer a high that you just don’t get from titles that rely on more chaotic elements.

The long and short of it is that only those with great reaction times and incredible aim will typically enjoy the most success in Valorant. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to contribute to a match. In fact, Valorant already feels more “casual friendly” than the average modern CS: GO match. 

Teamwork and Communication Are Vital to Winning in Valorant

While good aim rules the day in Valorant, even a team of expert shooters can lose to a team that is working together more effectively. 

Effective teamwork in Valorant is usually about communicating with your squad. You need to know who just died to what character and where the enemy was when they went down. You need to know who is pursuing what lane of play and when the bomb is going to be dropped to force the opposition out of hiding. You even need to coordinate who is using their abilities in what areas in order to ensure that you’re maximizing your funds and limited kits. 

Teamwork in Valorant sometimes goes beyond simply talking to your team, though. For instance, there are times when it is perfectly acceptable to essentially “trade” kills with the other team if the positioning of the dead enemy benefits you more than the loss of your teammate. There are other times when you may need to create an effective distraction so that the rest of your team can sneak around the opposition. That also means that simply knowing the map and paying attention to how your opponents typically navigate it can be a tremendous asset. 

Again, nothing replaces excellent aim and reactions in Valorant, but even “bad” players can elevate themselves via excellent communication and teamwork. 

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Valorant Suffers From a Lack of Personality

Mechanically, there are quite a few benefits to Valorant playing similarly to Counter-Strike. However, at the moment, Valorant doesn’t fully utilize its unique elements to distinguish itself in the one area that Counter-Strike has traditionally suffered: personality. 

It’s nice that most of Valorant’s operatives don’t have access to devastating abilities, but it also means that there’s little that separates each character from a presentation standpoint. Even mid-match, it can be easy to forget whose smoke grenades are whose and which wall belongs to which operatives. This could be bad news for fans of games like Overwatch or even League of Legends where the skills and personality of each character are a big part of the experience. 

There’s also the issue of Valorant’s guns. While it’s admirable that Valorant doesn’t just use real-life gun models, each weapon is essentially based on a real gun anyway. Some of the guns even look incredibly similar to each other, which can be kind of annoying when you’re trying to pick up a fallen gun during combat and need to double-check which one it is. 

Even Valorant’s VFX feels off. Many abilities produce cartoonish effects which not only clash with the levels, characters, guns, and the general playstyle of the game but don’t look particularly impressive in their own right. Actually, the clash of these abilities with every other aspect of the game serve as the strongest reminder yet that Valorant is indeed a project still in the beta phase of its existence. 

The good news is that all of these problems can be remedied over time. It’s just a matter of needing to see how Riot chooses to evolve Valorant as its development progresses. 

Valorant Is Positioned to Be a Huge Streaming and eSports Hit

To be honest, one of the biggest problems with Counter-Strike is that it’s old. 

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The game has held up incredibly well over the years (and Global Offensive breathed new life into the experience), but Counter-Strike looks old, feels old, is typically played by older players, and suffers from the fact that people have been dissecting its ins and outs for years now. It’s not unusual to hop into a Counter-Strike game or stream and feel like you’re way behind. 

Valorant is different. It’s fresh, it’s already attracting younger players, and even with some of its personality and visual problems, it still often feels more lively than Counter-Strike. Right now, everyone wants to be a part of the Valorant experience. 

That’s great news for Riot as it concerns Valorant’s streaming and eSports potential. 

Counter-Strike regularly draws over 1 million Twitch viewers for its biggest tournaments. There are certainly many people who are attracted to the history of the game’s competitive scene and the many stories it has to tell, but even new viewers can instantly appreciate Counter-Strike’s simple rounds format and skill-based play. Unlike a game like Overwatch which can be visually overwhelming to watch, Counter-Strike and Valorant are easy on the eyes and simple to follow from a competitive standpoint. 

If Riot can ride Valorant’s wave of hype and build upon the game in smart ways, they may be able to reach even greater heights than the still wildly popular Counter-Strike. At the very least, they’ve made a great shooter that you absolutely have to check out as soon as you get the chance.