Nail-biting bomb plants, hip fire headshots, and hypernatural flicks of the wrist are the tenets of Valorant. This 5v5 tactical hero shooter by League of Legends developer Riot Games had a stranglehold on me from my first carefully strategized victory. Now, after clocking 90 hours between the closed beta and the full release, I’m still utterly enamored with the brilliant implementation of its superpowered cast and stellar gunplay. The learning curve is steep, but once the cogs of mastery clicked together, it became damn near impossible for me to put Valorant down.
If you’ve ever indulged in a little Counter-Strike (or, in my case, a lot) at some point over the past two decades, Valorant’s high-stakes round-based shootouts will be immediately familiar. Teams take turns as either the attackers or defenders in a best-of-25 rounds. Attackers carry the spike (a bomb) to one of several designated bombsites on Valorant’s 3 finely tuned maps, plant that sucker, and hopefully blow everyone sky-high. Meanwhile, the defenders must thwart the attacker’s explody-ambitions by defusing the spike once it’s planted or stopping the plant altogether. Of course, you could also just mow down the enemy team to secure victory, whatever works! The back-and-forth race to that coveted 13th victory is as pulse-pounding as it is gratifying.
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While thunderous, Overwatch-style ultimate abilities in a reserved tactical shooter might raise an eyebrow, the time-to-kill in Valorant remains extraordinarily low: a single, well-placed bullet can spell your end. It creates a spectacular sense of tension, encouraging scenarios where the rattle of distant gunfire sends chills down your spine even as flashy abilities are being popped. When hellfire rains from the sky, it’s a sign that Brimstone is only a hop and a skip away, so best get out of the way no matter how pinned-down you might be.
During my first few matches, I worried that ults might hurt that on-edge atmosphere and homogenize strategy to be all about their timing and use. Thankfully, those concerns were unwarranted, because Valorant balances ults by making them cost points instead of attaching them to a cooldown timer. You gain these points by dying, collecting static resource nodes, and, most importantly: killing opponents. Burning an ult means drying up yet another precious resource, so I spent them tactfully.
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On top of that, you need to choose which lesser abilities to buy into as well. I’m no stranger to perusing a weapons catalog at the start of each round, carefully mulling over whether I should buy a fancy machine gun or hold off and save my hard-earned cash for later in the match. What’s new to me, though, is how Valorant cleverly injects some hero shooter DNA into the buy phase by making the two or three unique abilities (it varies per character) of its 11 playable Agents purchasable rather than only available on cooldowns. It takes time to get into Valorant’s rhythm, particularly if you’re not used to micromanaging an in-game economy in an FPS, but there’s a layer of tactical depth here that typical hero-based shooters don’t have.
Secret Agent Man
My go-to Agent is Sage, a combat medic with elemental frost powers. She has a barrier orb that walls off entrances and a slow orb that covers a portion of the ground in sheets of ice, but I have to fork over money I earn from kills and winning rounds to use them. If you want to maximize an Agent’s combat potential, then you’d better know how to budget abilities along with guns – especially considering that you’re stuck with whatever Agent you chose at the start of a match the whole way through. Thankfully, it’s not a big deal if their toolkit isn’t to your liking since Agents don’t fit into the hard tank, healer, and DPS roles that are so common in hero shooters.
“There are two attackers left, and they’re rotating from bombsite A towards B,” my teammate warned over voice chat. “I’ll flank, hold them off until then.” My heart began to race. I was defending bombsite B by myself, and it was going to take some crafty deployment of Sage’s toolkit to make sure I didn’t push up any daisies. So I quickly threw up an ice wall, blocking off the choke point to my right. If they wanted to get past, they’d have to blow my wall apart – giving away their position. I crouched in a corner with my rifle trained at the bombsite’s second entrance to the left, anxiously awaiting the pitter-patter of footsteps. Then I heard some, and immediately tossed Sage’s slow orb in their direction. With the ground covered in ice, I took a peek to see if I’d caught anyone in my icy snare – and I did!
It was Raze, a demolition expert with an itchy trigger finger, and she was already midway through tossing her grenade ability in my direction. I quickly fired a three-round burst at her, with the final bullet hitting her between eyes, and a lava lamp-styled blood pattern erupted from her skull. It was a thrilling exchange, but there was no time to celebrate. “Nowhere to run,” shouted Sova, a valiant archer, from behind Raze’s corpse. That shout signified his ult, and he began launching massive energy-infused arrows in my direction. Luckily, my teammate finally arrived with his flanking maneuver and managed to snipe Sova from behind, saving my butt. Every match is a rush packed with strategic back-and-forths like this, and the hero-shooter tinge only increases the tension in the best way.
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It also helps that Valorant’s minimalist art style is tailor-made for combat readability in matches. Every visual cue, from a simple muzzle flash to an elaborate ult, is instantly recognizable thanks to the clearly defined art. When Sage throws her slow orb, it flies through the air with a bright blue sheen, contrasting well with the brown cobblestone of walls found in most maps. Not even chaotic firefights will downplay an orb’s luster because of the emphasis on a less-is-more color palette. While I’m not a fan of the uninspired character designs and flat particle effects on their own, everything comes together in a way that makes engagements easy to understand from a visual standpoint, and I love that.
Living To Buy
My adoration for Valorant’s hero-shooter elements only grew as I discovered all the tactical wiggle-room born from the synergy between its cast’s supernatural powers. I love deploying an old-fashioned bamboozle, especially the sort that involves flanking the enemy team. Omen, a spectral assassin that’s particularly fond of edgy quips, just so happens to be well-versed in the art of skirting.
In a particularly dicey match as Omen, myself and a friend were all that remained of our attacking team, with four defenders still on their feet. We had just planted the spike, and the defenders weren’t happy about it, furiously storming the bomb site from a single choke-point. My friend was Viper, a narcissistic chemical-warfare expert. She tossed an acid grenade, landing at their feet, temporarily slowing the advance. I placed Omen’s Dark Cover ability on the right side the choke-point, creating a visibility-smearing cloud of smoke. They deduced that I must’ve been to the right as well, blindly firing in that direction in hopes of tagging me while soaking up the acid’s corrosive damage in the process. Unfortunately for them, I popped Omen’s From The Shadows ultimate, which allowed me to teleport to their flank. With the defenders startled and sandwiched between us, my friend and I took them out in a symphony of bullets.
Coordinating and executing sophisticated strategies with my friends accounted for at least half the fun I had in Valorant, which makes its region locked servers a bummer. If you’re in North America, for example, there’s no option to play with folks from abroad. I’ve got friends in the UK and Puerto Rico that I’d love to plant spikes with, but we’re just out of luck. No doubt this is part of Riot’s commitment to low-latency servers, but it’d be nice if you could opt into some that let you play with whomever from wherever.
Thankfully, no matter who you’re playing with, all the dazzling magic in the world won’t carry the team if you can’t aim well. Each of the 17 guns at your disposal in Valorant has an elaborate and unique recoil pattern. I spent several hours at the in-game firing range, shooting away at practice dummies and trying to hone the finesse required to properly wield my favorite firearms. For example, the Vandal assault rifle sways from left to right if you unload a full clip in one go. It only takes a shot or two to the head from the Vandal to kill an opponent, so spraying and praying is not only a waste of ammo, but all the noise from a booming automatic rifle will give away your position, too. Bullets will also fly all over the place if you try to shoot while moving. It was a fun challenge to learn how to plant my feet quickly, take a few burst shots, and then proceed.
The ferocious Operator sniper rifle requires a solid step too; however, it doesn’t care that its deafening slugs will shake your headphones. It’s the most expensive gun for a good reason: take a shot to the head or torso from this beast, and you’ll be eating dirt even while sporting heavy armor. The risk-reward balance of buying either the Operator or the Vandal is what I love about the economy in Valorant. The former will down your quarry in one blow, but the expensive buy-in and slow reload time make it a gamble to purchase. While the latter is a workhorse: semi-automatic, useful at any range, cheaper, but the recoil makes it tougher to control. Learning the ins-and-outs of each weapon in Valorant is a game in and of itself.
My first couple of matches were the marksmen’s equivalent of The Comedy of Errors, and I had to consciously remind myself that getting good at Valorant would take a lot of practice. So between matches, I’d plug more time into the training mode, tapping into rules of carefully placed hip fire that Counter-Strike taught me. Hints of brilliance would flash before my eyes whenever I snapped the enemy’s neck back with an exquisite headshot, always rewarded by a beautiful musical sting. That steadily happened more often, and seeing the fruits of my labor pay off in actual matches was tremendously satisfying. Valorant is a game for the FPS fan who craves a daunting competitive challenge, no matter how much of a pummelling you have to take along the way.