Valorant: The Kotaku Australia Review

Valorant: The Kotaku Australia Review

Let me tell you about something that happened in a round of Valorant the other night.

My team’s playing Haven. After being one of the most popular maps during the beta, it’s a map that I hadn’t seen for almost a full week. Valorant‘s strange like that, almost like Riot’s deliberately forcing you to run through the fresher levels over and over again. But I was happy to play Haven, because it’s got three bomb sites, it’s relatively small and the amount of rotations makes for a fun time.

There’s one side of the map can be a bit tricky sometimes. It’s C. There’s two entrances to the site, a long narrow passageway akin to A long on CS:GO‘s Dust 2 (without the pit at the bottom) and a smaller entrance that goes into a garage with a window. In this particular round, garage was covered. I wasn’t worried about that.

But I couldn’t really hold the line. An attempted shoulder peek — terminology for trying to bait out a shot from the enemy without fully exposing yourself — had cost me almost all my health through the edge of the main bomb box. With no armour left, less than half health, and only a trusty Sheriff (a high-powered pistol), the best I could do was at least sound off a warning.

So I did that, letting my team know on voice comms — hey, they’re working up C long. The enemy wasn’t rushing, but they were sure as hell advancing. Omen’s telltale opaque, purple smokes started to bombard the site. A grenade from Raze, the rocket wielding agent of chaos, lobbed in. All 5 enemies might not be hitting the site, but there was enough time for my teammates to rotate if they took the call seriously.

But here’s the thing. Unless you’re playing with a group of friends, nobody really takes calls from teammates that seriously.  The trust just isn’t there. And Haven is a small enough map that people around B and garage, the two areas that immediately connect to where I was, can at least hear what’s going on.

So I wasn’t completely isolated. I was still alive, but any hopes of holding down the site alone were completely dashed. I didn’t have the health for it.

As more smokes from an enemy Brimstone started to zone off the site, things were getting frantic. Only one teammate had gotten even close to helping on the site, and the amount of utility had transformed the site to a series of circular orbs, Sage walls, explosive effects and footsteps.

And then it hit me: there’s a Sage ice wall. I’m also a Sage.

The enemies had dropped a Sage wall blocking off line of sight from the garage entrance as they came out from C long. It wasn’t blocking the doorway, simply a wall in between that enabled them to run through to the site. Because of all the smoke spam, I’d had to run around the site to stay alive, so the wall also conveniently kept me alive. And with just enough of a gap at the end of the Sage wall, I thought: Right. Time for a little defensive play.

There was enough space at the end of the enemy Sage wall to place a Sage wall of my own. Instead of running into the bomb site, my own Sage wall boxed them into a tiny corner, stalling the rush completely.

Seconds later, our team’s Raze finally showed up. Her cluster grenade lobbed over the bomb box, and with little room to move and no chance of seeing what was coming — because the enemy team couldn’t see through their own smokes either — three attackers immediately hit the deck.

Everyone started laughing on voice chat.

Valorant‘s been commonly compared to Overwatch, CS:GO and to a much lesser degree, Rainbow 6: Siege over the last few days. On the surface, it shares the same principle as all of these games, with two teams attacking or defending a series of bomb sites (or objectives) over a series of rounds. Valorant‘s structure is more similar to the original Counter-Strike both in format (a maximum 12 rounds per half, instead of 15 like modern Counter-Strike) and the raw time-to-kill. There’s a money system, again similar to Counter-Strike, but the pricing of weapons is more lenient given the shorter round format. You’ll always be able to buy at least a rifle and small armour, no matter how bad things get.

Enemies will large die after one or two shots to the head, depending on the distance, armour and your current weapon. This can happen in Overwatch too — Widowmaker is an obvious example — but the fundamental difference is the focus on the individual, rather than the team. Abilities in Valorant are complementary, rather than mandatory — although at the right time, they can make all the difference.

Here, I’m listening for the sound of enemy defusers before using one of Breach’s flashbangs — which go through walls. After hearing the enemy Cypher defuse the bomb, I fire the flash, creating the space for me to peek and help win the round.

Unsurprisingly, the utility for each of the game’s 11 “agents” is most powerful in succession. A Sage, Viper and Cypher can combine to completely lock down all the entrances to a bombsite, delaying retakes enormously and almost guaranteeing a win. Attacking a site is much easier when Omen and Brimstone’s smokes combine to completely zone out all of the major sight lines, particularly when you’ve also got a Breach that can flash through walls and stun enemies from afar in pesky corners. The majority of Valorant games today don’t feature this level of co-ordination, but in a few months that will change.

But the key difference with Valorant is that you still have to make the shot. If someone doesn’t check a corner, or an enemy gets a miraculous flick and survives to battle a second target, the round fundamentally changes. In games like Overwatch, players are given multiple opportunities to make their shot: the game rarely hinges on the accuracy of a single bullet. In Valorant, one great headshot can completely turn the tide of a situation, then a round, then the economy, and potentially the whole game.

Every individual has that power in Valorant.

If you don’t like games where mistakes can be brutally punished, chances are Valorant will not be for you. The movement and pacing of a regular game is nowhere near as slow as, say, Escape from Tarkov. But a certain hyper-vigilance still stands. You can’t wantonly stand in the middle of an area trying to use abilities. Running sideways and holding down MOUSE1, spamming a rifle like it’s Call of Duty, will rarely lead you to success. (You’ll have more luck doing this in Valorant than a game like CS:GO, but more on that later.)

The in-game tutorial does a decent job of instilling the basics. Playing as Sova, Valorant‘s reconnaissance archer that many have likened to Hanzo, the game runs you through the initial use of abilities, movement, firing, attacking and defending a bombsite. It runs for just under 10 minutes, and you can run through the course again if you like. It doesn’t have any advanced tips about firing or recoil control that would truly benefit newer players.

That’s part of the fun of Valorant right now, though. The player base has plenty of ex-CS:GO, ex-Quake or ex-Overwatch players who have functional skills. And many of those — including myself, a two-decades plus veteran from the CS 1.5, 1.6 and CS:GO eras — are finding Valorant a lot easier.

It’s partially down to the movement. The movement speed itself isn’t the problem, but rather the heavy amount of slow applied to characters as soon as they take damage. Coupled with Valorant‘s more lenient approach to moving while firing, it encourages aggression. It also makes it easier after you miss the first shot, because the recoil of the game’s main weapons — the Vandal, Phantom, Ghost, Sheriff, Classic, and even the game’s light machine guns — are a little easier to manage.

The Sheriff, Valorant‘s equivalent of a Desert Eagle from any other game, benefits most of all. In short to medium ranges, a headshot is an insta-kill. But what actually makes the gun so enjoyable is the balance between its recoil resetting, and the aforementioned leniency with movement.

Costing $800 — making it available from the first round, and a great alternative on half-buy rounds where your team can’t afford full weapons — it gives players the most crucial commodity: hope. You always have a chance of winning a one-on-one fight with the Sheriff, at the right distances and circumstances. It highlights that core difference between a game like Valorant and something like Overwatch.

In Valorant, every player always has the potential to make a difference — but the round is not permanently lost if someone messes up. In Overwatch, everyone usually has to work together to enable someone to make a difference.

Right now, Valorant currently has 11 agents (or characters/heroes/classes), and four playable maps. It often feels like much less than that though: a system is currently working in the background that naturally favours Ascent, the map released alongside Valorant‘s launch. The end result is that Split, the most bugged and hated map during Valorant‘s alpha beta phase, barely appears for most people. Over the course of just under 100 games in Unrated and Spike Rush in the last week, I’ve seen Split precisely three times. It was a map you sometimes couldn’t avoid — I played it five times in a row in the closed beta.

Riot hasn’t officially said anything, but the calculus behind the scenes is painfully apparent. More games on the newer maps means more analytics and information for Riot. It helps that Ascent is the largest and most tactically traditional of all of Valorant‘s maps, featuring an enormous middle section that splits the two bombsites. There’s an awful amount of corners, a huge feature of Valorant‘s map design, and partially a necessity given how all the game’s utility works.

Valorant: The Kotaku Australia Review
Valorant: The Kotaku Australia Review

Bind and Haven were the two most popular maps during the beta, and they remain the most interesting to play now, both in regular matches and Spike Rush. Both of Bind’s bombsites are linked by a set of teleporters, allowing players on both sides to quickly rotate from one side of the map to the other.

Haven, on the other hand, is a smaller, Japanese-esque inspired level designed around three bombsites. You can shoot through a lot of the walls, and the nature of the design means players can rotate through each area much more quickly. It’s more dynamic strategically, particularly when you have a group of five players that are comfortable holding their own positions. In Spike Rush, however, every enemy attacker has a Spike of their own, although the stakes in that mode are much lower.

It’s hard to say whether the maps unfairly favour one team or another, simply because much of the Valorant player base is still working out how to play not only the maps, but all the agents. Characters like Viper are unpopular and grossly underused, but the potential for the poisonous heroine to lob orbs over walls and cut off important defensive lines could become a critical factor in the months to come.

In general, a lot of the agents are vastly underused, or poorly understood. Players are still learning, what angles to hold, and how all the weapons work. That’s part of the fun of Valorant right now, especially in the wonderfully chaotic Spike Rush.

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But once that early phase ends, there is a common thread among much of the map design that slows the game down. It was most apparent towards the end of the closed beta, when the most experienced and dedicated had full command of each agent’s abilities.

Almost all of the bombsites on each of the four maps have tiny chokepoints, entrances small enough that a single Sage orb, grenade, Viper poison or smoke can simply cover. The smoke grenades aren’t too problematic, as they don’t restrict movement. But all of the utilities that do restrict movement often mean instant death if you’re caught unawares.

What develops then is this weird holding pattern. Players will slowly poke and prod on both sides, effectively trying to bait out as much utility usage as they can without having to fully commit. It’s not feasible for teams to straight up rush a bombsite — even on the largest map, Ascent, rushes on both bombsites can be easily stalled for a good five to six seconds by a single player who knows what they’re doing. Players running out of bombsites get caught by Cypher’s tripwires, or are halted completely by Sage’s wall.

This is possible in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive too, thanks to the power of the molotov cocktail, which blankets a small area in flames. But in CS:GO, players can at least counter the molotov by holding a smoke grenade in reserve, cancelling out the molotov instantly. It’s a tactical choice that players and teams can make, and it’s one that simply isn’t available in Valorant right now.

So in higher level games, Valorant plays out much more slowly. On a map like Haven, that’s less problematic because there’s more points of attack and more viable rotations. On something like Split, where space is limited and the majority of players are still naturally cautious about moving forward, it’s a lot less fun.

Players have pointed to Valorant‘s lack of maps as a key flaw, particularly compared against games like Rainbow 6: Siege, or CS:GO. The truth of any competitive shooter is that the initial maps are launch are always going to be rough, with one or two maps that are simply too poorly designed to be entertaining.

When CS:GO first launched, it did so with major reworks of Train, Nuke and Inferno, maps which have featured in most versions of modern Counter-Strike over the last 15 years. But Train was a complete mess. Nuke remained a defensive-first powerhouse of a map, and the original design translated to the new version of CS poorly at first. Inferno was better received, but nowhere as well loved as the versions in CS: Source, CS 1.6 or CS 1.5, and the map was eventually removed from active play before a massive rework in 2016.

Valorant will undergo something similar. Split has already been the recipient of the first batch of changes, particularly to the middle area to make it less favourable to defenders. The game’s core design tenet — forcing players to capture off-site locations before capturing each bombsite — inherently favours defenders. But once players capture those bombsites, the height and angles from those off-site locations offer a natural advantage when retaking the bombsite.

In short, the bombsites aren’t fun to capture, and they can be a right pain to hold.

Valorant: The Kotaku Australia Review
Valorant: The Kotaku Australia Review

Defensive-favoured maps aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Much of competitive Counter-Strike was built on the back of incredible matches on de_train, de_nuke and particularly de_cbble, where defensive teams would frequently rack up double digit scores on the CT side before switching. But once you captured each of those bombsites, you had the advantage of a strong defensive position to defend the bomb plant. In Valorant, a lot of that defensive power is more dependent on what abilities you have left to zone areas, especially since most bomb sites have at least three points of entry.

I’m getting into the weeds a bit, but identifying structural challenges in map design, post-plant scenarios and pre-plant approaches are the kinds of core questions Riot will need to answer if Valorant is to have serious long-term longevity. Games of this ilk live or die on the kind of variety that spawns from a series of cascading options and choices.

Valorant: The Kotaku Australia Review

If I smoke off these two corners in a bombsite, and an enemy chooses to cover themselves with their own smoke — but not actively oppose entry — how does that situation pan out? If the enemy backs off, and saves their utility to assist in the retake, are they at a natural advantage when their team arrives? Are bombsites impossible to hold once a retaking team has a certain amount of utility available? Do the attackers need to press to a certain point just to force a certain amount of utility usage — and if so, does that pressure need to happen before attacking a bombsite?

Players inherently know the answers to a lot of these questions in games like Rainbow 6 or Counter-Strike, even if they don’t actively think about them. When you’ve played B on Dust 2 for several years, you know what spots you favour, what flashbangs and molotov grenades impact what areas, and what you can do with the kit you have available.

Valorant is in a space where players are figuring all of that out. And because so much of that inherent knowledge is unknown, it makes comparisons against other shooters of its ilk difficult. The game is very fresh, very raw, while remaining so familiar at the same time.

Valorant: The Kotaku Australia Review

Valorant has microtransactions, but it’s not especially pushy or upfront about them. The game’s main menu screen occasionally features skins for sale, but not all the time, and most of my experience with Valorant featured a relatively blank opening screen that barely showed any indication that Riot wanted my money at all.

Of course, you can spend a lot of money. Valorant Points are the game’s currency for skipping contract levels and directly unlocking agents. It costs 200 Valorant points to skip a level of a contract, and 1000 Valorant points to directly jump to level 5, the level necessary to make an agent playable. (All Valorant players get five agents accessible immediately, with the other six — Cypher, Reyna, Viper, Breach, Raze and Omen — achieved through progression or money.)

In Australian dollars, you’d pay $15 if you just wanted to unlock each of the other six characters without hassle. Beyond Valorant points, there’s also Radianite points, a currency earned through in-game progression only. It’s used to evolve skins and other cosmetic items, and you’ll earn it partially as a result of progressing through the game’s battle pass. Like the skins, the game’s battle pass costs 1000 Valorant Points, costing you another $15 in practice.

Valorant: The Kotaku Australia Review

What’s nice about this design is that it’s free from randomised loot boxes, crate keys or some of the more incestuous microtransaction elements found in other games. That’s not to say that battle pass systems don’t have their own problems, but it’s a fairer and more upfront model for free-to-play games that doesn’t raise the ire of regulators or legislators, as FIFA and other games have discovered.

It also establishes a solid model for Riot to introduce other passes to support community esports, similar to what’s happened with Dota 2‘s Compendium. Valorant‘s esports model isn’t mapped out at this stage, but it is at least a fraction more forgiving than the tight grip they’ve held on League of Legends. Organisers can hold small tournaments without any input from Riot, as long as the prize pool doesn’t exceed $US10,000 or $US12,000 in non-cash prizes. Third-parties still can’t run official leagues without Riot’s say-so, similar to what’s seen in Dota 2 and Counter-Strike. But the door is at least open, which is a start, even though you’re still restricted to Riot’s approved list of sponsors and advertisers.

Valorant: The Kotaku Australia Review

All of this avoids the most important question, though. Is Valorant fun? Yes. It’s a futile question to ask whether it’s better than games like CS:GO or Overwatch right now, because those games have the vast advantage of years of more refined content. In CS‘s example, it has the benefit of decades of changes and learnings about map design, economy balancing, gun tweaking, and community support.

Valorant has little of those. And right now, there’s a question mark on how Riot will allow the game to evolve based on community feedback. Similar to League, there’s no capacity for players to create or make their own maps or skins. Fans don’t have the ability to create custom aim training levels, like they can in CS:GO, or alternate modes for fun like they do in Overwatch.

Valorant doesn’t need those things right now, fortunately. Queue times are remarkably short, with matches popping in ten seconds or less, although sometimes matches can take around a minute or two depending on your party. A regular match can run for 30 to 40 minutes, depending on rounds won, while Spike Rush matches often go from 6 to 10 minutes.

The game has enough familiar elements from shooters past that old fans of Counter-Strike, Quake, Call of Duty (on PC and console) and other competitive games have found something to enjoy. The gunplay is excellent, and the base mechanics allow for a ton of variety and hilarity. Not all of the maps are excellent, but there is at least enough there to come for more.

Questions also still remain about Vangaurd, Valorant’s aggressive ring-zero anti-cheat solution. The developer has already backtracked on their initial implementation, following complaints about various monitoring software and programs being unfairly blocked. For my experience, I haven’t run into any issues with Vanguard since release, although during the beta it did clash with my headphone’s custom audio software.

Is Vanguard’s obtrusiveness worth it for the illusion of a cleaner community? Right now, at least, games of Valorant aren’t plagued with user complaints about cheats or unfairness. But how much are users prepared to sacrifice for that ideal, especially since cheats are still possible? Riot banned thousands of users in the game’s closed beta, a sign that Vanguard’s low-level access is not the silver bullet many would have hoped for. I’ve had a trouble-free experience, and it’s been a delight playing games without running into the occasional person tracing me through walls, or insta-locking themselves onto my entire team. But Valorant is not immune from cheats, and only time will tell whether Riot deserves the level of trust they have asked of fans.

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Yesterday, Riot Games’ new tactical shooter, Valorant, emerged from its post-beta slumber and into full release. This meant a fresh start for most players, who saw their ranks reset and an influx of new names to attach to (and, in the midst of battle, detach from) faces. Cheaters, however, were not so lucky.

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Ultimately, however, most reviews of games like Valorant are futile at this game’s early stage. What matters most will be Riot’s dedication to listening, improving and adding as much content as possible into the game. Only time will tell whether Valorant‘s potential can live up to the hype.

For now, as an ancient CS player and the kind of target audience for a game like this, I’m having a blast. So is much of my friends list, and some older folks I haven’t played with in decades have even popped up again out of the woodwork. That’s always a good sign. Everyone, to some degree or another, is having fun. And for a video game, that’s all you can ask.


  • “The gunplay is excellent”

    The gunplay feels tired and old. For those of us who moved on from CS:GO years ago, Valorants gunplay feels archaic, back to a world of defined recoil patterns and undefined movement modifiers on recoil. I can see how (the CS) community likes it, but having been in Siege mostly for the last few years, its kinda gross.

    Secondly, the hero mechanic, whilst occasionally can have those awesome moments, generally feels a bit rubbish, as hero mechanics work best when they combine with others, but the two to three bombsite splits and low ttk make those moments few and far between. I’ll also further lay criticism at how bland and unreadable hero abilities generally are, being conveyed in giant splashes of colour instead of what its actually doing.

    I might be being critical, but Valorant might be the product of something I genuinely applaud, and thats Riots insane focus on getting things right. But its also meant that the game feels designed by committee, and is a completely soulless beast because of it.

    • Having watched a lot of gameplay footage, I’ve been trying to pinpoint exactly the issue I have with wanting to try this game.

      “Soulless” is the word I’ve been searching for. It looks empty, devoid of a true character that all the others it’s inspired from have.

    • Funnily enough, one of the reasons I turned it off in disgust is that the spray patterns are NOT all consistent from magazine to magazine which for a competitive shooter aimed at the CS lovers among us is complete ass. Imagine losing a gun fight because your random spray goes left while your opponent’s stays on target because RNG decided that’s how it wanted to roll… FOH.

      I agree with the rest of your post though; it seems to be very uninspired.

  • The game might be enjoyable to play and well implemented, but the community is toxic enough to not revisit it.

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