Riot Games' latest project, the hero-focused shooter Valorant, kicked off a closed beta this week. After playing plenty of matches, it's clear that while it invites inevitable comparisons to other games, Valorant can stand on its own as a shooter that will scratch players' itch for a tactical experience.
I imagine many people will want to boil Valorant down to "Counter-Strike meets Overwatch," and while that's true to an extent it doesn't quite convey how Valorant plays. Yes, there are unlockable characters with special abilities to use in matches. Yes, there's a buy phase for weapons and a match structure in which one team tries to plant a bomb while defenders hold the line. These are familiar elements that most online shooter fans will know. Valorant isn't reinventing the wheel, but it does shine it to a mirror's polish. Whether you're lobbing defensive slo-mo grenades or leading the charge as a kill-greedy duelist character, Valorant will likely prove one of the smoothest and most rewarding online games you've played in a long time.
Valorant pits two teams against each other on a handful of maps featuring bomb sites. An attacking team needs to bring the "spike" to one of these sites and plant the explosives. It's a tried and true multiplayer set up: Pick a path to the bomb site, push hard or defend harder. Valorant spices that up with hero characters whom you pick at the start of each round. They fall into a few categories.
Sentinels are defensive experts whose abilities tend to focus on controlling space on the battlefield. That might mean tossing a poisonous grenade that damages and slows enemies, but it can also mean conjuring ad-hoc magical walls to close paths or even healing teammates. I've focused heavily on Sentinel characters---the revive-granting agent Sage being a favorite---and found that their movement-hampering abilities create exciting possibilities for trapping enemies in choke points or zoning them out of bomb sites. "Controller" agents take this even further with fiery floor traps or big orbital strikes that force opponents to flee. These two classes are among my favorites. Turns out, adding a bit of science-magic to a familiar game mode can go a long way.
If you're not into creative ability use or defensive play you can also select a Duelist or Initiator character. The former are highly mobile fighters who exceed in one-on-one fights, making them a good fit for lone wolves---though scurrying off to play Predator might irk your teammates looking for help.
Initiators, meanwhile, focus on tools that help a team push forward. For instance, the archer Sova has recon drones and motion-sensing arrows that help build intel, but also the ability to fire a damn big shock arrow good for nailing multiple enemies in tight places.
These characters will no doubt draw Overwatch comparisons or even call to mind the heroes of Apex Legends. But Valorant features more "real" shootouts, this isn't a game where you'll push back and forth between roles, or find intense teammate debates over metagame composition. At least for now. A well-placed headshot can down anyone, and while abilities are unique to each character, you can purchase whatever gun you want so long as you have the funds. Sure, Valorant dovetails with some of its peers, but it's also a more brutal and sudden game.
That will frustrate some players and delight others. It can feel awful to turn a corner only to be instantly killed by a sniper, and it's not a great time when you suffer an agonizing defeat just because someone lurked behind a door with a shotgun. Valorant gives tools to push back against these tactics, but it's a twitch-shooter through and through: You'll either adapt to the pace or completely fall behind.
Thankfully, there doesn't seem to be much of a technical hurdle. Valorant runs silky smooth---I'm working with two GTX 1070s---and outside of some issues logging into the beta, I've found it a responsive experience without lag or major ping issues. Your skill is the deciding factor. As someone who played a lot of intense PC shooters, I felt right at home. But if you're Valorant-curious and don't have that same background, I imagine the learning curve will feel steep.
If Valorant has a weak point for the moment it's that, particularly in the contextless world of a beta, I don't have a great sense of the characters or world. The designs are evocative and their banter can be fun, but they don't immediately leap off the screen like the characters in competing games. For some folks that won't matter, but as much as I love playing Valorant so far, I wish it had the extra charm needed to suck in that little bit more. That said I'm curious and want to know more, and there's plenty of time to build that out in the lead up to launch. For now, you'd be forgiven for thinking the package a little generic in spite of its rock-solid gameplay.
If you're looking for a damn good shooter Valorant is off to a remarkable start. It's hard for me to remember the last time a game like this "clicked" so instantly for me. It's fast and rewards skill, but there's enough spice that you can contribute to a team's victory with clever thinking and a well-placed hero power. Streamers will flock to it, diehards will feel right at home, and newbies will find a tough but deeply fulfilling challenge in the moments when they succeed. Valorant isn't revolutionary but it is really, really, really good.