I have an on again/off again relationship to competitive shooters. I went through most of my childhood having never touched an FPS aside from the odd afternoon in senior year of high school, playing Halo over LAN in the computer lab. But the first time I had the freedom to really sink into a game regularly was in college, with Team Fortress 2. After that I poked around in the competitive shooter space for a bit, but nothing really stuck. Even Overwatch, which seemed primed to make me sink all my time into it due to its similarities to TF2, I fell off of rather quickly.
This is to say that I’m not predisposed to sticking to Valorant due to its genre. I’d tried my hand at both Counter-Strike and CS:GO and found that between the aesthetics and a high skill floor, neither of them really got their hooks into me. While in theory I was interested in what those games had to offer, the on-boarding is atrocious for a new player. You’re thrown to the proverbial wolves to try and figure it out on your own, which is difficult when you die at the drop of a hat. Valorant manages to allow for an easier onboarding through the addition of characters with distinct abilities. I know that sounds contradictory, but hear me out. Valorant uses a little superficial complexity to create an amazingly approachable competitive shooter.
Valorant is a free-to-play 5 vs 5 objective based tactical shooter. If you’ve ever played a game of Counter-Strike you’d immediately see the similarities in the main game mode: it’s first to 13 round wins, where teams swap between defense and attack. The defenders have to stop the attackers from planting the “spike” (read: bomb) on one of the designated planting sites. Once planted, the defenders can still defuse the bomb to win, and either team can win by killing everyone on the opposite team before the spike gets planted. At the beginning of each round, players use money earned by kills and round wins to buy shields, guns, and abilities. That last option is the biggest divergence from other Counter-Strike like games: instead of utility (smoke grenades, flashbangs, and the like), you buy abilities that are locked to your chosen Agent.
Image courtesy of Riot Games
There are 12 Agents to choose from, categorized into four types: Duelist, Initiator, Controller, and Sentinel. Duelists are meant to be the front line and generally have abilities that supplement solid gunplay; Initiators have abilities that help set up their team before a skirmish through intel or debuffs; Controllers have abilities that block sightlines, allowing you to set the rules of engagement through clever positioning of smokes and walls; Sentinels are meant to slow down enemy movement through abilities that are trap like and can also give away enemy positions.
As a player still relatively new to the gunplay of tactical shooters, I naturally found a niche playing Sentinels and Controllers. Sage, the only healer in the game as of this writing, allowed me to support my team in a way that wasn’t strictly about being able to click on heads, and through her slow ability I was able to learn the nuances of timing a push onto a site. As Omen, who has two rechargeable smokes, I was able to learn each map’s sightlines through the trial and error of placing smokes, rather than the more frustrating option of getting killed from an angle I hadn’t considered before.
Image courtesy of Riot Games
Because I had the option to really focus on things besides gunplay and not be immediately merc’d, I was able to learn maps and strategies at my own pace in game. As a kinesthetic learner I highly appreciate that this path was available to me.Where some people might be able to glean strategy and map layouts through watching videos, I generally have to do something myself for it to really sink in.
Riot has managed to lower the skill floor for people like me, but the skill ceiling is as high as any other game in this genre. Once I had a handle on a few agents’ abilities and the general layout for the three maps the game launched with, the last thing I had to focus on was getting better at aiming, and for once I was invested in a game enough to actually want to train this specific skill outside of just playing the game. I downloaded an aim trainer and would do a few rounds of practice before hopping into Valorant, something that I would’ve never imagined myself doing before Valorant came around. Guns work similarly to what you would expect if you’ve played a tactical shooter: bullets don’t always go to the center of your crosshair, only the first couple of shots are accurate and that’s if you’re standing dead still. The average time to kill is a split second, meaning if you manage to sneak up on someone who’s unaware of you you’ve won.
It’s a massively terrifying and yet exhilarating concept, which any tactical shooter fan can attest to. Positioning and knowing sightlines are important, understanding map layout is important, understanding the noise model in the game is massively important. Understanding where enemies might be and being able to pre-aim a corner is just as if not more important than your ability to snap to a target on the fly. Knowing when it’s safe to run, which makes noise your team and enemies can hear through walls, and when to slow walk to keep your position hidden is fundamental to the thoughtful, methodical play this game encourages.
This is one of the first tactical shooters that I’ve actively engaged with the Ranked mode in. Unfortunately most of my personal complaints about the game have to do with the Ranked mode’s lack of transparency. In Ranked mode, after playing placement matches, you’re assigned a rank and a tier. Each Rank has 3 tiers, and winning and losing games will move you up and down these tiers respectively. Seems simple at first, but the issue is that there’s no transparency between each tier. Say I’m Bronze 3, my next rank up would be Silver 1, and the next rank down would be Bronze 2. If I win a game, the game tells me whether I’ve ranked up significantly to moderately with one to three green up arrows to signify how much, but my rank and tier won’t necessarily change, even at three up arrows. Next game, I lose and I rank down significantly to moderately, similarly signified by one to three down arrows.
My rank and tier might not change after either of these two games, meaning there’s steps of granularity between each tier that aren’t surfaced to the player. Even the arrows, which are meant to signify how much I’m moving in rank, don’t communicate much. I’ve been in positions where I’ve lost a game with three down arrows and been brought down a rank, and then won two games with three up arrows immediately after and haven’t ranked up. This can make climbing seem impossible, and be really demoralizing when you win games but aren’t climbing ranks because the game has you in between two tiers.
The most recent patch introduces a specific MMR number for players in the two highest tiers of ranked matchmaking. Giving players the ability to see the granularity between each tier will go a big way to smoothing over some of these frustrations, I can only hope it’s extended to the rest of the playerbase soon.
Despite my gripes with how ranked mode isn’t as transparent as I’d like, most nights you’ll still catch me playing at least one game of ranked mode. Chasing higher ranks feels attainable, and while like most multiplayer games where teamplay is important, random teammates can be really hit or miss when it comes both to manners and teamwork, I’ve found that reporting players for slurs and hate speech seems to work pretty well if the “we’ve banned a player you reported” emails I’ve gotten are any indication.
While practically no game can escape the toxicity of online spaces, it’s good to see that bans are given for chat and voice abuse in an expedient manner. The question of how much verbal and chat harassment would be taken seriously was front of mind as I started playing this game, especially given the allegations and walkouts over sexual harassment at Riot a few years ago.
I’m glad that at least for this team they’re taking these issues of in game harassment seriously, and hope that the same thoughtfulness is being extended to the workers at Riot.
As I finish writing this, Patch 1.10 of Valorant is launching, ushering in the game’s third season. With it comes a new map and eventually a new Agent. The Agent, named Skye, will be the second healer added to the game, giving support oriented players like myself even more options. Coleman Palm, a developer on Valorant, wrote in a reddit comment that “She’s a great choice for more utility-oriented or supportive players who want to work with their team to enable big plays. A good Skye player who’s in sync with their team can really provide a ton of impact to the game, even if they’re not always on the front lines getting the frags themselves.” This is the sort of design philosophy that allowed me entry into the game, so I’m glad it continues to drive character creation as the game continues to grow. If they continue to keep in mind the wide diversity in both skill and background of their player base, I can see this game sustaining itself for a long time, and I’m excited to be able to come along for the ride.