Riot Games officially ventured into the first-person shooter (FPS) world in June with the release of its latest title, “Valorant.” The idea of the game is simple: You and four teammates each choose an agent, a character with a unique set of abilities (think flashbangs, smoke grenades and molotovs). You load into a map against five other agents and play rounds as either attackers or defenders. Attackers are given a bomb (“Valorant” refers to it as a “spike”) to plant at one of two to three specific sites on a map, and win a round when the bomb detonates or they eliminate all the defenders. On the other side, defenders win by eliminating all of the attackers, or defusing the spike before it detonates.
The concept of this game is similar to other tactical shooters such as “Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege” (Rainbow 6) and “Counter-Strike: Global Offensive” (CS:GO), and concepts for “Valorant”’s agents also bear a resemblance to characters in the hero-based shooter “Overwatch.” These three titles are “Valorant”’s competition, but “Valorant” has the potential to take a significant share of the market because it’s free to play. The game makes money by selling in-game cosmetic items (gun skins, banners, etc.), but that’s not the focus of this article. Instead, my review of the game will focus on three main aspects: First and most important is gameplay, followed by lore and the esports scene and how “Valorant” can match and eventually surpass its competitors in those aspects.
The gun is the most important part of an FPS game and “Valorant” does an excellent job giving players a variety to choose from depending on the situation. If you’re strapped for cash, you can spend 200 credits on a shorty, a hybrid of a pistol and shotgun that does high damage at close range. If you have a lot of money, on the other hand, then consider spending 4,500 credits on a sniper rifle (called an “operator,” or “op” for short) and hold a long-range angle. I see every gun in the game fairly regularly, and no weapon seems particularly overpowered. Granted, I am playing at a lower level, where your aim matters more than the gun you use. Professional matches show less gun diversity, but still a satisfactory amount.
However, when it comes to agents and maps, Riot’s latest title lags behind its competitors. “Overwatch” has 32 heroes and 21 maps, while R6 has 57 operators and 16 maps (seven of which are seen in competitive play). Some heroes, operators and maps are not seen often, but compare these numbers to “Valorant,” which currently has a measly 12 agents and four maps. With numbers as low as these, it’s easier for players to get bored of the game. Riot has announced plans to release up to six new agents and two maps each year, but I would have liked to see more agents and maps available on release. By comparison, both “Overwatch” and Rainbow 6 had at least 20 characters to choose from when those games came out.
The last aspect of gameplay, which is arguably the most important, is the inclusion of game modes thought of by the community. The game mode I described at the outset of this review is just one of three ways to play. By contrast, both “Overwatch” and CS:GO have an “arcade,” a place where you can hop on and play dozens of different game modes like Capture the Flag and Mafia, or just practice parkour on a map totally separate from competitive play. Some of my fondest memories from high school were making friends with other players who frequently played on a “zombie escape” server in CS:GO. It’s vital for the long-term health of “Valorant” that Riot Games create a similar environment so casual players have a variety of ways to play.
While developing the game’s lore isn’t as important as developing new agents, maps or game modes, it’s an aspect of “Valorant” that can’t be ignored. If you want to learn about the backstories of all the agents, playing the game leaves more questions than answers. For example, Cypher, a Moroccan surveillant, sometimes says the following at the start of a match: “I must survive to protect my family, I can’t lose them, I can’t feel that pain again.”
We have no clue what happened to Cypher’s family, and we know even less about some of the other agents. This video from May gives background on most agents and provides some theories based on details in “Valorant”’s maps, some of which have already been disproven since the game’s release. I really look forward to seeing the world develop through more cinematics, short comics or even in-game missions.
It’s possible that we never get the answers to some of our questions about lore. In a July blog, Riot Games said, “We’ve always believed that art, creative, and story should serve competitive gameplay first,” and the fact that “Valorant”’s competitive scene is still young indicates that lore will probably take the backseat to the esports scene in the near-future.
“Valorant” esports is unlike any other because it’s the first title released during a pandemic, meaning local restrictions on gatherings have prevented organizers from hosting any offline tournaments. Based on the course of the pandemic, it’s unclear when such tournaments will be held again, so “Valorant” is forced to grow online in the meantime. However, the bigger question is what role Riot Games will play in the future of the game’s competitive ecosystem.
Riot is very hands-on when it comes to managing the esports scene of its oldest and most popular title “League of Legends,” making it difficult for tournament organizers to host their own events a few years after the title’s release in 2009. Instead, all noteworthy competition has been organized into leagues managed exclusively by Riot Games or its regional affiliates. So far, Riot has chosen to partner with other tournament organizers for its Ignition Series, whose last installment was held over the weekend, and I hope Riot continues partnering with tournament organizers. The benefits are clear: Fans of the game get to see more teams and strategies, and competition between organizers benefits the scene as a whole. Moreover, we also need to see the development of a spectator client and replay system, which makes it easier for viewers to understand what’s happening and gives casters and analysts more tools to highlight patterns and tell a story about professional matches.
“Valorant” has the potential to be one of the most popular video games in the world, but only if Riot Games implements what players want. A lot of what I’ve mentioned already has been repeated on online forums and podcasts. Riot Games knows this is what we want from the game. Will they listen?
Contact Michael Espinosa at mesp2021 ‘at’ stanford.edu.