Valorant Year One Review – The Competitive Shooter To Beat

When Valorant released a year ago in June of 2020, I had next to no experience of tactical shooters. Hell I basically had zero experience with PC shooters. It’s one of the small disadvantages of being a two man website – occasionally one of us is either out of our comfort zone, or pushed outside of our knowledge base. As such, I reviewed Valorant at an 82/100. I approached the review in much the same way as I would any game, judging acting and even writing quality at an even kilter with more important aspects like gameplay, performance, and audio. That was a mistake. To remedy that, this is my Year 1 review of Valorant.

See I know now, after over a year of reviewing games of varying genres, platforms, and quality, that our normal template for reviewing games simply doesn’t translate to heavy multiplayer games, or in Valorant’s case multiplayer only. I dropped the formula for games like Destruction AllStars and Call of Duty.

“Riot has even invested time into building out the world and backstory behind Valorant”

There’s not a single person still playing Valorant who cares about the quality of the writing when Agents speak during the buy round. There’s not a single person who cares about the acting behind these Agents either. For what it’s worth, both are actually pretty good and Riot has even invested time into building out the world and backstory behind Valorant. But it’s honestly not important to the overall experience – and therefore the review score. 

No, what matters is how Valorant feels to play moment to moment. In case you’re not completely up to scratch with the idea here, Riot’s tactical shooter is a combination of the age old classic Counter Strike: Global Offensive, and Blizzard’s hero shooter Overwatch. It meshes the slow deliberate firefights and claustrophobic map design of Valve’s game, and the intrinsic character abilities and charm of Overwatch. 

If you know me, you know I love Overwatch. I’ve put some 1500+ hours into the 2016 PvP shooter, and I barely have a bad word to say about it. I reviewed Overwatch at the same time as Valorant and gave it a mammoth 95/100. It’s the best multiplayer game I’ve ever played. 

Let me tell you – and I say this with no small hesitation – Valorant isn’t that far behind Overwatch for me. 

CS:GO’s gameplay has always fascinated me. I never really played it, but I watched it. I watched YouTube videos, streams, and even read about it, but I never really dipped a toe in. The focus on near-stationary gun fights, a reliance on aim over almost everything else, and a dazzling array of required knowledge meant that I was honestly scared. Scared of being exposed as the newbie that I was. 

Valorant isn’t that far behind Overwatch

Valorant offered me a way in, and with the help of character abilities to offset my near-zero experience with PC shooters, it offered me a way in that felt welcoming. I didn’t get destroyed game after game. CS:GO veterans were initially skeptical that Riot could provide anything worth tempting them over, and the same went for Overwatch aficionados. This meant that the initial Valorant playerbase weren’t ALL complete psychos with a top 1% headshot ratio. 

Since the full release in the Summer of last year, Valorant has nearly obliterated any interest in other shooters for me. I’ve played a handful of hours of Overwatch at most, I’ve barely touched Destiny 2, and despite having a go at CS:GO once I was confident, that didn’t hold my interest either.

New Valorant map Icebox

I’m not gonna front; Valorant is not an easy game. Now, just over a year after the release, it’s not a particularly welcoming game either. It’s a steep learning curve from any other shooter, mostly because it’s fundamentally and mechanically different from any other shooter. It requires the player to stand still when they shoot, at least if they want to hit anything at range. There is no aim assistance or generous hitboxes, you either hit the target or you don’t. Extended bursts of fire are punished, encouraging controlled fire and micro movements of your mouse.

It’ll sound like I’m contradicting myself here but Valorant borrows and rips ideas from both Overwatch and CS:GO almost wholesale at times. Omen is a near copy paste of Reaper from the Blizzard side for example, and the entire economy system and all the weapon variants are renamed and retooled from CS:GO. But Valorant combines uniquely designed maps, offers a new spin on flashbangs and smokes, and a now dazzling array of Agents and abilities.

“Riot have been able to stretch their design chops”

In a twist from CS:GO’s relatively flat map designs, the designers at Riot have been able to stretch their design chops with the recent additions of both Icebox and Breeze. Unlike the safeish launch maps – aside from Split with it’s ‘heaven’ areas – both of them feature large raised areas that test players’ vertical aim as well as their lateral abilities. The age-old tradition of crosshair placement has gained almost an entirely new axis of play. The claustrophobic tendencies of the launch maps – made up of Ascent, Bind, Split, and Haven – have been bolstered by long angles and sightlines on these recent additions as well.

Breeze, new Valorant map

CS:GO’s flashbangs have been broadened by a vast selection of use-cases, from Phoenix’s stylish curved throw and Reyna’s near-sight Leer ability, all the way to Skye’s controllable exploding bird and Breach’s wall penetrating flash. Likewise smokes and their varied applications have been given a breath of fresh air. Brimstone, Omen, Astra, Jett, and Viper all have different controls and optimal conditions for their interpretations of the classic mechanic. 

As you may have guessed by the last two paragraphs, Agent variety is Valorant’s secret sauce. With similar support as Overwatch, the launch count of 10 total has been increased to 16 at the time of writing. Not a single one of the 16 total Agents feel similar or interchangeable, despite sharing multiple roles. Agents are separated into four brackets:

  • Duelist
  • Initiator
  • Controller
  • Sentinel

Agent variety is Valorant’s secret sauce

Breach and Phoenix both have pretty devastating flash abilities, but sit in the ‘Initiator’ and ‘Duelist’ camps respectively. Little details like ready time, angle of approach, and recovery time help split them here with Phoenix being able to take care of himself in a pinch far easier than Breach.

Similarly Brimstone and Jett both share placeable smokes but aspects like smoke radius, density, placement time, and duration help split them into the ‘Controller’ and ‘Duelist’ brackets. That’s without mentioning the likes of Astra, who feels more like an RTS character instead of an outright shooter, or Reyna, who can absorb her enemies souls for healing and invulnerability.

Mastering one agent does almost nothing to help you play another, and players regularly need to fill gaps in team composition so being multifaceted is greatly encouraged. I’ve played Valorant for hundreds of hours at this stage and I’m only confident with three; Reyna, Sova, and Breach. The other 13 are a complete myth to me. 

Learning Agents isn’t enforced in the competitive mode though – Valorant’s most popular mode by far. Contrary to the relatively sparse launch, there’s a handful of casual modes for someone to take part in, either as a replacement or warm-up. There’s a full Deathmatch mode that removes ability usage, allowing players to practise their aim. There’s replication, a casual mode that allows duplicate Agent choices on a team that results in hilarious match-ups. Then there’s Escalation, Valorant’s spin on the popular ‘Gun Game’ from Call of Duty. There’s a full ‘Unrated’ mode that follows the rule of ranked, only without the pressure. 

At launch, Valorant could’ve been considered lacking in key features. Map and HUD information wasn’t perfect, but has been steadily improved over time – now featuring Agent positioning and a more detailed killfeed. Steady patches from the development team have altered and balanced things from weapon recoil and ammo counts, to agent abilities, and even the layouts of the maps. 

At launch, Valorant could’ve been considered lacking in key features.

In fact the post-launch support for Valorant has been amongst the best I’ve ever seen, maybe even the best. Devs are constantly active in the dedicated subreddit, addressing player questions or feedback – sometimes in the very next patch. Player bug reports are often addressed within days if they’re seriously damaging to the overall experience. The recently announced patch that coincides with the new season is the largest to date, featuring blanket changes to weapon prices, agents, and even PC performance to make the game more accessible. 

Not everything is perfect though. Riot has had distinct issues balancing the objectively powerful Agent called Jett. Her intrinsic dash ability allows her to take angles and fights that are almost unplayable in the right hands, and players of all ranks and skill levels have been crying out for wholesale adjustments. One of the more recent additions to the roster Yoru is almost laughably incapable compared to the rest of the agents, despite being very exciting in concept. Riot are no strangers to PvP landscapes given their pedigree with League of Legends, so it’s bizarre that these issues have rolled through multiple patches now. 

Viper – the Agent based around tick damage and area control – released with Valorant in a bad state, resulting in the lowest pick rate of any character by some distance. With recent buffs to her kit, it’s the exact opposite issue. Especially in mid-lower ranks, she’s nearly a must pick

Riot are proving themselves as one of the best devs in terms of community engagement right now, but the delivery of their patches is at times lacking. A well known issue with volume sliders while in-game has been general knowledge for months, but has yet to be fixed. The commonly mentioned issue of heavy ‘Run and Gun’ gameplay – something that doesn’t have a place in a tactical shooter – has only just been addressed in the newest patch that went live today. It remains to be seen as to how successfully. 

“Riot are proving themselves as one of the best devs in terms of community engagement”

But all of these balancing issues will prove themselves to be footnotes in Valorant’s success over time. It’s lent a new perspective to the CS:GO formula – a game that’s largely been abandoned by Valve despite the massive popularity. It has offered a whole new landscape for coaches and pros alike to dominate, with the recent Master’s tournament landing an average 700k viewers per game, even more for the big matchups. There’s blossoming lower tier competitions, massive support from Riot in all facets, and a huge influx of veterans from other scenes. 

Post-launch support has been impressive, with Riot sticking to their promise of at least one new Agent per “Act”. Along with each Act – Riot’s word for a season – comes a fairly high value Battle Pass that offers unique skins not available anywhere else. Of course the market-wide problems regarding FOMO – ‘Fear of Missing Out’ – kicks in here, but that’s not a fault of Valorant or Riot and rather a systemic issue. 

Unfortunately the largely stellar F2P value of Valorant, a game that releases free new maps, agents, and features a reasonably priced Battle Pass, is brought crashing down by an obscene approach to cosmetic micro transactions. Individual skins from the marketplace – that often look much more premium than the skins in the Pass – can cost you £20 or more in currency, tallying up to £70 for a full pack of skins, or thereabouts. This is more expensive than every other game I’ve personally played. Aside from CS:GO’s user controller market of course, which can charge hundreds of pounds for a single skin.

Of course, much like many other players, I’ve brought some of these skins. I’m part of the problem. But charging £20 per skin is something I cannot vocally support, even when the skins are of the calibre they are in Valorant, often featuring custom animations, kill effects, and colour schemes. It’s a problem I mentioned in my original review and while Valorant is fully playable for free, for as long as you want, the temptation is there and Riot knows it. 

“charging £20 per skin is something I cannot vocally support”

But it’s hard to be too critical when Valorant is as masterfully made as it is. Maps and characters are incredibly polished visually, with varied colours and animations peppered throughout Valorant’s clean aesthetic. Your crosshair can be customised to the point of complete bewilderment, along with the obvious examples like sensitivity. There’s colour blind options, and a plethora of other quality settings to help cater your experience as much as you’d like.

Performance across the board is nearly flawless, and it’s been months since I crashed or disconnected from a game. I maintain a rock solid 120fps on Ultra settings on what is now a fairly mid-tier PC, and it’s very receptive even on bottom tier hardware. 

Visual and audio feedback is pretty much perfect now, despite early quirks with directional audio. I never really have to question where I’m getting shot from or where ‘those footsteps’ came from, although I am using a fairly premium set; the SteelSeries Arctis Pro. Mileage may vary depending on the quality of your output source.

Outside of Riot’s bewildering inability to balance certain Agents efficiently and the poor example of cosmetic microtransactions it’s really hard to criticise Valorant. It’s the only PvP game I can remember being comfortable to play alone, even including Overwatch. The online community – outside of the few bad eggs – is incredibly receptive, and I can’t remember the last time I was verbally or text abused in the middle of a competitive game. This is a stark difference to the likes of Overwatch where it was almost every game. 

“It’s the only PvP game I can remember being comfortable to play alone, even including Overwatch”

I don’t think I’ve encountered a single person who was genuinely cheating in the year I’ve been playing, at least not so obvious that it mattered – something extremely rare in PC games. Riot placed great stock in their anti-cheat prior to launch and from everything I’ve experienced the confidence was entirely warranted. 

I’m trying to cap off this review with a meaningful outro, but I keep remembering things worthy of praise. What a hard life I live. I’m not going to tell you that Valorant is for everyone, it quite obviously isn’t. It’s one of the most demanding shooters I’ve ever played, both physically and mentally. It’s the only shooter where I’ve actually needed a warm up routine before jumping into ranked. Hell Valorant is the only game that I play only after ensuring that I’m hydrated and fed, for fear of a lax in concentration.

It’s one that demands introspective improvement, a constant battle of learning and forgetting muscle memory and training pixel perfect aim. Even in the casual modes, it’s a game that punishes players for being careless or inaccurate, often with immediate death. But Valorant is also a game that delivers its experience incrementally, with regular downtime to reflect on your mistakes and strive to improve for next time. 

“Valorant is a PvP shooter quite unlike any that I’ve played”

Rounds can be won or lost in the matter of seconds, but whole games will regularly last 30 minutes or more and there is no such thing as a lost game. I’ve lost 12 rounds in a row, and then won 12 rounds in a row. I’ve won games where I’m a man down or someone is trying to throw. I’ve lost games where I was playing like a god, constantly being accused of cheating.

Valorant is a PvP shooter quite unlike any that I’ve played, despite obvious similarities to other examples on the market. It’s almost entirely F2P and doesn’t really punish the player for engaging it as such, outside of the gorgeous weapon skins. There are no loot-boxes, no modes, maps, or characters locked behind a paywall, and you’re getting a polished experience. Charged cosmetics are predatory, but you know exactly what you’re getting. Balancing is an issue, but matters little to the ordinary player. 

Valorant is the shooter to beat going forward. I almost, almost prefer it to Overwatch and it’s certainly better in areas. It doesn’t offer as much overall compared to Blizzard’s hero-shooter, especially for a casual player – hence the lower review score – but for people that are willing to learn a new game, they’d struggle to do any better than Valorant. It’s a complete game now, and will only improve over the coming months and (hopefully) years.

Valorant at the end of it’s Year 1 celebration is an excellent PvP shooter that channels some of the best bits of other success stories over the years, and channels them into one succinct experience. I love it.

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