Ramshankar
on systems, software & life

Valorant review

Valorant is a tactical, first-person shooter (FPS) game with characters and abilities. It’s the latest free-to-play offering from Riot Games, the company behind the massively successful, free-to-play game — League of Legends.

Ever since Valorant’s first reveal trailer, people have drawn comparisons to Overwatch and Counter Strike: Global Offensive (CS:Go). Once the beta was playable, it became crystal clear that Valorant is far more similar to CS:Go. The game mode, weapons, movement and physics would be very familiar to any CS:Go player. However, innovation doesn’t guarantee success of a product. A refined and polished version of an existing product has a chance of being as or more successful than the original. This seems to be the idea behind Valorant. To create a better, more modern version of CS:Go with aspects that appeals to a broader audience.

If Valorant succeeds, it’ll give Riot Games a foothold in the FPS esports space which has been dominated by CS:Go for years.

Project A (Valorant’s pre-release code name) was revealed to the public on October 16, 2019. This reveal shed light on the design philosophy and goals the developers followed while making this game. It has been designed with a clear focus on esports, competitive integrity, precise gameplay and modern netcode.

Gameplay

The gameplay in Valorant is probably its strongest aspect. And why wouldn’t it be? It’s fundamentally CS:Go which has precise enough gunplay to be a major esport.

The core gameplay retains all the familiar elements with tactical shooters: Slow moving characters, stand-still hitscan aim, bunny hopping, wall banging, RNG spread on spray, smokes, flashes etc.

However, dismissing Valorant as a CS:Go clone would be unfair. Valorant has improvements in certain areas as well as its own set of innovations. They are not major innovations, but little things like the weapon purchase screen compared to CS:Go's dated system, is a welcome change. Seasoned CS:Go players will also be able to pick up on subtle changes made to the movement speed and acceleration. We’ll find out over time how these changes influence the game’s balance and meta.

Netcode

Valorant has 128 tick servers right since its release. They’ve also worked hard to try and minimize peeker’s advantage. The netcode works well living up to the pre-release hype. There’s a decent coverage of server locations, including San Jose, Portland, Chicago, Frankfurt, Stockholm, Paris, Singapore, Istanbul and more. It’s also likely Riot Games would add more locations in the future (perhaps in India and the Middle East). Increased servers coverage and better routing helps reduce latency, which allows the netcode to choose favorable decisions more often.

The hit registration is precise but I did notice sometimes shots don’t register properly despite no signs of any packet loss and low pings for everyone in the game. Luckily, I’m not alone on this one as this issue has been brought up on the Valorant subreddit several times. I hope the hit registration issues will be addressed soon.

Maps

There are currently 4 maps in the game: Haven, Split, Bind and Ascent. The maps are really well designed and playing just a couple of games on each of them makes you immediately feel familiar with it. The maps are constructed and colored in an ideal fashion for competitive play. They colors are muted while not appearing sterile. And there aren’t too many particle effects or lens flares that adversely affect visual clarity.

Valorant - Haven C long
A view of “C long” on the Haven map

Launching with only a few maps is a wise choice. It allows each map to be tested thoroughly while simultaneously making it familiar to players. It reduces the scenarios teams need to practice for upcoming tournaments. It lets developer collect feedback and make small, iterative changes to the maps. This also provides the developers knowledge while designing maps in the future.

Performance

The framerates on my test system (a 980Ti 6GB, Core i7 6700K, 16 GB RAM at 1440p) gave consistently above 180 FPS fluctuating up to ~400 FPS. I’ve noticed occasional stuttering but that might not necessarily be the game’s fault. Overall, the gameplay feels sharp, as it should for a tactical shooter, and is a solid foundation to build and improve on.

Issues

I’ve experienced some bugs like the HUD disappearing mid-game, Raze’s quick homing bot and several more. Others have complained about the game causing their PCs to crash. There was also a colossal, game-breaking bug where players could clip through the map using the “Ghost” key (meant to only be used in Custom games to explore maps). Luckily this one was fixed rather quickly. While the game does have its share of bugs, I’ve not encountered any major, persistent or frequent issues with the game.

Agents and abilities

One of the defining features of Valorant is the characters (called agents) and their unique abilities. Comparisons to Overwatch in this regard are natural.

There are 11 agents currently in the game. Some of the agents are locked but can be unlocked by playing the game and gaining XP (experience points) or using real money. Left to right in the screenshot below: Breach, Brimstone, Cypher, Jett, Omen, Phoenix, Raze, Reyna, Sage, Sova and Viper.

Valorant - Agents
Agents in Valorant

Some of the agents are clichéd, pre-existing stereotypical archetypes. You have your edge-lord Omen, brawny American military guy Brimstone, cheeky brit Phoenix and so on. Other agents are standard fare such as a healer or a wall-hack bow ’n arrow wielding dude (Hanzo?). They’re missing a cyborg ninja but perhaps he’ll be added later.

Most abilities needs to be purchased prior to the beginning of a round. Tying abilities with the economy is a wise design decision, as it makes balancing the use of abilities much easier.

Agents like Raze and Jett allow some minor enhancements to movements allowing for a bit of creativity. You could also get creative with Omen’s teleport ability. Things like this aren’t possible in CS:Go, and in that regard, it’s definitely an improvement.

Your choice of agent has an influence on the outcome of the game but you don’t feel as constrained like you would in Overwatch. The hitbox of all the agents are identical and so is their movement speed (not counting movement abilities). Brilliant individual-plays are still possible, and sometimes even facilitated by abilities. All this makes for a far better experience, both for viewers and the players, compared to an extremely team-oriented game like Overwatch.

With the presence of agents and abilities, Valorant can never be as balanced as CS:Go. Currently, abilities are quite cheap making them a no-brainer to purchase every round. Some of them also have too short of a cool down time. On the flip side, the Operator (clone of the one-hit AWP sniper from CS:Go) though expensive, is quite oppressive to play against on attack. Especially if the Operator is a Jett, who can reach higher areas on the map most agents can’t and has an escape ability if she misses her shot. Not all agents have access to smokes and flashes, making individual plays as those agent against an Operator much harder.

Nonetheless, I’m sure Riot Games analyze telemetry data from the game to balance it as much as they can. The game is still very young and frequent balance changes are to be expected.

Game modes

Competitive (Ranked), Unrated and Spike Rush are the three "modes" currently available. They’re not really different game modes like deathmatch or hostage rescue. They are all fundamentally the same 5v5 plant ’n defuse mode.

Spike Rush is the most casual mode available. First team to win 4 rounds, wins the game. Spike Rush has randomized but identical weapons loadouts for all players at the start of each round. Players cannot buy weapons and there’s no economy system. Collectible powerup orbs are sprinkled across the map which grant an ability or casts an effect when collected. These are powerups like increased speed, increased health, weapon upgrade, golden gun (one shot kill) etc.

Unrated and Competitive are the same game mode in which the first team to win 13 rounds, wins the game. You need to play a certain number of Unrated games before Competitive mode unlocks. Your performance in Unrated games determines your hidden MMR (matchmaking rating). Exactly how your MMR is calculated isn’t known. But it’s used an input to accelerate calibrating your rating in Competitive as evident by this tweet from one of the developers:

[..] Your required unrated games have an effect on who we place you against to determine rating. We then are able to quickly converge on the performance of your first few games in rated to determine your rank.

— Ziegler (@RiotZiegler) May 1, 2020

In Competitive, you are matched with players whose skill level is roughly similar to yours. Winning or losing competitive matches raises or lowers your skill rating every match, which ultimately determines your current rank. The ranks are Iron, Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, Immortal and Radiant.

Valorant rank icons
Ranks in Valorant

Although a deathmatch mode is much required, I can see understand why only one mode is available. It gives a consistent and familiar experience to players and makes transitioning from more casual modes to competitive easier. Unlike arena FPS, tactical shooter is a far more defined genre, so a lack of truly different game modes isn’t surprising. If you’re looking for game modes other than plant ’n defuse, you’re out of luck.

Practice range

Another improvement over CS:Go that Valorant brings to the table is the built-in practice mode. You don’t need to download third party maps like in CS:Go. Though the practice range is quite basic right now, it’s consistent and readily accessible. You get to practice your flick aim and some rudimentary bomb plant ’n defuse scenarios. The practice range also allows modifying your mouse sensitivity quickly by not having to open the settings screen every time. This is a nice touch borrowed from custom CS:Go maps where you switch weapons by shooting at a UI element on the map itself.

Valorant - Practice Range against hard bots
Practice range in Valorant

The practice range is no substitute for deathmatch, but it’s useful for warming up prior to joining matches. In the future, I hope they not only extend the practice range but also bring in ability to play deathmatch against AI bots.

Anti-cheat

One of the major features of Valorant is its new anti-cheat system called Vanguard. Vanguard is a kernel-level anti-cheat system that protects the game client from being tampered with. The use of kernel-level anti-cheat systems in games has been on the rise. This is mainly due to improvements made by Microsoft to Windows 10’s security features — driver signing and verification for process hardening to prevent code injection and debugging.

Riot Games have gone to great lengths to drastically minimize a whole class of cheats, namely wall-hacks. Wall-hacks let’s a cheater see enemies through walls. Read this blog post from the developers if you’re interested in the technical details.

Even if wall-hacks are eliminated, there are still a myriad ways to tamper with the client. Therefore, protecting the game client is never really bullet proof and games shouldn’t trust inputs from their clients. However, it’s a cheaper and quicker solution than a server side anti-cheat system like what CS:Go employs.⁠[1] I’m not sure if Vanguard, in addition to protecting the client also employs server side monitoring and deep learning. If it did, it would be the best of both worlds and quite possibly the best anti-cheat solution of any FPS game.

Given the hype and popularity prior to release, I still wasn’t surprised when cheats for the game popped up during its beta.⁠[2] Nonetheless, I would not dismiss the effectiveness of Vanguard as an anti-cheat. Because unlike most other kernel-level anti-cheats, Vanguard establishes a trusted environment since boot. Vanguard loads on Windows boot up and only when driver signing is enabled. This lets Vanguard establish a trusted environment starting with the time the OS and its drivers get loaded. It’s not a service that gets started when the game starts. If the environment has already been tainted prior to starting the game, there’s no point trying to protect it. This is why other kernel-level anti-cheats are easier to by-pass than Vanguard.

Vanguard has caused a lot of inconvenience and problems to some players. Unfortunately it’s necessary for a better secured game client on Windows. I’m not claiming Vanguard is cheat proof. Bugs exists in software, be it Windows or Vanguard and there are likely to be more cheats for Valorant in the future. However, Riot Games have upped the ante with Vanguard, making it harder to develop cheats for their game. Now we need to see persistent the cheat developers will be.

As a gamer who despises (to put it mildly) cheating in video games, I’m optimistic this time around. For what it’s worth, my experience in-game has been free of cheats thus far.

Focus on being an esport

Another aspect of Valorant’s design is its focus on being a competitive shooter and to be taken as a serious esport.

While a couple of tournaments were already conducted since its release, it is expected for a game of this magnitude. Only time will tell whether Valorant becomes a behemoth that battles CS:Go or fizzles into irrelevance.

Artificially pushed esports, like what Blizzard did with Overwatch, hasn’t really worked out too well. Esport titles that have stood the test of time have grown organically. The developers do play a crucial role in supporting their games and its esport scene. But merely getting investors to pump a lot of money up-front without a thriving competitive scene, isn’t a wise long-term strategy. Especially if the game doesn’t have the necessary qualities of becoming a successful esport. I’m interested to see how this game develops as an esport given Riot Games’ experience with League of Legends.

Valorant is lacking some crucial features like replays and extensive statistics. The spectator client is also quite bare bones. The question is how quickly can Riot Games deliver on these features. They did mention they were committed to supporting this game for the long run. So even if this game doesn’t take the esports scene by storm, it’ll be an actively developed, modern alternative to CS:Go.

Monetization

Since Valorant is free-to-play, the usual monetization techniques are present in the game. In-game items include weapon skins, death animations and sprays. As is the norm for most free-to-play games the majority of the items require spending real money.

There are two currencies in the game — Radianite points and Valorant points. Radianite points are used to unlock agents and upgrade weapon skins. They can be obtained using XP (by completing daily missions) or purchased using real money. Valorant points are used to buy premium quality items and can only be obtained using real money.

Valorant - Store
Valorant - Store

There are no pay-to-win aspects whatsoever which makes sense given Riot Games’ firm stand on competitive integrity. All items that can be obtained (either for free or using real money) are purely cosmetic in nature. In fact, it is for this reason why even agent skins are not present. Under certain circumstances, agent skins could provide an unfair advantage to players.

The game also includes a seasonal Battlepass which is a collection of items available for a certain period of time. Items in the Battlepass can be unlocked using XP. The upgraded version of the Battlepass can be purchased using Valorant points (real money) and contains a lot more items. The Battlepass is fairly similar to what’s found in most other games.

Overall, I’m satisfied with the monetization aspects in the game. Some players have complained about the skins being too expensive. Any company the size of Riot Games have experts who determine the optimal price of items to maximize profits. If in fact the items are overpriced, it would result in sub-par sales, and the prices would be adjusted accordingly. If the prices don’t drop, it’s a clear indication that Riot Games are satisfied with their sales. There’s really no point complaining about the price of purely cosmetic items in a free-to-play game. As they say, let your wallet do the talking.

Closing thoughts

It seems to me that Riot Games have a clear vision when it comes to Valorant. It’s reflected in many aspects of the design and in various dev diaries and patch notes that explain changes to the game. The game has a lot of potential from a purely competitive perspective. Abilities are nowhere close to being utilized to their fullest by the players, and I expect a lot of improvement as teams figure out new setups and combos.

At the highest competitive level, there are some players who have migrated from CS:Go, Overwatch and Fortnite. I expected far more players (especially from lower level CS:Go teams) to make the jump, but hasn’t really been the case so far. Since the game is not on Steam, there’s no Steamchart figures to tell how many players are playing the game currently. Twitch viewership isn’t a good indicator either, especially when the game is still in its honey moon phase. Ultimately it needs a thriving competitive scene with regular tournaments and sufficient sponsorship.

If Riot Games play their cards right and let the game grow organically before pushing their esports agenda, I think the game will do fine.