The full release brought with it a new map, game mode and playable agent, as well as slight tweaks to existing maps and character abilities, a facelift to the user interface, some purchasable cosmetic upgrades to weapons and more-prominent implied lore. (Contemporary team-based shooters are obsessed with dangling vague, almost-lore in front of players; the only apparent explanation is that it gives a wider berth for fanfic writers and artists to fill in the blanks themselves, which is either generous or cynical, depending on your point of view). Most of these additions are purely ornamental. If you liked the game during the beta, you’ll like it now. If you didn’t, not much about this new release will sway you. But some of the new additions do hint at the game’s possible developmental trajectory.
The new game mode, Spike Rush, is fine. Players had clamored for a shorter version of standard, first-to-13 games, which usually take roughly 45 minutes to play out. The problem is that Spike Rush feels obligatory. The rules of the mode are that everyone on the attacking side gets a spike (the bomb), meaning that any push by any attacking player can result in a plant. This makes the whole map — and thereby, every location a defending player can take up on the map — mostly viable. Every encounter is meaningful. So far so good. The mode also scatters buffs and debuffs across the map, which didn’t measurably change my experience one way or the other.
The other big change, however, which makes the mode feel a bit confusing and at odds with itself, is that there’s no Buy portion of the match. At the top of the round in a standard game — the real game, if I may be so bold — players use money they’ve accrued from winning, killing opponents, and planting or defusing the bomb to buy weapons, items and armor. Teams that play better, and players who survive rounds and thereby don’t lose their weapons, can afford successively better items. Teams that underperform have to claw their way back up with substandard weapons. This is a secondary plot line, so to speak, of every standard “Valorant” match. Spike Rush removes that entirely, randomly choosing a single weapon to give to all players. Everyone plays with a shotgun or a sniper rifle or a pistol, and so on. At the same time, all utilities are unlocked by default.
This is where that confusion is felt most acutely. The purpose of unlocking all utilities is to let players go for more interesting plays, unconstrained by the game’s economy: “Use everything you have, go nuts,” says the game. But not letting players choose their own weapons feels like a harsh counter to that.
On one hand, this makes Spike Rush a good zone for tutorialization. In the beta, Twitch served this purpose: Players got keys by watching pros play the game, then jumped in game with a clearer understanding of strategy and team play. Now that loop is broken, and more players are entering the game with little to no experience or sense of the game’s flow. Spike Rush is a low stakes arena for introducing players to the game’s whole array of weapons. But if the idea is to let players go for their dream plays via unlocked utilities, why hamper them with a mechanic that forces them to play around with less viable weapons (and weapons that often don’t make sense to run as a squad)? It’s a strange marriage between ‘go for your dream play’ and ‘eat your vegetables.’
There’s a good counter to this in the idea that limitation breeds innovation. We can’t rule out that in Spike Rush, a player might discover the next meta, or underappreciated operator-weapon combo. Ultimately though, Spike Rush doesn’t rise above or critically differentiate itself from the standard games. Instead, it plays like a cheaper, lesser version of the real game.
The dominant and already well-worn description of “Valorant” is that it is a mixture of “Overwatch” and “Counter-Strike.” For the most part, I’ve found this comparison to be useless. The “Overwatch” side of the equation is mostly meant to address “Valorant’s” aesthetic, and is a function of the fact that there aren’t really any other good touchpoints besides “Overwatch” for “colorful and fun characters in a team-based shooter.” Going into “Valorant” with expectations that it’ll play like “Overwatch” is a recipe for disaster; the game is much closer in kind to “Counter-Strike,” or even chess. It is less about overpowering your enemies than being aware of the map and thoughtfully arranging yourself and your team in a way that puts you at an advantage against the other team’s players. Time-to-kill is substantially lower than in “Overwatch” as well. If you see an enemy in “Valorant,” within seconds either you or your opponent will likely be dead.
The new agent, Reyna, brings “Valorant” closer to casual “Overwatch,” where players tend to freelance more than in the more disciplined pro circuit. Her abilities make few overtures to team-oriented play. The only ability that you can use without killing is basically a blinding ability. All of the other ones give you health back or make you invulnerable after a kill. Her play style is one of rising action: After your first kill, you are empowered by your abilities keep moving and kill more, terracing up to the Ace. Reyna’s abilities make her a standout agent, and one that is mostly only useful to players who are already very good at the base game. I anticipate that most players won’t get much mileage out of Reyna, which won’t stop them from trying to play as her; She is uniquely equipped to provide great gameplay clips.
This feeling, that Reyna moves the game closer to “Overwatch” and closer to agents that are highly tailored to particular skillsets, feels like a break from how the beta played, where most of the characters seemed tailored to mesh well together. How that plays out going forward — and how that impacts the creation of future agents, is an open question.
Outside of the game, one thing worth keeping an eye on regarding Reyna is the conversation around her character and design. Some critics have called attention to her similarities to Sombra, and the strange proclivity of game developers working on team-based shooters to imbue female characters from Latin America with traits and abilities that highlight their criminality. Sombra from Overwatch, with whom Reyna shares a color scheme, is a hacker and member of the game’s lightly hinted-at criminal organization (another example of virtually meaningless lore). “Apex Legends” recently introduced a new hero named, Loba, who is a vengeful, flirty thief.
Quality of Life
Throughout the beta, and while playing the current release of the game, my game has suffered from recurring connectivity issues. Scarcely a game goes by without icons in the top right corner of the screen, warning of high ping variance. This complaint may not be replicable across all networks and machines. Still, it’s a problem that despite the game’s initial premise and promise — freedom from peeker’s advantage by virtue of state-of-the-art data centers and infrastructure — gaming on a high-end PC in a prominent metropolitan area can still yield laggy, sluggish play.
The game is also missing some quality of life features. At this stage, I can’t see how much time I’ve spent playing overall, and the Career tab only chronicles your 10 most recent games. The rest of the analytics are robust and interesting: A postgame brief breaks down each round, which weapons were used, where each player was killed and by whom, each team’s comparative buys, and more. It’s very useful, and seems built for eventual use as a coaching and analysis tool for competitive players.
At this stage, I’m not sure I would recommend playing alone. I’ve had considerably more fun playing with friends — even just as a two-stack. The number of other players with mics is still pretty low (roughly 50 percent, in my experience) which is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the game is much more fun with good calls and clear communication between teammates. This is probably the number one reason to play with friends.
On the other hand, I’ve encountered no small number of players who have resorted to slurs in voice and text chat. In one of my first games of the release, I encountered an opposing team that was handily winning, and chose to impress its dominance on us by posting sexist language and slurs in the chat — literally adding insult to injury. I’ve tried to approach the game with kind vibes, and speaking encouragingly to teammates even when things aren’t going great. But that won’t be an option for all players; certainly I’m helped by having a deep, standard-sounding American male voice. Several high profile examples from the beta suggest that’s not equally the case for players who can be identified as non-white or non-male by the sound of their voice.
This is a review in progress of “Valorant’s” new features. Our full review of the game is coming soon.
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