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Valorant Preview: A Deep Dive On The New Hero-Based Tactical Shooter From Riot Games

by Brian Shea on Mar 02, 2020 at 02:00 AM

Last October, when Riot Games announced a slate of new titles, one of the outliers was Project A, a first-person shooter that combines the popular hero-based shooter genre with tactical gameplay. We now know Project A is officially called Valorant, and will launch on PC this summer as a free-to-play title. I traveled to Santa Monica, Calif., to spend a day in the offices of Riot Games to not only learn about the upcoming shooter from all angles, but also play it for several hours.

Telling The Tale

Telling The Tale

While most of the games announced during Riot's 10-year-anniversary stream are set in the League of Legends universe, Valorant is unique in that it does not feature any connection to Riot's juggernaut IP. "It was actually a point of debate for a while: Should we put this in [the League of Legends universe] or should we not?" says game director Joe Ziegler. "It was really hard to get the concept of this crisp, tactical shooter with mechanical bullets firing out of your gun, and then putting that on Ryze or putting that in the hands of a Piltover soldier ... it didn't mesh well with the fantasy we were creating. We needed to create a thing that we thought would be the right combination of this tight, mechanical, physical gameplay with this very rich, creative, well-established concept of abilities that we were playing."

Valorant takes place on a version of Earth in the near future following an event known as First Light. This event spans the entire globe, leading to big transformations to life, technology, and how governments operate. However, select people across the globe start to gain abilities stemming from this massive event. These gifted individuals are called Radiants.

In response to First Light, a shadow organization founds the Valorant Protocol, which pulls together Agents from all over the world. These Agents consist of Radiants and other individuals equipped with Radiant technology. Due to the backstories of these characters, the Valorant team features interesting dynamics as the individuals not only sometimes know each other, but they also come from a wide spectrum of backgrounds ranging from crime to the military.

Despite this intriguing setup to the universe, the development team wants to be subtle in the way it approaches storytelling. "I've worked in story-driven games and I've worked on games similar to this, and I've seen where you can over-invest in a certain area at the expense of the other areas," says creative director David Nottingham. "I'm a big believer that world building is about creating a foundation; you don't build the whole house and go, 'Here it is, it's done. No one can make any changes.' You build a strong foundation that then over time as you want to go, 'Oh let's set this part here' or 'Let's take this character in this direction because that seems interesting,' you have that flexibility to grow."

This approach is common in online multiplayer titles, with a drip-feed narrative giving players ample opportunity to dive as deep or swim as shallow with the lore as they want. While Nottingham likes enabling players to explore the story at their leisure, he likes this approach more for what it enables within the player base. "I honestly get excited about the stories that players are telling each other," he says. "I don't want this to be something where it's like, 'We are feeding you story. Receive our story. You're blown away by our story.' That's what movies and books and other things are for. Video games are like ... this is where our players get to jump into a world, take on roles, form relationships, experience it ourselves, and shape our experiences through playing the game. That's what excites me."

The Agents of Valorant
Tactical Inspirations

Tactical Inspirations

When you think of hero-based shooting games, names like Overwatch and Team Fortress 2 likely pop into your head. With Valorant, Riot acknowledges those successful titles through the character appearances and abilities, but instead draws heavier inspiration from games like Counter-Strike, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, Rainbow Six Siege, and CrossFire.

"A lot of what we drew from our inspiration for wanting to discover this space was this idea of playing these old-school tactical shooter games," Ziegler says. "In a lot of cases, what we really focused on was the team play, and that tight, tense gameplay that occurs inside these spaces – their special sauce, if you will, in this particular genre. We wanted to bring it out in a way that felt like would really bring it into a service era, bring it into a modernization era, bring it into a space where it could continuously grow and expand, and be something creative that would flourish with an audience."

By leaning into those inspirations, Riot is delivering something that veers closer to Counter-Strike than Overwatch. Players engage in tactical, team-based gameplay with no in-round respawns and high lethality. Two teams of five players select from a pool of distinct Agents and battle it out over the course of several rounds. The only mode in Valorant at the moment revolves around one team defending multiple points from an attacking team trying to plant and detonate an explosive spike. If the 100-second round timer expires or the spike is defused after being planted, the defending team gets a point, while a successful detonation earns the attacking squad a point, with the first team to win the best of 24 rounds winning the match. Either team can also win a round by wiping the other team out.

"The other thing that was important for this game was having incredibly high stakes," executive producer Anna Donlon. "This game demands such a high level of skill because the stakes are so incredibly high. You definitely get those moments of feeling like you're the last player standing and you've got to pull it off without any of your teammates with you, or even worse, you're the first one dead and having to watch your team try to pull it off without you."

Riot worked to create a game where team play is not just encouraged; it's all but essential. Playing as a lone wolf or performing a clutch play isn't impossible, but it's certainly more difficult than games where characters are more like bullet sponges. Valorant doesn't force you to play as a team, but rather it makes players want to since that's the easiest path to victory.

Getting To The Point

Getting To The Point

From the start of my gameplay session, I witness just how important the team dynamic is. My team and I load into Bind, the first of two maps available in the build we're playing. Bind takes a traditional tactical multiplayer map and removes the middle lane. Instead, you have two branching paths that require a high level of coordination to determine the composition of which objective to go toward. I choose Sova, the Russian archer, as my Agent – since I've played a ton of Overwatch, his Recon Bolt ability feels immediately similar to Hanzo's Sonic Arrow. With a working understanding of how the character's primary ability works, I'm raring to go test it in the field.

However, before the action starts, we enter the Buy Phase. During this time, you can purchase different guns, shields, and even abilities for your selected Agent. All Agents select from the same pool of weapons – no matter what character you're playing as, you have a pistol by default, and can buy everything from SMGs to shotguns and automatic rifles to sniper rifles. Obviously, the better guns cost more, but you can also choose to save and carry your money into the next round. I decide to do just that, opting to simply bring my default pistol into battle this first round.

The Buy Phase timer ticks to zero, and the first round begins. My team starts on attack, so we decide we're all going to rush point A. The opposing team notices this quick, but not quick enough; they only sent two defenders to point A, and we make quick work of them. Unfortunately for us, Bind has two one-way teleporters to make up for the lack of a middle lane. While we have the point to ourselves, I drop to one knee and plant the spike and now my team must defend it against the remaining enemies who hope to defuse it.

By using a combination of the direct paths from B to A and the teleporter, the enemy team descends upon our point from multiple angles. One of my teammates is picked off as smoke orbs flood the objective. I turn around to check a corner, only to be the next victim of the proficient marksman. Since our Sage's Resurrection ultimate isn't yet charged, I have no choice but to watch the numbers dwindle as the underpowered enemy team quickly evens the odds and takes the advantage amidst the chaos of the firefight. The defenders come back from a disastrous start to wipe our team and claim the first round.

Between rounds, you enter another Buy Phase. This time, any money you saved last round carries over, with additions granted based on your performance (currently you get 3,000 for a win, varying amounts ranging from 1,900 to 2,900 depending on how many rounds you've lost in a row, 200 for each kill, and 300 if your team planted a spike in the previous round). I decide to stop messing around with the weak default pistol and upgrade to a nice automatic rifle, as well as a Shock Bolt for Sova's bow.

As the round starts, we rush point A once again, but it would appear we're not the only ones more well-equipped this round. I'm immediately sniped, leaving my team man-down for the rest of the round. Thankfully, the other people on my team aren't playing the game for the first time, and they manage to turn it around and plant the spike with one enemy remaining. That last remaining enemy makes the strategic call to hightail it out of there; if you survive a round, your weapon carries into the next round, so you can save money and still have a good weapon. Because we won the round, I still get a good amount of cash, which I use to purchase the Guardian, a semi-automatic rifle that ends up being my go-to weapon when I need a utility option. 

As I mentioned before, team play is essential, and lone-wolfing is rarely a good idea, but when your team is gone and you're the last player standing, you have no choice but to try. My chance to prove myself comes as a Brimstone ult takes out two of my teammates, and the other two are shotgunned down. It's 3v1 in the enemy team's favor, but I'm not ready to give up just yet. While they search for me to achieve the wipe, I sneak behind one player and take him down with a single shot to the head. Unfortunately for me, their two remaining teammates are near enough to hear the action and converge on the action. I use my Recon Bolt to spot one of them through a wall and take them out, but the final enemy comes around the corner and guns me down to secure the round.

With a restrictive timer, confined maps, and quick kills, rounds breeze by. However, due to the high round count consisting of a best-of-24 format, matches take a considerable amount of time. As we approach the final Buy Phase before halftime, the characters remark that we lose all our money after this round, so our team splurges on the heavy machine gun, Odin. We all equip Odin and heavy shields and push point B. The defenders also have strong shields and expensive guns, but they aren't prepared for the all-out, coordinated blitz we brought their way, and we easily take the point.

Following that statement win, the economy resets, we switch sides, and now my team is on defense. When you're on defense, the Buy Phase is combined with your setup, so while you still have plenty of time to select your loadout and get to where you want to be, you must be a tad more efficient. While offensive strategies often required us to choose a point and send most of us there on attack (with occasional fake outs), being the defenders requires a bit more strategy as you must monitor all points and try to notice and react to the offense's commitment. This particular match ends in a sudden-death round, with our team wiping them one last time to clinch an adrenaline-fueled victory.

The build I played only featured two maps that approach tactical multiplayer level design in unique ways. Bind, the map described above, demonstrates what happens if you remove the middle lane and add teleporters. Haven, the second map I played, shows the opposite of what happens when there's not only a middle lane, but it's super important because it has an objective on it. The result is even more splintering of the team on defense, with a more traditional flow between points since there are more paths and no teleporters.

With Valorant, Riot is hoping to explore new ways to present maps in the online shooter space. "We always start out with that question of 'What can we do to push this map in a different direction that could create new play styles and strategies for players?'," says senior game designer Salvatore Garozzo. "It doesn't always mean there's going to be a new mechanic like teleporters or a third objective, but there's generally something about the layout of the map or maybe it's a mechanic that does ask a different puzzle of players to solve."

When Valorant launches, it will feature just four maps, including the two I played. The team is still figuring out the cadence at which it will release future maps (and characters, for that matter), but Riot insists it's in service of both producing high-quality maps and making sure players can learn the smaller stable of maps and characters without feeling overwhelmed. "We want to hit a certain quality bar on all of our maps, and we also know having all these different Agents on top of maps [means] there's a lot there for people to explore and master, and it can be overwhelming if there's too many maps," Garozzo says. "We just want to be mindful of finding the right balance there."

Leveling The Playing Field

Leveling The Playing Field

One of the biggest pushes Riot is making with Valorant is giving everyone an equal chance of success so that players are excelling based on skill rather than gaming the system. One key component for this initiative is Riot Direct, a global network started by Riot in 2014 that features points of presence for gamers to lower their ping by choosing the most efficient route for the player data through the ISP networks.

At launch Riot is aiming to give at least 70 percent of players less than 35 millisecond ping and host all games on dedicated 128-tick servers. Not only that, but all player movement is upsampled to 128 frames per second to compensate for lag; if an enemy player is lagging due to poor connectivity, their movement will still appear smooth on your screen. These advancements hope to solve problems often associated with online titles, including peeker's advantage, where because of small delays in the data reaching the other player, an attacking player peeking around a wall can sometimes see and shoot a defending player before they can react.

Additionally, Riot is working on innovative ways to counteract cheaters and hackers in Valorant. "Cheating is the most direct threat to competitive integrity that an online game can face," says senior software engineer Paul Chamberlain. "We want players to play this game for a long time. We want them to invest in getting good at the game. We've made the game so there's lots of different ways that you can invest your time to get better in the game, but no one's going to want to do that if you're still going to be overshadowed by someone who's cheating – or even the reverse where you get good, but everyone just thinks you're a cheater."

The efforts begin with Riot's Vanguard cheat detection system used in League of Legends. This proprietary system detects cheaters using a living list of detection methods, then instantly ends games where cheaters are found and bans the cheater. In addition, all Valorant matches are server-authoritative, meaning that players can't trick the server with things like speed or teleportation hacks. Finally, Riot is instituting a new fog of war system to battle wallhacks. This system omits enemy locations on players' systems until just before they enter each others' line of sight.

While Riot has shown a commitment to using technically proficient methods to combat common problems for online shooters, the studio says players don't need to be as high-tech to enjoy Valorant. Riot plans on rewarding players who have access to powerful machines that have a GTX 1050 Ti or newer by delivering 144 frames per second or even better, but the studio says players can get 30 frames per second on a machine with an Intel i3-370M CPU and an Intel HD 3000 GPU. Obviously, better machines will provide better experiences, and in turn, potentially give competitive edges to those players, but Riot is working to design ways to give players with lower-tech setups all the help they need to diagnose the problem.

"In the effort of competitive integrity, we don't want any of the other nine players to compromise or ruin your experience; we want to guarantee that fairness for you so that you set the standard high so people are going to be excited and willing to invest in the long term because they feel that they get a true, fair shot," says senior software engineer David Straily. "The downside is we put more pain on the player with a bad setup. So that player that's popping? I'm willing to actually compromise that player's position instead of making a bad experience for the other nine. We're creating lots of tooling and debugging for that player with a bad experience to say, 'Hey, we think your ISP is screwing you over,' 'We think your computer's not good enough,' 'We think maybe your router's too old,' and give that player the tools to understand why their setup is so bad, so they can fix it to make themselves in a better state. We want to put you in the driver's seat so you can fix it with your own means or tools, and then make sure everyone else's is a non-issue."

A Push Toward Launch

A Push Toward Launch

Though this is the first real information released about Valorant since its announcement as Project A last October, fans don't have long to wait before they can get their hands on Riot's new shooter. Riot tells me it's currently targeting a summer launch, with a pre-launch closed beta test coming prior to that. While 12 heroes and 4 maps might not sound like a lot, Riot is committed to supporting Valorant over the course of several years, just as it has done with League of Legends.

With a minimal cost of entry, unique twists on familiar gameplay, and a massive built-in fan base for the developer, the sky is the limit for Valorant. It will be interesting to see how players embrace Riot's attempt at stepping into an already-crowded genre, but as it stands, Valorant is off to a great start.

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