For the average player, the first round of Valorant is going to be a learning experience.
In the week since Valorant launched into closed beta, I've been smacked down time and time again, every death a tiny "thou shalt not" that you'll have to remember if you want to win.
These commandments are repeated again and again with each brutal death. These lessons range from the simple: a headshot from a previously-unconsidered angle warns you it exists and teaches you about the game's low time to kill, but more serious lessons include the need to stop moving before you fire, taught by scores of fights that have you peppering the ceiling with an entire magazine.
Valorant does a lot right. At first glance, you can clearly see the clean presentation, hero-led characterisation of Overwatch and blending it with the gameplay sensibilities of Counter-Strike, particularly Counter-Strike 1.6, where moving while firing or even firing in full auto is often a mistake that will lead to your demise.
However, I found myself more and more impressed with each match. Content is thin on the ground right now, admittedly — with three maps in play, there are already standard strategies and defences for every site in the game.
The game's wealth of information makes it easy to learn everything. The weapons menu is full of statistics, letting you know what the game does and the game's map is probably the best I've ever seen in a game, letting you see where every player in your team is — and what they're looking at — with just a glance. I'd happily see a map like this in every shooter moving forwards, but I think few would manage to do it with the same deftness as Riot.
To boldly go
Valorant deserves more praise for the way it has tossed out genre conventions. It manages to sand off some of the rougher edges that make broadcasting the game to mass audiences unpalatable (see Sanitised Warfare, below) but also there are mechanical choices that have stood in place for years in the competitive shooter genre that Riot has tossed out, and the game is fresher for it.
Many weapons don't let you aim down the sights at all, while raising up your ion sight — my unofficial name for the digital yellow screen that pops up when you shoulder a weapon — doesn't necessarily make your spread more accurate. Elsewhere, characters gain fantasy abilities, such as fast movement, orbs that put down a surface that will slow attackers, or even the ability to let one Agent, Omen, teleport around the place.
At first glance, these all seem overpowered, but in the end they all build into a rich tapestry of feints, baits, counters and pushes that Valorant plays out against. Back this up with the game's tight and responsive gunplay, and it's clear the game is a winner.
However, not every new choice is a good one. One of the most heinous aspects of the beta is the way in which it has spread. The closed beta can only be accessed by watching Twitch streamers playing the game and crossing your fingers in the hope that you'll be granted access.
Elsewhere, certain Agents in the game have ultimates that feel incredibly powerful. This is fine when the ultimates are skill-based: Phoenix can clone himself, attacking the enemy with ferocity only to die and be reborn a few seconds later. If the Phoenix player messes up, he gets a do-over, but to make the most of it you'll need mechanical skill.
Some ultimates encourage players to have sharp game-sense instead: the ability to revive another player with Sage can shift a round in your favour.
In the middle of all of this is Raze. Raze has a giant rocket launcher, and the first time you get killed by it, you'll swear. BANG. Like an episode of Seinfield, there's no hugging, no learning. Only the cold reality of a death you couldn't avoid.
Raze as a character needs some balancing work, but giving her access to a single-shot from a rocket launcher as her ultimate puts her at odds with the rest of the game, which is full of strong design choices. With no way to read it, your only hope is just to avoid clustering together and praying that it isn't you that eats a rocket.
There's no reason to believe this won't be fixed as Riot start to tune the game, but right now Raze's entire skillset is annoyingly powerful, and it doesn't feel a lot of fun to play against.
I guess, if we're talking about things we hate, the fact you slow down significantly when you get hit by rounds is annoying, but only because it makes me die a lot and I personally feel aggrieved by it.
One of Riot's most impressive magic tricks, however, is the way they've wrapped up this brutal shooter in a mass market-friendly coating.
Heroes don't bleed, and the objective sites, for so long in the genre identified as sites at which to plant bombs or defusers, are now simple objective areas where you will plant a spike. Mechanically, the gameplay is the same, but it gets rid of things that might make casual viewers queasy.
The weapons in the game still kill, but they do so without blood, and the characters don't seem that bothered about dying. In fact, they seem to know they are in a friendly competition and make constant reference to it with voice lines.
We knew ahead of Valorant's launch that Riot were focused on making a competitive shooter with mass appeal, but it's truly surprising how well they've managed it. The screen furniture after you've died is informative and the end of game splash screen includes a collection of statistics that both myself and my teammates often pore over at the end of each game. A particularly cool feature is the ability to look at every round from the game, while the game presents your best round for you to look at as a series of events, great for post-game banter and anecdotal reliving of your most successful rounds.
It seems fine to say it here, but I was nervous about Riot's foray into shooters before playing it. The game's aesthetics, the focus on "heroes" with their own abilities and even the idea of making a cleaner shooter that's okay for the mass market had me nervous. I'm happy to admit that I didn't know what I was talking about. Valorant is bloody brilliant.
The game still needs work, but we know this — closed beta means that unless you're willing to go through the Twitch rigmarole you can't even play it. However, I'm confident that Valorant will be the best competitive shooter that I play this year, and with the level of support that Riot has previously levelled at League of Legends, it's likely that what we're seeing here is the start of something special. Valorant is here, and it's not going anywhere. I couldn't be happier.