No video game will ever be perfect, however, some may come close. VALORANT is definitely trying to, at least with their design philosophy. They got all the right people, they said all the right buzzwords, they designed all the right maps, they’re committed to balancing the game. Yet, after around 10 games of VALORANT, I don’t feel like I want to play more, and it’s not just because the beta doesn’t offer any true ranked experience.
When I reviewed Legends of Runeterra, I was still riding high off my first enjoyable card game experience since I first launched Hearthstone a few years ago. However, as my shock and awe at the idea of a balanced economy in a card game went away, I realized that sooner rather than later, the WOW combo moments became rather boring and the game as a whole became stale. Most of my friends playing Runeterra experienced a similar drop in interest. I still think that it’s perhaps the most competently designed game in its vertical, yet I’m somehow playing more Hearthstone than I had all of last year thanks to the changes Blizzard made in response.
VALORANT had a quick-fire round of similar vibes for me. It started with awe at the smooth movement and pleasant shooting mechanics. Intrigue, when it came to the various skills the characters could use. By match 5 that turned into a routine. By match 10, I was back playing Counter-Strike with my friends.
For a while, I couldn’t really verbalize why I disliked the long(er) term experience of playing Riot’s newest releases, however, eventually I found the perfect word to describe how I felt about the games…
At the risk of alienating people with a political reference, VALORANT and Legends of Runeterra are the Pete Buttigieg of video games. They say everything they’re supposed to say, they’re making all the right plays, they look the right way. Yet, there’s something deeply unsettling about how polished they are. They are Frankenstein-like amalgam of everything that made other video games in their markets successful, they’re essentially algorithm-optimized games.
Even though I wouldn’t call competitive games an art form, there is a certain charm to the way Riot’s competitors were created. Counter-Strike started off as a mod. Hearthstone started off as a small project in a giant company headed by some of the most passionate people in the industry. In a way, their weird flaws, their imbalances, their moments of madness are the draw that has you coming back for more. It doesn’t feel like Counter-Strike was ever designed to be watched by millions of people. It doesn’t feel like Hearthstone was created to take a BlizzCon stage. Hell, Counter-Strike managed to thrive in a post-9/11 world despite the fact that one team is always assuming the role of terrorists.
In contrast, VALORANT seems like a brainwashed dystopian husk that does everything right, yet stares back at you with a blank stare. The characters and their abilities are clearly ripped off from Overwatch. The gunplay and map design are clearly taken from Counter-Strike. There are some original features, but they’re more like cool ideas that Blizzard and Valve should consider, rather than fully-fledged features. Even the quips from various characters in-game seem like a desperate attempt to capture the lighthearted memic nature of Blizzard’s voice lines. Sadly, rather than memorable, these turn annoying very quickly.
The transparency with which Riot simply copy-pastes what they believe makes their competitors charming or effective is perhaps the biggest problem in all of this. It’s like one of those Americanized remakes of foreign movies that loses all the gritty parts in favour of a polished, “audience-friendly” experience. It doesn’t feel like it was created to be fun for the people that created it, but rather, to be a money-making machine. It becomes one of those photo-realistic animations that have that uncanny valley feel to them because they’re basically too perfect.
That’s why it’s quite fitting that VALORANT’s most innovative contribution to gaming was its marketing campaign.
A Supreme Effort
Hyping up your brand by offering exclusive drops is nothing new in the real world. One can argue that it’s the only reason that Supreme even exists, making it even more surprising that big companies haven’t really tried it in gaming to this extent yet.
VALORANT combined this concept with excellently executed influencer marketing to create a fear of missing out in millions of people. When you got the drop, you felt as if you’ve finally got past the bouncer in Berghain, and with everyone standing in line, the bystanders will start wondering what the hype is all about.
In many ways, the best thing Riot delivered to the gaming industry is the disruption of long-standing monopolies. Blizzard has already totally retooled Hearthstone’s economy in response to Legends of Runeterra. Valve is rumoured to finally pull the trigger on introducing Source 2 to CS:GO later this year. Overwatch 2 will probably lift a few of its ideas as well.
VALORANT will probably find its niche, but it’s not going to become the next CS:GO. It’s more likely to become the next Apex Legends, a flavour-of-the-month that eventually settles for a much smaller audience when others realize that the exclusive club they just entered has a Spotify playlist playing instead of a DJ and the bouncer may have compromised your personal data.