Icebox, ‘Valorant’s’ new map, is a test for players and Riot

As later maps came along, the developers introduced elements that upturned tradition. Split retained a mid lane, but angled the map such that attackers were always engaged in a literal uphill battle, with defenders perched in higher ground. Bind scrapped the idea of mid entirely. Now, instead, there were two big sites, connected by a market area through which attackers — or wily flanking defenders — could rotate, and teleporters that bound (get it?) the sites together. Haven upped the ante by adding a third site.

So on Oct. 13, when “Valorant” becomes a game with five maps, what exactly will Icebox, the fifth entry, bring to the table?

“Something that we’re really trying to do is for each map to push the game in a different, unique direction,” said Salvatore “Volcano” Garozzo, level design lead at Riot and a former professional “Counter-Strike” player. “Generally speaking, it’s that premise that comes first: Okay, let’s find this thing about the map that we want to ask players and teams to strategize around.”

The obvious, standout addition is the horizontal zip line that cuts across one of the bomb sites. But the real change, the thing players will feel even if they don’t exactly notice it, is the change in scale. There are longer sight lines. There are tighter corners, and more of them, with little pieces of cover strewn across the map. And, crucially, there are more elevated positions — shipping containers, unnameable hollow metal obelisks, overlooks and rafters — perfect for vertically-inclined agents like Jett, Omen or Raze. And as a result, the new map will test a different skill set than any of those already in rotation.

“When we set out to create Icebox, one of the things we really wanted to try to do is to create this feeling of like, I was thinking almost paintball arena,” said Garozzo. “It does end up being a bit more about adaptive play or quick aim because there’s more verticality to the spots [where] enemies can be, there’s more ways they can sneak around and have creative timings and pathing to catch you off guard.”

“Valorant,” which has been out for roughly five months now, already has a compelling esports scene, and is among the most popular games on Twitch. Its players seem to be quick learners, with conventional wisdom around strategies, gun buys and lineups for ability use already solidifying. And Riot has responded, aware of the fact that the fans want more.

It’s a priority right now to get more maps out quickly. Icebox coming out a few months early is evidence of that,” said Garozzo. “That being said, maps are a lot of hard work and they take a lot of time. So we’re doing our best. But ideally, what we feel right now from talking to a lot of players and pro players and, you know, designers internally and the rest of the team internally, we feel like seven is a pretty sweet spot for the competitive map pool that we want to try to hit as quickly as possible.”

In some ways, Icebox is a test for Riot. It’s more complex than maps like Ascent or Split, which were the earliest ones designed for the game. And though there are several other maps in development internally, Icebox will provide clarity into how much the playerbase has really learned, where its skills really lay, and how quickly it can adapt. In short: How much complexity can the players handle?

One area Riot will be watching is the A Site, and a walk through the site makes it pretty apparent why that is. The setting is the interior of a drab, gray warehouse-looking building, replete with crates, generators, boxes stacked on top of each other, outcroppings in the walls that surely house load-bearing beams, ropes, ziplines, second-story windows and balconies. If you’ve spent any time on the “Halo” map Hang ‘Em High, A Site might feel familiar to you. It is a jungle gym-like maze of rat corners, which makes it wholly unlike the other sites in the game so far.

“That’s probably been the area of the most concern and change over time,” said Garozzo. “We’re just curious to see how that plays once it’s live. Is it going to be too complex? Is it too difficult to manage the sight lines?”

The map concept — namely the shipping containers and the Arctic base feel — didn’t change much throughout development cycle. But other questions kept the developers tinkering and revising.

“I think the areas where we iterated the most, [and] there’s a few that come to mind, is the scale. I think there’s some sight lines that are pretty long on the map right now. There used to be sight lines that were even longer than that, and the rotation times were even longer than they are right now. So we had to kind of try to find that right scale where things still felt manageable, both in terms of engagement range and rotation times.”

The map, Garozzo said, is likely to feel attacker-sided, with defenders forced to gamble on routes and angles to guard. Of the maps currently in rotation, Icebox most closely resembles Haven, which spreads defenders thin across three sites, as opposed to the standard two. Mid control will still be important; several routes from the central lane lead to both sites, and can open up interesting flanks and rotations.

Not every map is required to ramp up the complexity, nor will each map necessarily feature some fresh new gimmick, a la Bind’s teleporters. But Icebox will be a good litmus test for Riot and “Valorant’s” players alike.

“We want to use these as learning opportunities to understand what’s working well in the game with the way our agents and weapons are structured and also what players are enjoying,” said Garozzo. “And the more each map tries to push into a unique direction, the more and more we start to understand about all of those different aspects of the game.”

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