Tactical FPS games like Valorant need good cards. They are essential for producing the kind of engaging, balanced and competitive gameplay that delivers a consistent player base at launch and then makes viable esports competition later on.
Developer Riot Games has come under special scrutiny in this regard since Valorant’s release in 2020, largely for two reasons: First, Valorant is destined to be forever compared to Counter-Strike, a game that more or less wrote the rulebook. for tac-FPS map design and from which Valorant borrows a huge amount; Second, Riot Game has been clear in its goal of creating the world’s next great Esport from the get-go, and so the pressure is on offering cards that fit that bill.
The highly anticipated launch of a new map called Pearl this week is just the game’s eighth overall, and it replaces Split to keep the pool at just seven for the foreseeable future. Quality over quantity is Riot’s ethos, it seems, and yet Valorant has received some criticism for the design of its cards so far. Much of that criticism centered around the inclusion of various gimmicks, from Bind’s lack of center to Fracture’s curvy design and odd ziplines to Breeze’s comically large size.
For Pearl, however, Riot has kind of gone back to basics, and over the last five days or so playing the map in early access I’ve found it to be a refreshing change of pace that I think will be well received by its player base.
Before we talk about design and card layout, though, let’s talk about Pearl’s aesthetics. If you watched last week’s trailer or watched several content creator streams or montages during early access, then you’re in the know. For everyone else, Pearl is set in a Portuguese city submerged in the waves of the ocean, protected by a huge geo-dome. Rather bizarre but undeniably cool, it cleverly expands on Valorant’s mysterious and interesting lore. There’s even a new cinematic trailer to go with it.
I love the look and feel of Pearl in general, which is fun and fantastic in a Valorant-appropriate way. But the real charm of Pearl is in the way it plays.
The best tac shooter cards of all time are essentially simple in design. With Pearl, Riot Games has more or less followed this principle as it has three main lanes leading to two Spike sites. There is a small center area, connected to the sites by two narrow links and, again, unlike previous maps, there are no teleporters, doors or ziplines.
In general, Pearl has a good mix of narrow and wide corridors with both short and long sightlines. There are parts of the map where close range combat abounds, but also some that emphasize target duels. Crucially, and unlike many of Valorant’s maps, Pearl’s design allows attacking teams plenty of room to maneuver without falling into defenders’ lines of sight on the first round. This is somewhat unusual for Valorant; even on some of the game’s most attacking maps, the defenders always have the advantage, both in the speed at which they can peek into key sightlines and the speed at which they can rotate between key areas of the map.
Split, the card now removed from Valorant’s pool and replaced by Pearl, is not an example of an attack-friendly map, but serves as an interesting comparison to Pearl and an example of the kind of problems plaguing Valorant map design. Funnily enough, the two maps have a similar feel in terms of aesthetics, but couldn’t be more opposite in terms of gameplay.
In Split, attackers have plenty of room to move, but only in totally irrelevant areas of the map. Once attackers move into contentious areas such as A Main/Ramp, Mid or B Garage, they are under pressure and may be knocked into space by aggressive defensive teams. The main bottlenecks of the map are also narrow and favor the defenders, who can also rotate between the two locations much faster than the attackers.
However, Pearl turns this around and puts attackers in charge. It’s they who get to key sightlines like mid-first, which I think, as I discussed in my recent Pearl strategy guide, will prove to be an important part of the map in competitive play. Elsewhere, on A ground, the defenders have plenty of time to prepare for attackers, but can’t see much before they arrive due to the shape of the corridor leading there. Meanwhile, on B, there is basically no choking point and attackers can easily storm the terrain with five men and get an easy plant.
Another scourge for defenders is the slow rotation time between the two locations, which will no doubt lead to many major skirmishes between teams. Of course attackers also have the same problem with slow turning, but only if they don’t have strong center control, which again is why it will probably prove to be so important.
My only minor concern with Pearl’s layout is that pushing through the middle like attacking teams seems risky. You can be easily flanked and you have to go through secondary bottlenecks which are very narrow. I wonder if the meta will transition into quick push to one site or the other, with just a single lurker in the middle, almost similar to what we see on Icebox? It’s hard to say this early and with only my experience playing non-competitive games in early access.
What I can say is that Pearl likes to play. There’s something exciting about it and seems to create all sorts of entertaining gameplay, from long-range duels to massive mid-clashes to stealth lurking. I see so many opportunities for clever use of utilities, and I’m sure sentries like Cypher and Killjoy could be meta at a time when Chamber is so popular.
Compared to Valorant’s last map, Fracture, which reminded me of old-school Counter-Strike maps built specifically for esports, like clan1_mill and CPL_fire, Pearl feels more accessible. There’s a lot to learn and a lot of angles to worry about, sure, but it’s generally pretty easy to understand. I think new players can jump into Pearl and have fun, and there’s also depth for hardcore veterans of the game to interact with on a strategic level.
Is Pearl Valorant’s Best Map Yet? Probably not, but it’s been super fun to play so far and I’m glad to see the development team not reinventing the wheel and returning to a simpler design.