Astra Is a Wonderfully Creative Character and a Good Sign for Valorant’s Future
Valorant players have had time to grind for and play as Astra for a while now. I’m thoroughly impressed by many aspects of her design. I think Riot looked at Yoru’s rather underwhelming release and decided to go for a more… League of Legends style of approach, shall we say, with the newest addition to the game. Many Valorant players, pro and casual alike are already calling Astra Valorant’s example of “power creep.” I can certainly see where they’re coming from – she seems intensely strong, at least at the highest level of play. But let’s consider it from multiple angles, and discuss Astra’s strengths and weaknesses. If you’re still not familiar with her abilities, I think Shroud’s video on the subject is the best one to watch since he learns and thinks aloud before our eyes. That video demonstrates just about all of the basics you’d need to know, with an experienced FPS veteran’s thoughts on the dawn of her advanced techniques and strategies.
So, Is Astra an Example of Power Creep?
“Power creep” is when Yu-Gi-Oh… sorry, when you introduce new characters or mechanics that make the old tools for success in the game all but useless. It’s most common in card games, which explains my Freudian slip. But it can certainly still happen in character shooters like Overwatch or Valorant. Ask anyone who played the former game when Brigitte released. Of course, every Valorant character does use the same guns, so there’s no chance that it’ll ever get quite as bad as comparing Normal monsters to the Synchro, Pendulum, or XYZ nonsense that my card game playing friends tell me are in Yu-Gi-Oh today.
Still, poor Viper was finally getting into the meta on certain maps, like Icebox, with her teeny little wall that doesn’t block sound or bullets and single “smoke” that she has to physically pick up if she wants to throw it somewhere else… like a cavewoman chucking rocks and grunting. Sure, Astra’s wall is an Ult, but wow. Introducing a character like Astra with that wall and multiple smokes, along with a gravity molly and an AOE stun, all of which can be recalled from anywhere to make a fake smoke, is kind of like how the Valorant devs nerfed Sage’s heal and then introduced Skye, who can heal multiple teammates to full health at once.
But Sage still gets picked fairly often and plays a very different overall role to that of Skye. And people will keep playing Viper, for whatever reason, presumably her visual design. Oh, get your head out of the gutter. I meant above the neck.
Anyway, let’s focus on Astra’s inclusion in Valorant and the question at hand. The game has some of the most elegant balance I’ve seen in an esports title. Everyone has access to the same guns as I said; this inherently makes it so that even the worst character can always put in work, in the right hands. It’s all about personal preference and team composition. It’s hard to go wrong if your team has two Duelists, a Sentinel, a character with smokes, and an Initiator. Every character also has only three normal abilities and an Ultimate. It would take a truly absurd set of abilities to enter the game for one character to become undeniably overpowered. Even pre-nerf Sage saw her near-100% pick rate across all ranks largely because she was, at the time, the only character with a heal, and her other abilities are both intuitive and inherently strong at all levels of play. But I don’t think Sage was poorly designed, just alone in terms of the abilities she brings to the game.
TenZ thinks that Astra will see a 100% pick rate at the top level, but even then, I think that would mean some tweaks need to be made to her abilities and some minor buffs to those of other characters to bring them in line. Plus, some say that she’s “not viable” in ranked, given how difficult she is to play with the loner, self-help style that solo queue tends to create. In other words, Astra is going to take a lot of skill, communication, and coordination to make it work. That doesn’t sound to me like a power creeping, broken, OP, etc. character. It seems like she’s interesting and has a high skill ceiling.
Astra, as we’ll discuss, only has one ability that strikes me as overtly “insane” or “crazy” or “nuts” or whatever synonym for mental illness we (for whatever reason) decide means “overpowered.” I don’t think that one OP outlier is enough to make Astra the most-played character in Valorant. With only five uses of her abilities max per round, with each of them being on cooldown after use, and an admittedly super-strong Ultimate that requires seven Ult charges to use, she leans heavily on her teammates after the initial push takes place. With the ingenious design of placing stars throughout the map that can then turn into any of her abilities, Astra brings so many unique and interesting things to Valorant.
Style and Substance
Astra was introduced through what I consider to be the best new character trailer in Valorant so far. For many esports and video games in general, it seems as though the marketing teams don’t play the games in question. The classic example would be commercials from the 90s that feature primitive CG models and the most boring voiceover. No such problems here. With Valorant and Astra, we open on incredible visuals with an excellent beat and then treated to roughly a minute of realistic gameplay highlighting all of her abilities. Note that quote at the beginning as we first see her in the astral plane: “You can tell a person’s character by their first action. Check me then, eh?” With the ability to place her stars during the Buy Phase, making Astra incredibly strong during initial pushes on both Attack and Defense, that quote shows that Valorant’s excellent video production team makes sure that accurate gameplay is front and center.
Before we focus on that gameplay, let’s talk about what Astra’s aesthetics bring to the Valorant table. She has, without a doubt, the best character select animation in the game for a start. All of her abilities can be a little distracting or even gaudy for a tactical shooter like Valorant when Brimstone and Jett are out here throwing spherical clouds of monochrome smoke. Still, the nebulae and stars Astra can place on the field are mesmerizing in their beauty. Worth it. And gone are the days where tactical shooter fans were forced to play as one of five identical white men against a team of five other identical white men in Counter-Strike. CS has added some token characters, but Valorant continues to blow them out of the water in aesthetic diversity. This is especially true now that Astra’s on the scene – cosmic, black, and beautiful. She rocks a fresh hairdo and a complementary purple and yellow color scheme. And you’ve got to love those nails.
Astra’s Ghanaian accent sounds authentic, as well… at least moreso than certain other characters, without calling out any particular voice actor. This was one area where Yoru certainly impressed. Regardless of what I think about some of the other accents in the game, Valorant’s two latest voice actors have knocked it out of the park. I hope more Valorant characters start to use their native tongues, like Yoru’s interjection of “Kuso!” while defusing the bomb or Astra’s “Au revoir!” after she lands a killing shot. Well, I hope more characters do this as long as the voice actor can say the words properly. Using other languages can be done in poor taste when the voice actor doesn’t know that language, but I have faith they’d get it right with the quality control we’ve seen in other aspects of Valorant. Hearing foreign languages announcing enemy Ults from across the map was one of the most hype things Overwatch brought to the audio table, and something I wish Valorant would’ve copied… like Mei’s wall. The most recent updates have brought more work for the voice actors with welcome new additions like characters having voice lines for spotting enemies in certain locations like Spike sites or mid. It’s not out of the question that Sage might one day be declaring that you will not kill her allies in Mandarin. Astra joins Cypher in putting Africa on the Valorant map. She represents Ghana proudly and with style.
The point I’m getting at here is that even if she weren’t a strong, interesting character who will make an impactful debut in the competitive metagame, it would be hard to deny that Astra brings other valuable aspects of game design to Valorant. Yoru has some sweet animations and sounds, and Astra brings that to a whole new level. This all makes me more excited than ever to see new characters, something I was at first hesitant about (as a player of the only active esport out there without an official patch since 2001). If the Valorant team can keep up this level of quality, I say, “Keep ‘em coming.”
Teamplay, Coordination, and Tactics
So, a little thought experiment for you all: Let’s say Astra is the strongest character in Valorant right now, is OP and broken, and yadda yadda yadda. There will always be the strongest character in any given game. The question is, how difficult and interesting will that top-tier character be?
I can speak most from experience as a Smash player, so let’s consider two alternatives from my native franchise. Most Super Smash Bros. Melee players agree that Fox McCloud is the first-strongest character in the second Smash game, admittedly with some contesting that Marth takes the cake with his giant grab and ridiculously disjointed hitboxes. Either way, both of these characters are intensely difficult to play at the highest level. Fox is like a demon that shatters your hands if you play him for too long, with all the technical nonsense the top Foxes have to pull off in every match. Marth requires precise spacing and timing on all of his moves. Both characters are also easy to combo and have widely known counterplay; there’s even a technique called the “Marth killer” for when he’s recovering to the ledge. The alternative in Smash terms is Brawl’s Meta Knight, the easiest top tier I can imagine. He’s so infamous in his brokenness that I cannot even come close to explaining it all. Just Google “brawl is broken” if you want to know more.
So, those are the North and South poles of top tiers. At the highest level, you can either see characters who are “braindead” and easy or top tiers which require tons of thought, effort, and adaptation to succeed with. The latter will look like bottom feeders in the wrong hands. In my opinion, that’s what you want – strong characters who require the best from those who play them. There’s nothing wrong with a character being the best, so long as their design is interesting and the skill ceiling journey difficult.
This brings us back to Valorant and Astra. Again, she certainly seems strong, but not to an unreasonable degree, and not without a huge degree of effort from the players picking her up. She’s going to be very difficult to “carry” ranked games with. If TenZ is right and she sees a 100% pick rate in the pros, then sure, Riot, nerf her a little. But let’s not get carried away and bring out the pitchforks too soon. Even if she is the strongest character in the game, we could do a lot worse. She has to juggle her complex abilities and the locations of teammates’ abilities and their intentions with those abilities. To get the most out of her Gravity Well, gunfire or a molly are needed. Nova Pulse, very similar to Breach’s Faultline or Rolling Thunder, also sees the best effects when a teammate peeks with it. Her smokes are just smokes – and the only ability she can cast twice at once – so there’s not much else to say about them or is there?
“Dissipate” Is Absolutely Ludicrous
Yeah… I love Astra’s overall design, but I’d be remiss not to mention this. What were they thinking with this move? Like I said earlier, poor Viper is on the battlefield running back and forth to pick up and re-throw her singular smoke. Astra can recall any of her astra (Latin for “stars,” if you didn’t know) from anywhere on the map. That’s not so bad on its own, though Viper should certainly gain the ability to pick up her Poison Orb from anywhere as compensation for the new kid on the block being able to do this.
What is truly nuts is that performing “Dissipate,” as the star recall ability is named, puts up a spherical smoke that looks like Astra’s actual smoke, but dissipates in just a few moments. It also gives you that star back for a potential replacement after a brief cooldown. I can’t understate how wild that is. A free, fake smoke? Unprecedented. Unheard of. Probably legitimately OP. You can even put up two real smokes and a third, shorter smoke using Dissipate, a play that costs only two of her five stars. It’s certainly unique and probably here to stay since Riot is much more likely to nerf than remove abilities. But I don’t know how you would nerf this thing without removing it outright. Maybe changing the visuals to be significantly different from her regular smokes would be a start, so we would at least be able to tell when it’s a fake quickly.
You can use Dissipate to peek at such unexpected times, to look like you’re smoking an angle before popping out with your team’s guns blazing, like the worst surprise party of all time. It’s such an inherently ridiculous mixup to have to worry about smoke being real or fake. In my opinion, they should either make Dissipate dissipate the star without this fake smoke nonsense or tone down some of Astra’s other abilities to compensate for this one uniquely “broken” ability.
Astra’s still awesome, even with that one wild ability in mind. She’s generated a lot of hype for the game, and rightfully so. Astra demonstrates that the wheels on the Valorant bus are still churning hard. The updates surrounding her have also included overall significant changes, like the voiceover mentioned above additions. It’s a better-looking game than ever, now that the cosmos themselves shine violet and yellow on the already beautiful maps.
Yoru hasn’t yet seen much pro play. Astra certainly will, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Her design is unique, versatile, interesting, and difficult to master. An overwhelming debut is preferable to an underwhelming one. And we’ve yet to see the best of Astra in Valorant. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what she can do in the hands of the best players on the planet.