It wouldn’t be too hard to make the case that Respawn Entertainment's past releases have been victims of circumstances outside their control.
Both the original Titanfall and its sequel are tightly-designed, mechanically robust and polished to perfection. They’re innovative, fun-as-hell, multiplayer-focused first person shooters from masters of the craft. And yet, commercially, both games have flopped. For whatever reason, be it market conditions or poor business decisions, the series just hasn’t taken off in the way that Respawn and EA surely expected it to.
The first Titanfall was critically-acclaimed but didn’t come to the Playstation 4 - this generation’s market-leader for console gaming. Then, Titanfall 2 released within a week of Battlefield 1 in 2016 - a scheduling conflict that many suspect ended up costing the former dearly in sales.
Now, a week after launching Apex Legends out into the world, Respawn’s latest has already surpassed 25 million players and has toppled even heavyweights like Fortnite when it comes to its popularity on streaming platforms like Twitch.
Set in the same universe as their prior Titanfall games, Apex Legends is a futuristic battle royale shooter where twenty teams of three fight it out across a sprawling battleground that shrinks in size over time. It’s a little familiar, a little different and a little better.
There are no giant robots here (at least for now), nor are there any parkour-inspired movement mechanics. By the standards set by Respawn’s past works, Apex Legends is a little more conventional and by-the-numbers.
But when it comes to the quality of thing itself, Apex Legends lives up to the studio’s legacy and then some.
Live Together, Die Alone
Unlike the cartoonishness of Fortnite or the grittier realism of PUBG, Apex opts for a more comic-book inspired look. Its locations are dripping with condensed coolness. There’s a section of the map called Skull Town. The guns are easy to pick up and use but come laced with plenty of sci-fi flair and each of the characters in the game is expressive and full of personality.
Like Call of Duty: Blackout, Apex sets itself apart from other battle royales by having you choose and play a named character each game. There are eight personas (referred to as Legends) in play at the moment. More are expected to be added over time to keep things fresh.
Each of the game’s Legends has a passive bonus, an active tactical ability and a more-powerful ultimate ability (which takes time to charge up and can only be unleashed intermittently). Some can deploy healing drones, shields and air-strikes. Others can bend the space around them to create two-way portals. One can deploy grappling hooks and zip-lines to help your team reposition.
Each changes the dynamic of play in subtle and not-so-subtle ways and the teams that can combine their abilities are usually those who end up taking the day. I haven’t spent enough time with the game to know the pros and cons of each offhand but the smaller size of the game’s roster does help keep the number of variables here manageable. At least, for now. It’s difficult to really say whether this will remain so over time.
I’m also as of yet unconvinced that Respawn will be able to succeed at giving each Legend the right balance of mechanical depth and personality. Specifically the latter. Don’t get me wrong, Apex’s current cast of characters have plenty of personality. However, there’s a big difference between the attachment that Overwatch and League of Legends players have to the characters in those games and the level of involvement and attachment you see when it comes to stuff like Rainbow Six: Siege and Quake: Champions. Time will tell which camp Apex ends up falling into.
Regardless, moment-to-moment, Apex Legends plays really well. The gunplay is tight and responsive, the environments are fun to traverse and explore and there’s no shortage of smart decisions when it comes to the UI and design.
For instance, rather than have to coordinate your landing onto the map with two other people, one person on your team will be designated “The Jumpmaster” and be tasked with guiding all three players to the drop-site.
Apex’s ping system is another smart addition that sets it apart from the rest. Want to communicate where you’re going without using comms? Look at your destination and tap the middle mouse button once to place a waypoint on the map. See the enemy lurking across the valley? Tap twice and your teammates will be able to see exactly where. It’s quick, it’s easy and it makes playing with randoms immeasurably more tolerable. Once you get the basics down, Respawn have made it incredibly simple to convey any and all vital info to your teammates.
Apex Legends is also the rare battle royale game where death is necessarily not the end - and that’s exciting. It gives the gunfights a distinct sort of stickiness. Sure, you can still make a dumb mistake and die - but there’s always the possibility of a second chance. Maybe your teammates escape and resurrect you later down the line. Maybe they scrape through the fight. Maybe they don’t. Regardless, I found this mechanic kept me more invested. Better still, it encouraged more intriguing forms of offensive play.
There aren’t a huge amount of weapons in Apex Legends but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The usual suspects are all present and accounted for. If you had a favorite gun in Call of Duty, you’ll probably be able to find an analogue for it here. Each of the game’s pistols, machine guns, shotguns and sniper rifles has a ton of polish and there’s an addictive snappiness to the animations that makes them really satisfying to use.
Because Apex Legends is a free-to-play game, it’s worth touching on the game’s microtransactions. In my opinion, they’re not too egregious an imposition on an otherwise-fantastic shooter.
You start the game with six Legends. Unlocking each of the remaining two takes about fifteen hours of play. If you’re not feeling the grind, you can skip the queue by paying about $8. There are also loot boxes, which can be bought using real-world money or unlocked through play. These contain character and gun cosmetics that can be used to further customize your in-game look. EA say that Fortnite-style Battle Passes will also be coming to the game later down the line. No word yet on how much that’ll cost.
Overall, the structure and pacing of the business model here is pretty close to other free-to-play titles like League of Legends and Warframe - which may assuage some fears around the monetization in Apex. Yes, this is a free-to-play experience with some microtransactions. No, there’s no real pressure to spend money if you do want to just jump in and play.
The Bottom Line
My experience with Apex Legends so far has been nothing short of a blast. Night after night, I’ve had an incredible time playing this game. Everything about it seems so considered and I’m genuinely impressed that it’s managed to snare and hold my attention where other battle royale games have failed to.
Apex Legends is the gaming year’s first big surprise and an impressive free-to-play debut from Respawn. Whether they can build that momentum into something sustainable in the face of juggernauts like Fortnite remains to be seen but, right now, Apex Legends is the battle royale to beat. It’s more evolution than revolution but it’s exactly what the genre needed and exactly what you’d expect from the team behind the Modern Warfare and Titanfall series.
Apex Legends is available now on PC through EA’s Origin store. It’s also available on the Xbox One and Playstation 4 through their respective storefronts.