It was only a couple of years ago that the battle royale genre was new and exciting. After the insane popularity of Fortnite, many tried and failed to create a game that could capitalize on the success of the mega-hit without being swallowed whole by it. But perhaps a surprise late entry into the fray might have a shot to be the last one standing. Apex Legends checks off all the boxes. Free-to-Play? Check. Created by a proven first-person shooter developer? Check. Improving on many of the small hiccups that plague the genre? Check. Fortnite finally has some serious competition.
Apex Legends, developed by Respawn Entertainment which is best known for the Titanfall series, takes the core principles of the genre and mixes it with hero-shooter elements. Battle royale veterans will feel right at home with the core loop of dropping into a massive map from a plane, looting houses and crates to prepare for battle, and fighting their way through a constantly shrinking map until only one team remains. But it is Overwatch players that might feel more at home as they try to find the perfect hero combination to get them to that final circle.
Each of the 20 teams of three are comprised of a mixture of eight different heroes known as Legends. Each Legend has one tactical ability, one passive ability, and one ultimate ability. For example, Lifeline acts as a medic with a tactical that can deploy a healing drone for teammates, can revive downed opponents faster with an added shield of protection thanks to her passive, and her ultimate can send down a care-package of high-tier armour and healing items. Bangalore is a more offensive-minded Legend, with a passive that allows her to run faster while under fire, a tactical that can deploy smoke for cover, and an ultimate that calls in an artillery strike. No team can have multiples of a single Legend, and at the start of each match players select their choice in a random order.
Having to only worry about a tactical with a cooldown under a minute and an ultimate that can be used roughly every five minutes is refreshingly simple. Abilities aside, all Legends have the same health and use the same weapons. This makes your choice of Legend feel more like a bonus to the core shooting than it does an investment into an entire playstyle. That being said, finding which combination of Legends works best for you and a couple of friends is a rewarding experience.
Friends go a long way in Apex Legends. Unlike other battle royale games, there is only an option for a three person team. Thankfully, the intuitive ping system makes playing with strangers shockingly pleasant. With a single tap of a button, you can suggest an area of interest for teammates. Double tap that same button to alert your squad of an enemy’s position. If you find some armour that you don’t need but a teammate might, tap that same button over it and a marker appears for the whole team. Likewise, you can respond to another player’s pings and call dibs on an item or give approval to a location suggestion with that same button. Making it even more impressive, the characters verbalize this in real-time. Playing with a full squad of friends over group-chat is still the preferred way to play, but solo players should not be discouraged thanks to the ping system that is actively used among the community.
There is only one map, titled Kings Canyon, but it is one of the more memorable among the genre. Nearly 20 distinct locations are littered across the map, each one feeling like its own unique space. On top of that, at the start of each game one of those areas is marked as a Hot Zone which promises better loot and is sure to be heavily contested. There is also a supply ship on route to a random landing spot each match. Players can try to land on the ship to grab some quality gear, or they can battle it out where the ship finally settles as it becomes some useful high ground. Kings Canyon is massive and is made to feel even bigger by the brilliant use of verticality that Respawn is known for in the Titanfall series. Thankfully, between ziplines scattered throughout the environment and a handful of Legend abilities that improve mobility, traversing the map can be as fun as fighting and makes up for the occasional five-minute dry spell between combat.
The loot system is typical of the genre. Guns, ammo, healing items, armour, and attachments are littered across buildings and crates. There is no tier or colour system for guns, but there is for the attachments and armour. The community is slowly building consensus on the best guns for each weapon type, but most are viable in the right hands. What is so impressive is how the game helps the player make sure they have the best stuff. If you have level-two armour, you will not be able to pick up level-one armour. Pick up a level-three extended mag for your LMG, and your level-two mag drops in its place. It might sound obvious, but those who have played enough battle royales know that this is a welcomed change of pace.
Enough cannot be said about the simple quality of life improvements that Apex Legends makes for the genre. Fortnite players know all to well how a game can be spoiled by having one teammate killed in a winning firefight. Respawn recognized this and added a perfectly balanced revive system. If a teammate dies, you have 90 seconds to recover their “banner” from their dropped loot crate and bring it to a designated respawn area. The limited time to recover works to force action in a way that adds a risk-reward system that feels right at home within the action. Another gripe fans of the genre have are teammates that stray away from the pack during the initial drop. But in Apex, teams drop together all following the randomly selected “Jumpmaster.” The selected player can pass on the responsibility on if they like, and individual players can choose to separate from the pack mid-drop or even drop solo. The flexibility is there to offer choice, but the best teams separate only at the last second to make sure they cover as much of an area as possible.
The words free-to-play can raise red flags for gamers. Fear not, the micro-transactions are tastefully implemented. They are largely for cosmetics, except two playable Legends locked at the start. While the Legends take a while to earn, they are by no means better then the first six available. Players earn currency and packs at a pretty regular rate, and Respawn is transparent with the probability of getting rarer items in packs. Best of all, the studio promised at least one Legendary in every 30 packs. For those who would rather jumpstart the process, roughly $10 gets you 1000 coins which is enough for one Legend and a couple of packs to boot.
Apex Legends is not without its own hiccups. In my 12+ hours played on Xbox One S, I have been booted from a couple of games, as well as had regular issues joining a friend’s party. Thankfully a quick restart usually fixes any issues, and the game loads shockingly fast compared to Fortnite. And as great as the ping system is, a two-player mode would be welcomed for those who prefer more intimate teams. Likewise, a four-player mode could be fun, especially when more Legends are introduced and team combinations become more complex. But I trust Respawn to address these issues in the near future because they have clearly taken note of so many issues that bog down the the genre as a whole. And with 10 million downloads in the first 72 hours, you can feel confident that the studio have plenty of reason to keep up the support.
Apex Legends is different from Fortnite, and that is a good thing. By removing the insanely deep building mechanics of it’s greatest competitor, it turns the player’s focus to the Legends’ unique abilities and places core shooting mechanics at the forefront of the action. With the promise of a year of support that includes new Legends and gear, this free-to-play battle royale game should be on everyone’s radar.
Apex Legends is currently available to download for free across Windows PC, PlayStation 4, and Xbox One.
You can find Mark on Twitter at @MarkStaniusz if you want to chat about Apex Legends or just about gaming in general. For real, he’s quite approachable.