472 hours. That’s how long I spent playing PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds in 2017. The game which kicked off the whole battle royale craze had its hooks in me for a good long time with its mix of small-unit tactics, orienteering, emphasis on making an intelligent choice between stealth and confrontation — it turns out that I really really like the battle royale concept, and PUBG was doing it well enough that it became my second most-played game on Steam. However, PUBG was buggy and poorly optimised and its evolution was driven by a series of hacky feature implementations and kneejerk design decisions that were tolerable while the game was in Early Access — that’s the devil’s bargain you make when playing an EA game — but which became greatly less so when PUBG hit 1.0 in December 2017; the game eventually diverged from what I enjoyed about it, and I fell out of it soon afterwards.
Most new BRs released since then have been me-too attempts to cash in by repurposing forks of existing projects, or setting out along the same Early Access path that PUBG did. None of them have the level of polish or design focus that my soured experience with PUBG made me crave, and so there’s a huge gap in the market for an established FPS developer to make something that’s designed from the ground up to be a dedicated battle royale title — something that doesn’t crash, and which has good performance, and which doesn’t waste your time with pointless make-work such as waiting in an in-game lobby for the game to start or fiddly inventory management that leads to you getting shot in the head while you’ve got it stuck inside your backpack. In other words, I’m ready for a battle royale made by somebody who actually knows what they’re doing.
Apex Legends may be that game.
It is somehow both surprising and unsurprising that Apex Legends has turned out as well as it has. On the one hand it’s developed by Respawn, the studio behind Official Best Multiplayer FPS Of The 2010s Titanfall 21. Respawn really know their stuff when it comes to first-person shooters, and many of Apex’s most successful features are the sort of thing that seems blindingly obvious in retrospect, but which take a developer with a degree of experience and talent to design and implement — after all, if these improvements were really that obvious, somebody else would have made them before now. On the other hand, Apex Legends is supposedly set in the Titanfall universe (although you’d never know it from playing the thing) but lacks both of Titanfall’s signature features: the giant robot Titans, and the wallrunning, and this seems idiotic given how awesome both of those things were in Titanfall 2. In their place are some Overwatch-style heroes with all the trimmings including an ultimate ability with a charging percentage slap bang in the middle of the HUD, which is always the kind of thing that makes me suck air through my teeth to indicate deep scepticism. Apex Legends, at least on the surface, looks like yet another me-too attempt to cash in with a “What if battle royale, but also Overwatch?” take on the concept.
That perception is not helped by how unambitious Apex initially seems to be. The core game is classic battle royale: there are sixty players in a match, divided into twenty squads of three, and you all paradrop weaponless onto an island with the goal of using your wits, your teamwork and the vast plethora of guns and other loot scattered across the island to become the last squad standing. Apex Legends’ player count is small for a BR (most of them have 100 players per match) but it’s workable because the single map the game has launched with is also quite small; the important thing for a battle royale game isn’t total player count but player density2, and Apex Legends gets it more or less right, providing a decently bracing encounter rate with space around the edges for stealthy play or to take a bit of downtime to get tooled up via looting. The island is also acceptable as a space to fight over, even if I think the buildings are rather blocky and cartoony; one of my minor criticisms is that it’s so small you basically don’t need to care about the genre-standard contracting circle of death that forces squads together as the player numbers thin out, because the distance between one circle and the next is brief enough that you’ll never be killed by it unless you’re pinned in place by another squad. Still, “acceptable” is just another way of saying “average”, which doesn’t cut it in today’s cutthroat market. At first glance Apex looks like a pretty standard idea set in an environment that does the job asked of it but which doesn’t stand out in any way — which is not exactly a recipe for success when pitted against the gargantuan Fortnite — and if it hadn’t been free-to-play I likely wouldn’t have given it a second one.
Fortunately it is free-to-play, which meant downloading it and giving it a spin cost me literally nothing. As it turns out, I spent my first few games of Apex Legends constantly muttering “This is cool!” as I came across yet another neat mechanic or quality-of-life feature that I didn’t know I’d been missing until Respawn implemented it in Apex Legends. It’s like when you’ve spent so long dealing with a stuffed-up nose that you’ve forgotten how liberating it is just to be able to breathe normally. You’re naturally very grateful to the universe that you don’t have to live like that any more, and so it is with Apex Legends: it is going to be very difficult for me to play another battle royale (and in fact multiplayer FPSes in general) that doesn’t at least match Apex’s featureset. There’s only one thing I’d point to that’s truly revolutionary for the genre, but there’s just so many little tweaks and optimisations that swell together into a tsunami that will hopefully wash away the previous half-baked way of doing things that’s been perceived as “good enough” by the industry up until now.
These little improvements to the way battle royale works present themselves from the moment you start a match. When you spawn into a plane you’ll notice that your squad’s jump trajectory is controlled by a designated Jumpmaster. When they jump out of the plane you will jump out of the plane, and you will automatically follow them as they fly to their destination. This keeps the squad together and ensures there are no panicked voice conversations along the lines of “Where are we dropping? Rozhok? Let’s drop now. Let’s aim for the buildings on the hill. I’m landing on the middle one. The middle one. No, the other middle one. Why the f*** are you landing over there? There’s two enemy squads over there, you f***** ****!”. You can opt to override the Jumpmaster’s control and jump on your own, or split off from their jump path at any time, but the Jumpmaster system should be and is the default option. You’ll also notice on the way down that everyone leaves coloured contrails behind them as they fall from the plane to their jump destination, making it very easy to tell where everyone is going and whether your game is going to start with five minutes of peaceful looting or a very hot firefight with the enemy squad that landed in the same place that you did.
Further improvements abound once you get to actually looting stuff. Equipment and weapon attachments are helpfully colour-coded so that you can tell at a glance which is better (for contrast, after 472 hours I never did figure out the difference between the angled foregrip and the vertical foregrip in PUBG) using the standard ARPG colour system to denote loot quality: grey is standard, blue is rare, purple is epic, and yellow is legendary. The attachment system is simplified so that there is never a choice between two different types of item for the barrel stabiliser slot, say; instead there is only one Barrel Stabiliser that reduces recoil and the higher-tier Barrel Stabilisers simply do a better job of it. This lets Respawn make a further optimisation: if you have a blue Barrel Stabiliser stuck in your gun and you come across a purple Barrel Stabiliser, picking it up will automatically switch the blue version out for the purple one because it’s a straight upgrade and there’s no real reason why you wouldn’t want to do this — they’re just saving you the hassle of going through your inventory to do it. The blue Barrel Stabiliser will be dropped on the ground when it gets switched out, and if you try to pick it up again one of two things will happen. If your second, currently holstered weapon can take a Barrel Stabiliser it’ll be attached to that if it’s an upgrade3. If it can’t, or if you already have a blue Barrel Stabiliser in that second gun, then you will be physically prevented from picking it up with a little message saying “Why would you want this, it’s worse than what you’ve already got!”
Again, you can manually adjust your gun attachments and inventory loadout if you want to, and you can pick up that redundant Barrel Stabiliser too if you hold down the pickup button, if for example you wanted to take it to a teammate who needed it. Respawn have realised that that’s an exception to the rule, however, and so while they’ve made it possible they’ve also made their default looting behaviour massively facilitate the 99% of looting scenarios where that’s not the case. I have played games of Apex where I’ve never even opened my inventory tab — and not because I died in a firefight within 30 seconds of touching down from the drop, either. Want to heal up after a fight? No need to dive into your backpack, there’s a dedicated hotkey and radial menu for healing items. Want to exchange your current weapon for a better one? Any attachments you have in the old gun that are compatible with the new one will automatically be moved over before you dump the old one on the ground. It makes looting almost totally frictionless and natural and eliminates almost all inventory micromanagement in favour of actually playing the game.
“Frictionless” aptly sums up Respawn’s approach to the battle royale genre, in fact, which is one that historically has been so replete with rough edges it might as well be sandpaper. Take player death. Most BRs regard their solo play mode as the primary one, and you don’t need to make any concessions towards player death in a solo play mode because their round is automatically over when they die. If you play a squad mode then you still don’t get any concessions, but because death is permanent you have to wait around for up to thirty minutes while the surviving members of the squad finish out the round before you can play again. That’s a huge, huge source of friction that often means the rest of the squad quits out or commits suicide so that they can requeue instead of making the dead people wait. This is clearly an undesirable gameplay outcome that, for some reason, BR designers have just shrugged their shoulders at — up until Apex Legends. If you die in Apex Legends you have a chance of coming back into the round if surviving squadmates can get to your corpse, retrieve a macguffin item called a banner (think dogtags) and then take it to a respawn point. This summons you back into the game on a dropship, with the catch that you won’t have any weapons or equipment and will have to tool up again. Dying is still meaningful in Apex; resurrection is by no means a sure thing (because if you didn’t win the fight that killed you your corpse is going to have some extremely hostile enemy players camped on top of it for a while), and losing your equipment is a hell of a penalty, and calling in the respawn dropship announces your presence to everyone nearby so you have to scarper pretty damn sharp-ish. However, that the possibility exists at all makes it far more palatable to the dead people, and more importantly gives the alive ones a motive to keep playing.
A lot of these improvements stem from Apex Legends’ unusual decision to force you to play as a squad of three — with strangers, if necessary — with no solo play possible. This sounds like a really idiotic thing to do given that historically voice comms have been compulsory for squad play in a BR, and the last thing I want is to have a twelve year-old chanting racial slurs piped into my headphones; in any other game it would have been an unmitigated disaster because there wouldn’t have been any thought given to how to solve the traditional problems associated with anonymous squad play. However, it turns out Respawn have sat down and have come up with a solution that will, if there is any justice in the world at all, quietly revolutionise all other multiplayer games that rely on teamwork: the ping system.
The basic use of the ping is as you’d expect in (for example) Battlefield V; click the ping button and a ping marker will appear on the thing your crosshairs are pointed at to indicate points of interest/potential looting destinations. Double click the ping button and you’ll instead get a threat marker indicating potential enemy presence. That’s the bare minimum required out of a ping system and nothing I haven’t seen before in other games, but the genius behind Apex’s ping system is that it’s context sensitive and thus capable of making that single button press mean so much more. If you’re looking at a piece of loot that you can’t use but others might, you can ping it to call out exactly what it is (via a voice cue from your character) and tag it with an appropriate icon. These disappear after a short while, but if a teammate is interested in the item they can ping your ping to call dibs on it; this activates another voice line saying they’re coming to get it and makes the ping permanent for them until they pick it up. If you are actually looking at an enemy when you ping (as opposed to just looking somewhere you think enemies are) then pinging them will put down a different threat marker along with a “I see an enemy here” instead of the usual “Possible enemies here”. They’ve made this ping system so good, and put in so many context-specific voice lines, that you don’t need to talk to your team in Apex Legends to communicate. Your character will do it for you with a single button press.
Speaking of characters, I was expecting to hate Apex’s take on Overwatch-style heroes given that I didn’t particularly like Overwatch itself, but they’re actually not too bad at all. There’s only eight of them to start with so you’re not too overloaded with learning who they are and what they can do, and their abilities have been tuned so that they’re capable of changing the dynamics of an encounter when used correctly instead of being the “I win” button represented by so many Overwatch ultimates. The most obviously powerful ones are the area-denial airstrikes, but even these will rarely kill outright because Apex Legends characters are big sacks of hitpoints. More interesting are Bloodhound’s ability to passively track players, along with the mobility-enhancing zipline and portal from Pathfinder and Wraith that enable a squad to quickly relocate to escape from trouble or attack from an unexpected direction. There’s a few duds (like Mirage’s holodecoy ultimate only being useful in fierce firefights where nobody is paying attention) but everyone gets at least one good, useful ability that can contribute to the team without being damage-focused. As a general rule the hero abilities are helpful for healing, relocation and misdirection, but if you want to actually kill somebody in Apex you’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way: with a gun.
It’s here that we get to my big reservation about Apex Legends, and one that I was not expecting to have considering that most of the guns are ported over from Titanfall 2 and I really liked Titanfall 2, but there have been two major changes made since then. First is that bullets now all have travel time and the player hitboxes have, if anything, been made even more unforgiving compared to Titanfall 2, meaning you need to be extremely good at that classic FPS twitch shooting to consistently land hits in Apex. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with that, except now we come to the second change: every player in Apex Legends is a huge sack of hitpoints thanks to armour straight up increasing your HP pool, and so the time-to-kill (TTK) is shockingly high. You can unload a full magazine from any of the assault rifles or SMGs at someone and unless you get every single round on target they’re going to survive to return fire (and even a 100% hitrate won’t kill with some of the SMGs unless you have an extended mag). Shotguns are a little better, but missing a shot with one is catastrophic because damage is so valuable. And sniper rifles are reduced to being tools for long-range harassment and wearing opponents down rather than the one-hit wonders you find in other games.
That last one I’m not too upset about, but the general TTK being so high sabotages my preferred method of playing competitive multiplayer FPSes. I’m in my mid-thirties and my reaction time and hand-eye coordination is shot to hell, which makes me terrible at shooting other people in videogames; however, my brain is just as sharp as it ever was so I use map awareness and anticipation of other players’ actions to get myself into a position where I can shoot them in the back and hopefully down them before they can retaliate. This is an approach that works wonderfully in PUBG and Battlefield V, where TTKs are low; it falls flat on its face in Apex Legends, however, where the high TTK puts the emphasis back on technical shooting skills instead of thinky tactics. It is a game that values aggression, focus fire and landing shots on target far more than it does stealth or flanking maneuvers or otherwise taking time to set yourself up the kill. That’s not to say that those things aren’t valuable, but you won’t win a fight by doing them; only fighting will do that. And while this is a perfectly legitimate design choice that’s catering to a certain sort of player extremely well. it’s one that’s in serious danger of turning me off of the game no matter how well-made it is because I’m just not that kind of player.
I suspect I’ll be playing it for a little while longer, though, no matter how many zero-kill rounds I have to endure, because one of the final weapons Apex Legends has in its arsenal is that it is short. A round of Apex will last just over twenty minutes from start to finish while packing in just as much action as any of its competitors; by contrast PUBG could go anywhere up to 45, with an additional matchmaking and lobby timesink. Apex has no lobby and pitches you straight into a match once you’ve taken 30 seconds to pick your heroes. This means that you can be back playing in the next round less than a minute after you died in the last one, which makes death much much easier to bear. It is in general much more respectful of the player’s time, if not their wallet; one thing I’ve not really mentioned in this review is the monetisation strategy, and that’s because it (for now) has very little impact on the game, with the vast majority of unlockable items being cosmetic only. There are two heroes who must be unlocked by either paying real money or by playing for twenty hours or so to amass enough fake money to do so, and those are the only gameplay-altering things on sale. However, if you are inclined to try and get a nice skin for your favourite character then you’ll be horrified to discover that the only way of doing so is to purchase a lot of loot boxes and hope it pops out, as there’s no way to spend money on a specific skin directly. It’s an incredibly harsh monetisation model whose only upside right now is that you can totally ignore it and you’ll still be playing the same game as everyone else, just with slightly less flashy equipment.
Still, I think the long-term implications of that monetisation model mean that if you’re thinking of trying Apex Legends it’s probably best to try it now. Right now it’s an incredibly focused product with almost zero flab and a ton of great ideas; the heroes are all balanced and the gunplay works, for all that I might not personally like it. I have my doubts that it will stay that way, however; give it a year and there’ll be more heroes and (probably) more maps available, which will dilute a lot of Apex Legends’ goodness unless they’re handled impeccably well. And while I do trust Respawn to make the right decisions where they’re concerned, I don’t trust EA — why would I, when I have a front-row seat to the twin unfolding disasters of Battlefield V4 and Anthem? The reason Apex Legends has released in its current excellent state is because EA were preoccupied with Anthem and had correspondingly low expectations for it; now that it’s had a very successful launch they’re going to start meddling with it, and not for the better. And that’s going to be a crying shame because Apex Legends, in its current state, is by far the best Battle Royale title out there. I’d enjoy it while you can.
- And the singleplayer wasn’t any slouch either. ↩
- Which is something that PUBG completely failed to grasp with the twin shitshows of Sanhok and Miramar. ↩
- I think it might actually be shunted directly to the empty slot in your second weapon when you swapped out the Barrel Stabiliser in the first place, but the loot system is so quick and functionally invisible that I can’t say for sure. ↩
- The tl;dr here is that the game’s still good but the live ops are terrible and every patch breaks just as much stuff as it fixes. ↩