It’s still early days for Apex Legends. But if you had told me just earlier this year that Respawn Entertainment was making a battle royale first-person shooter, without any features from its critically beloved Titanfall series, I would have called it creatively doomed from the start. Luckily, I was dead wrong. Apex Legends is an absolutely fabulous game — one that’s made me a believer in the battle royale sub-genre for the first time ever.
The premise is one you’ve already heard before. Dozens of players drop onto an island without any weapons, sprint for loot, and proceed to annihilate each other one by one. There’s a sort of “deadly game show” motif to justify a bombastic aesthetic and colorful characters — like a Johnny Cage-style celebrity combatant who deploys holograms of himself. Overall, though, Apex Legends looks like more of the same.
Changing the Game
That is… until you actually play it. The game is full to burst with tiny details that aren’t immediately visible to the naked eye. No single one of them is completely earth-shattering, but together they make up a game that feels light years ahead of the competition (at least if, like me, you’re not a huge fan of current battle royale trends).
You can’t just jump into Apex Legends by yourself, for example. It’s a team-only affair that encourages (demands, really) three players to work together at all times. The extra wrinkle is that every player selects a “Legend” before each round. These hero classes come with their own subtle, but often game-changing abilities. And having three Legends to a squad opens up a world of tactical possibilities that go beyond “I found the good gun.”
With such a focus on teamwork, you’d think dropping out of an airplane together would be a logistical nightmare. But Apex Legends has a solution. One player per squad is assigned to be “jumpmaster.” This de facto leader can control the entire team’s trajectory down onto the map. Squadmates can veer off on their own, if they like, but it’s a practical death sentence. Teamwork. Teamwork is key. That’s doubly true when you try to take on three enemies at once by yourself.
There are also only 60 players per match in Apex Legends (for the time being, anyway). That’s 20 teams of three spread over a not-inconsiderable area. Not to mention every jumper gives off a very visible, colored trail of smoke. All of which adds up to one thing: Your team can choose where and when it wants to fight. Well, to some degree, anyway.
Even if you do battle sooner than you’d like — even if you drop to one knee and bleed out completely, just like in Fortnite and PUBG — there’s still a chance. Unlike in those other games, Apex Legends lets you respawn allies from total death. You just have to be quick, lucky, and smart enough to do it.
See, every dead player drops a “banner.” If a friendly acquires said doodad within 90 seconds, they can take it to any one-time respawn beacon scattered across the map. These hotspots are usually wide out in the open and surrounded by loot crates. Combined with their one-and-done nature, that makes them valuable, enticing, and extremely dangerous for one or two players to approach for the several seconds it takes to resurrect allies.
It’s fantastic. Mad dashes for beacons are some of the most dramatic adventures I’ve had in any shooter — much less a battle royale. Plus the intense speed and maneuverability of Apex Legends, while not directly lifted from Titanfall 2, has Respawn’s signature smoothness. As does the gunplay, which does feel directly lifted from the studio’s previous games. So while this new game smartly funnels me toward impromptu spectacle, I enjoy every minute of it in a way that the so-so shooting in other battle royale games can’t match.
The Eye of the Player
All these smart, small details add up. Apex Legends feels like the sum of several years’ worth of genre evolution — better shooting here, smarter drop systems there — boiled into a single game. Fortnite is (rightly) lauded for throwing ideas at the wall to see what sticks. But Apex Legends found what stuck ahead of time and built an entire game around it.
If anything, though, the game should be more confident about its depth. That is to say, it desperately needs a better tutorial. Apex Legends’ current introduction is a laughably oversimplified, five-minute trip to a gun range that tells you how to shoot. It does not reveal that colored damage numbers tell you what kind of shields an enemy is wearing, or that you can run up walls.
These are elegant solutions to common battle royale problems. They’re not hard to understand, once you notice them. Apex Legends is the very definition of “easy to learn, difficult to master.” But the process of mastering it needs to get better.
Perhaps it will! The sky truly seems like the limit; especially when Apex Legends is built on the best foundation in the battle royale genre; especially after it garnered 25 million players in about a week.
The Future of Battle Royale
Yes, Apex Legends will get all the things you expect from games like these. There’s already a battle pass around the corner and a Valentine’s Day event has given us some exclusive skins. Cross-play is in the works, too. Yet I can’t help but hope the game’s overnight success will lead to even greater, wilder things that only Respawn can do: like the five-story robots I loved so much in the studio’s last game.
I already see some of that Titanfall soul in Apex Legends, though (not just because the two series technically nest in the same universe). Apex Legends also has a hefty time to kill: that span it takes to shoot another player to death. Titanfall achieved this by giving players incredible agility and, well, the occasional 50-foot robot to hide in. Respawn’s new game gets there, too, just with powerful shields and plentiful healing items.
Hardcore multiplayer shootists typically frown on a long “TTK,” but I appreciate some time to react — to pop a special skill, escape an ambush, and regroup. I like the drama of fighting from my back foot. I still lose to nine out of every 10 ambushes anyway. But that one time I don’t? It serves up even more of that organic, exciting storytelling where Apex Legends excels.
All of which is to say: Apex Legends is far from creatively bankrupt. The economic future of multiplayer shooters is decidedly battle royale-focused… for now. But Respawn had to go and prove there was still plenty to accomplish in this space. Here’s hoping it goes on to prove there’s even more to add. Because Apex Legends, as it is now, is already the best battle royale game. Period.