When I found out about Apex Legends at a press event last week, I went through three separate stages. First, I was skeptical. Then I was accepting. Finally, after playing the game for a few hours, I became enthusiastic.
After 20 minutes or so of listening to the publicity and watching the first trailers, I was accepting. Of course Electronic Arts and its development studio Respawn Entertainment are going to take their marginally successful but creatively excellent Titanfall franchise and find a way to boost its commercial viability. And of course they’re going to move away from a boxed product and into a digital micro-commerce future. It’s all so inevitable.
And then, after playing the game for a few hours, I became enthusiastic. Respawn makes great shooters. Apex Legends feels slick, varied, and pretty. It has something new to say in the battle royale shooter genre. I am going to download it upon release, and I am going to tell my friends to download it too, and we are going to play this game together.
So please let me whisk you through those first two steps of skepticism and acceptance, and get right into the business of Apex Legends’ glowing promise, as an alternative to the battle royale games and team shooters you’re maybe a bit tired of playing.
In short, why am I excited about it? What’s it got to offer you?
The elements about Apex Legends that I think stand out include interesting character abilities, useful squad combat solutions, nicely balanced weapons and gear, smart maps, and reasonably fair commerce options.
As in games like Overwatch and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, players take on the role of specific characters who each have their own personalities, voices, backstories, and abilities. Although Apex Legends is set in the Titanfall universe — in which combatants can summon tank-like mechs called Titans — there are no Titans in the game.
Apex Legends takes place a few decades after Titanfall 2, a time when the Titan Wars are retreating into history. A senior developer told me that when the team tested battle royale with Titans, it diminished the impact of the player characters.
The characters shown so far are as follows:
- Bloodhound, a tracker who can follow tracks and see through walls
- Gibraltar, a big man who can throw up a protective dome shield and lay down area-of-effect bombing spreads
- Lifeline, a medic who uses a drone to increase her own and teammates’ health and has fast healing capabilities
- Bangalore, a soldier with special weapons including an artillery attack
- Wraith, a sprite-like presence who can create portals through which players can effect attacks and retreats
- Pathfinder, a robot who is good at scouting, and can create grappling hooks for teammates to use
- Caustic, a mean-spirited sociopath with poison gas skills and booby trap abilities
- Mirage, a slightly douchey dude who can vanish and create holographs to confuse the enemy
None of these characters are startlingly original, but they do feel right in the context of the game’s story and its place. They have their own distinct personalities and needs. For example, Pathfinder is a lost soul who craves a meeting with his creator. They all compete in popular kill-or-be-killed gladiatorial contests on a remote, abandoned galactic settlement called Outlands.
Each battle takes place between 20 teams of three combatants. At the beginning of each game, players take turns to choose which character they want to be. Duplicates are not allowed. I can tag a character as my preference, before my timed turn comes around.
The character skills are fixed and not upgradeable. A few are available to beginners. Others must be acquired through play or purchase. Leveling up allows access to skins and other aesthetics that can be gained through loot boxes called Apex Packs, an in-game crafting economy, or direct purchase. All transactions are about kitting characters out to look good; there’s no paying for power.
As in PUBG and Fortnite, players drop onto a map, landing on a place of their choosing. Each team has one “jumpmaster,” which the game selects, defaulting to the third player to choose a character. The jumpmaster chooses and controls the landing. If I’m selected as the jumpmaster, I can pass on the responsibility to another player. If I’m not the jumpmaster, I can suggest good landing places, or I can peel off and land anyplace I like.
That said, survival as a solo player is tenuous at best. This really is a squad-based game, in which winning teams make the best use of their joint abilities.
The map is significantly smaller than those of Fortnite and PUBG, but with only 60 players and a lot of subterranean real estate, there’s plenty of space to get away from the crowds in the early game. Some locations are loot hotspots where early combat is inevitable. Others are quiet, though not as gloriously yielding.
The map includes a variety of building nests, ranging from shanties to military complexes to a giant stadium. The Outlands features gigantic natural structures, including tall rock formations that favor verticality and provide cover as well as sightline blocks. There’s a lot of variety, from open, long-shot arenas to close-combat corridors to challenging verticals.
Players must move inward, as an encroaching and damaging “ring” decreases the playable area as part of a series of phases. The map has a lot of choke points where lagging teams tend to congregate as they flee the ring, leading to frantic map-edge fights or ambushes from teams who lie in wait.
There is no active building mechanic or resource collection in this game, apart from occasional drops of a single crafting material, which is not used in combat but can be forged into wearables and skins.
The map’s aesthetic is industrial decline mixed with natural exotica. It’s pretty, with highly detailed portrayals of rocks, grass, trees, water, and buildings. But its most notable characteristics are tall structures that can be scaled quickly via climbing ropes, and which can be descended from by jumping. There is no fall damage in the game.
We drop without weapons and search for the best guns, which cover the usual gamut of pistols, machine guns, plasma rifles, and sniper rifles. Health packs, armor, explosives, and weapon accessories are also available to collect, ranging in different colors according to their strengths.
Loot is sometimes strewn on the ground, and sometimes encased in big trunks that are easy to identify. A good weapon is hard to find, but if I stay alive past the point when maybe half the other teams are dead, I’m usually set with a satisfactory loadout.
I carry a backpack with a limited number of slots, but I can drop any crap I don’t need at any time. Or I can drop stuff and give it to my teammates. Backpacks can also be found that increase my number of slots.
When I come across loot, I can use a handy single-button communications device to tag my find. The game sends out a voice command and the map location to my teammates, detailing the loot I’ve found. This way, I can share the good news with my pals, in case they’re in need of any items in particular. I can also communicate loot types that I need. The effect is a mixture of players speaking in their own voices, and through their character voice prompts.
Dead enemies can be looted via a drop-down menu that highlights which ammo I’ll find useful. Care packages also appear occasionally, yielding three items, usually of higher value.
I can also set waypoints to suggest where the team ought to be going. There’s no leader as such. But playing the game, I find that the best players take control, and a consensus soon emerges.
During my time with Apex Legends, I played with good players, and I played with bad players. Obviously, twitch skills are important in a first-person shooter, but I found that working as a squad is essential, and that tactical intelligence is important.
Reviving players is a matter of following their distress beacon and giving them an injection. Injections can also be self-administered. Dead players can be revived by picking up their emblem and taking it to a respawn station. However, these stations tend to be located in dangerous places — easy pickings for snipers.
Many of the physical spaces in the game have clearly been designed as defensible positions, but with more than three points of ingress. This means either constant vigilance, or constant movement. While I’m moving, I can slide along to gain speed, or I can stow my weapons to run slightly faster. Making use of commanding heights is a big part of the strategy here. I often found myself dangerously exposed when I came down from a mountainside, from where I’d previously been raining merry hell down on opponents.
Once an enemy is spotted, they are marked and players can rush in for the attack. But the mark only reveals their last sighting. This provokes cat-and-mouse games, as well as traps and tricks that lure aggressive players into the open.
Apex Legends is free-to-play on PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One. Players must log in using an EA Origin account.
Each character has a large number of aesthetic unlockables, which can be collected in a variety of ways.
- Direct Purchase: The store will spool through offerings, so not everything is available at all times. In other words, when you go in to buy, say, a skin, it might not be available for purchase, and you may have to wait for it to become available.
- Apex Packs: These loot boxes appear at various upgrade points in the game. Their odds of yielding high-value items are posted, as well as “bad luck” insurance, which guarantees a top-level drop within 30 tries. This means that if you open 29 loot boxes and fail to gain a high-value item, you’re guaranteed one on the 30th turn. Apex Packs can also be purchased. EA says it will announce further details later.
- Purchasable Legends: Players can buy the characters that aren’t freely available. The two unlockable characters are Caustic and Mirage. Players can choose between them when they unlock the first (after about 15 hours) and can gain the next after another 30 hours. To purchase, they cost $7.50 each.
- Battle Passes: Season details are to be announced.
My experience of playing Apex Legends is extremely positive. This is an exciting, well-crafted game, from a company that understands shooters and is clearly qualified to enter the battle royale fray.
Working with teammates I find myself absorbed in the business of staying alive and keeping them alive. The game is finely balanced so that skill is rewarded, but lack of skill is no impediment to enjoyment, especially if I find myself playing alongside someone who really knows what they are doing.
I’m ready to try a new battle royale game, and Apex Legends feels like a good fit for me, and for people I know. The true test will come in the days and weeks to come, most especially given EA’s patchy record when it comes to online launches. Look out for Polygon’s full review in the days ahead.
Read more: Polygon