Let’s get one thing straight: battle royales are a dime a dozen these days. You could throw a metaphorical dart out and chances are good you’ll hit at least one. It’s tough to be a battle royale game; for every one that’s made it big, there are two or three that didn’t. Last year alone was littered with the graves of more than a few.
Enter Apex Legends, the new free-to-play battle royale first-person shooter from Respawn Entertainment set in the Titanfall universe. Set in, mind you—think of it as Titanfall adjacent. There’s no double jumping or wall running, no pilots or titans. Instead, there’s a cast of “legends” who are a bit like Overwatch characters in that each has an excessive personality along with a unique ability and ultimate. Twenty squads of three legends jump into an arena and fight to be the last ones standing. The robot Pathfinder’s ultimate creates a zipline the entire squad can use, which plays tactically much differently than Bangalore, who can call an artillery strike. They all have distinct play styles, but no squad combination ever feels inherently wrong. Presently, three-person squads is the only option, but quads, duos, and solos would be welcome additions, provided they didn’t alter the game balance too much.
Gameplay is often fast-paced and is all the better for it. There’s no fall damage, so feel free to launch yourself off that cliff onto an enemy team. Jump and crouch and you go sliding down hills, and there are strategically placed balloons that allow you to rocket across the map. The map itself is lush and varied, with river valleys, deserts, and military bases each lending to their own style and optimal weapon choices to the game. While what weapons you find are up to the loot gods, there’s something for everyone: sniper rifles, shotguns, ARs. Each feels unique, and you’ll quickly get a feel for which ones are your favorites. If a squadmate dies, there’s a brief window of time when you can pick up a chip from their body and get them back into the game at one of the fixed spawn points around the map, just one more of way of adding to the adrenaline. It’s additions like this that make the game stand out from the competition.
Apex Legends does a wonderful job of creating cooperation, even with complete strangers. Jumping into the map “glues” you to the person steering your squad’s descent—different from, say, Fortnite, in which players dropping in with random squads may be akin to dust in the wind. The ping system is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time; even if nobody on your team has a microphone, the game still allows for communication. With the push of a button you can place a marker in the game world visible to your squad, perhaps suggesting a path forward or marking an enemy player or some loot someone may want. Your characters are also vocal, so you don’t have to constantly be checking menus or the map. If that enemy player you just killed was the last of a squad, they’ll announce you just wiped a squad. If a squadmate pings a Widowmaker pistol, they’ll shout that there’s a Windowmaker over there. Rarely have I felt so coordinated with people outside my friends list, especially working in such small numbers. While writing this review I got my first-ever victory in any battle royale game, and it was with two complete strangers.
Apex Legends offers text to speech (squad text chat read by a synthesized voice) and speech to text (squad voice chat converted to text). I tested out the latter briefly, and it actually seemed to work decently well. Additionally, there are options for a synthesized voice to read menu choices. Many players may not give these options a second look, but it’s great to see a major developer adding accessibility options to their game.
There are, of course, loot boxes. You get one for free every time you level up, and they’re also available for purchase (obviously). Each contains three items, which can include weapon or character skins, character poses, voice lines, or crafting materials. The loot-box drop rates are listed on the shop screen, which is a nice bit of transparency, though I suspect it’s a preemptive strike against gambling regulations as well.
Respawn Entertainment did it right: tease, reveal, and release in the span of a few days. No messing around with a prolonged beta, so often the status quo for a battle royale. (Fortnite’s PvP mode is still technically in early access, you know?) The team behind Apex Legends seems to have stepped back, taken an overview of the competition, and done something to combat many of the flaws other games have. And it seems to have worked—in one week, the game saw 25 million players and at one point had 2 million concurrent players.
Apex Legends is free to play, so there’s little excuse not to check it out if you’re at all interested. Season 1 starts in March, and it will be interesting to see whether the continued promise of new weapons, skins, and characters will give the game the staying power it needs to compete with the heavy hitters currently on the market. The core gameplay is there: this is the freshest and one of the most fun multiplayer shooters available. Teamwork, gunplay, and polish can hopefully propel it well into the future.
Apex Legends is available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, and PC.