When EA sent out an invitation for the announcement of Respawn's new game in Los Angeles, no-one on the editorial team thought it was anything other than Titanfall 3. What else would the studio do while it works on its Star Wars game? We might not have been completely wrong, but we weren't completely right either. Apex Legends has just been announced and we have ploughed about eight hours into the finished version of the game, which is out... right now.
During the initial presentation, we're quickly told that Apex Legends is a game in the battle royale genre, which makes sense really since EA still has no game out in the genre, although Firestorm for Battlefield V slowly gets closer. It's a battle royale experience that takes place in the Titanfall universe, but also ends most of the similarities with Respawn's grossly underestimated series. It takes place about 30 years after Titanfall 2 and there isn't a glimpse of a titan nor the possibility of running on walls. Respawn tells us that the game was born through an internal test that they thought was too fun to not do something serious with. It's going to a be a hard push for the studio, but we're glad they are trying.
So why should anyone be hyped about another battle royale game? Perhaps especially one published by EA, which isn't exactly known for being consumer friendly. Well first of all, Apex Legends is completely free-to-play on any platform, and Respawn has chosen to adopt the same type of "battle pass" system as in Fortnite, so the only things that are available for real money are cosmetic items and new characters. So no pay-to-win or pay-for-power at all (more on this later, though). Secondly, it's super fun.
You already know how it works by now; a whole lot of people are dropped onto a map (60 in Apex Legends), and it's all about grabbing weapons and equipment as fast as you can while at the same time trying to keep track of where that circle is located (the one that you have to stay inside). Of course, during all this stress opposing teams must be dealt with using bullets, grenades, or an old fashioned beating. The basic structure is thus according to the template for the wider genre, but Respawn introduces a couple of really interesting differences in Apex Legends, differences that make it stand out from other games in the genre such as PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds, Fortnite, and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's Blackout mode.
With a total of 60 players per match, the group is divided into 20 teams of three; there is no option to play solo at all. Another significant difference compared to, for example, Fortnite is that Apex Legends contains character classes. Right now there are eight to choose from, two of which have to be unlocked via micro-transactions or by playing for currency, and only one of each character can be included in a squad. To simplify it slightly: look at it like Fortnite meets Rainbow Six: Siege and Overwatch, although the class differences aren't quite as big as they are in Blizzard's hero shooter. Another great detail is how one player becomes a so-called "jump master" when it's time for the initial jump and the other two automatically follow that player, making sure that everyone lands in the same place. It's possible to break out of the formation and fly solo if you so wish, but generally we'd recommend keeping the team together.
Of course there are other games in the genre that embrace similar class layouts, but the classes here allow the vast majority of players to be able to complement their play style in a way that makes Apex Legends feel unique and varied. We really liked the tank-class Gibraltar, which has a protection bubble to throw out that either creates space between us and other combatants or lets us revive a teammate in safety. Each class has three unique features - one passive, one that activates by the player, and one ultimate. The latter, of course, can turn a very dangerous situation into an advantage for your team if used correctly. The properties vary from very defensive to precise and deadly attacks, depending on how you like to play.
The map in Apex Legends is called Kings Canyon and works in quite traditional ways. There are open areas for high octane sniper duels, narrow gorges for close combat, and everything in between. A nice addition is that in select places there are ropes you can hook on to then be launched into the air and activate your jetpack for a short while. This makes it easy to travel long distances quickly, ideal if you have a long way to go to the circle and the time starts to become scarce, for example.
Apex Legends is all about team play. Since you cannot play solo, you are always connected to two other players and to be able to win effectively, almost everything is about cooperation. To be able to cooperate communication is required, but if you've played pretty much any online game in the last few years you'll know that many players are not at all interested in using built-in voice comms. Here Respawn has actually found a solution that makes the experience enjoyable without the need for voice chat at all. In principle, everything you look at can be marked for teammates, things like weapons, loot boxes, enemies, and whatever path you want to take. With a simple push of a button you can communicate what you want to do and at the same time your fellow players can accept by pressing the same thing after you have selected it. Of course, direct communication will always be better, but this is still an appreciated feature.
Another important feature which also works differently to how it does in similar games is that, even if you are killed, the match isn't over. If your team succeeds in reaching your body and taking your banner there are different stations around the map where you can get a new life and a second chance to continue fighting for that win. However, you lose everything you have collected up to that point and if your teammates haven't picked up some extra gadgets then your looting starts from the beginning.
Speaking of loot there are, as usual, lots of different weapons to pick up around the game world. Anyone familiar with Titanfall will quickly find old favourites. In addition to weapons alone, there are also weapon modifications that improve various aspects of your guns, protective equipment, life-sustaining objects, and grenades. Loot comes in different levels and grabbing the best will of course help you to stay alive longer.
What struck us during our hours with Apex Legends is how balanced it already feels. With eight significantly different classes, there is always someone who is a little stronger than everyone else. Now we won't say that everything is perfect, of course, as the meta will develop and Respawn will certainly need to balance things as players learn to use the classes, exploit the game world, and explore tactics in new and creative ways. The studio promises that more Legends (that is, the classes) will be added as the seasons change. The plan is that a season is three months and after that the battle pass is updated with new skins and other cosmetic stuff. It also seems that the studio is dedicated to constantly talking to its community and keeping track of the balance in order to make necessary changes.
So, how about the microtransactions then? They're not a big deal right now, because Apex Legends is completely free-to-play and anything that can be purchased for real money can also be unlocked by playing. Exactly how the balance looks in the game now that it is out we will have to wait and see. That said, it didn't feel too grindy. Each time a new level is unlocked, an "Apex Pack" (a loot box) is also given out, although it's also possible to buy the packs directly. Respawn promises, however, that it's impossible to get the same item twice and all chances on the loot are presented with a percentage in order for the system to be as transparent as possible.
As we said in the beginning, entering the battle royale genre now, though it is still relatively new, is difficult. The established games not only dominate the genre but a whole industry. Respawn and EA have a colossal challenge ahead in terms of getting players to commit. However, after a whole day with Apex Legends, we are convinced that it's perfectly possible. Respawn really has great skill in terms of playability and just like in Titanfall it is incredibly rewarding to move and shoot in Apex Legends. We look forward to spending whole evenings playing and finding out how the game will be maintained in the future, although time will tell if there is a place for Apex Legends on the battle royale scene.