EA hits the jackpot thanks to Respawn's brilliant take on the genre that's taken the gaming world by storm
"Battle Royale" games have become all the rage since PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds released back in 2017.
After breakout hits like the afforementioned PUBG and the insanely popular Fortnite turned into mainstream phenomenons, the genre has being flooded with new entries in the last two years. Massive franchises like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and even Forza have released their own takes on the popular battle royale mode, though none have really been able to compete with Fortnite (Call of Duty's BR mode is quite popular, but isn't a standalone free release, and is instead part of the standard Black Ops 4 game thus limiting its install base).
For those who don't know, the battle royale genre is basically the videogame version of The Hunger Games.
A large number of players (either alone or in a squad, depending on the title you're playing) are essentially thrust into a single massive map and must scavenge for weapons and supplies in order to survive. To prevent people from hiding and to keep the action going, the map is reduced over time, typically by a shrinking border that deals damage to players caught outside of it. The last person (or team) standing in the end is declared the victor.
It's an extremely simple concept but each game offers its own unique take on it, and of course each title has their own mechanics, visuals, combat, and more.
Given the high player count requirements to keep servers full and the extremely addictive properties of the genre, battle royale games have quickly adapted a free-to-play model.
This works by offering cosmetic options and "season passes" (which gradually unlock more items as you level up over the course of weeks or months) players can buy, earning the game revenue in smaller increments and keeping players invested.
If that sounds like a difficult model to make money off of compared to a normal full-priced game release, think again: Fortnite generated $2.4 billion in revenue last year alone.
What the battle royale genre had lacked up until Apex Legend's surprise launch was a polished entry with fast-paced, fair and satisfying combat that simplified the complex systems many battle royale games implemented.
Enter Apex Legends.
Loosely set in the Titanfall universe, Respawn opted to build their battle royale sandbox with a lot of the resources and mechanics present in their popular shooter series.
They started by simplifying the core gameplay mechanics of Titanfall (basically they removed Titans and wall-running), then added squad-oriented special abilities and character types like those popular in hero shooters such as Overwatch, and blended them in seamlessly into a streamlined battle royale ruleset.
The end result sees 60 players comprise each game, which are assembled incredibly quickly by the game's brisk matchmaking system. Every player is put into a squad of three - you can enter matchmaking by yourself, with a buddy, or with two friends in an pre-made squad - and has to choose a unique character to play as from a pool of eight options.
Each character, or "Legend" in this case, has their own passive, active, and special ability that makes them unique. Bloodhound for instance is a great tracker as he can see the footprints of enemies that were recently in the area, send out a pulse that identifies nearby enemies for himself and his team, and for his special ability he can activate "Beast Mode" for a short period of time that makes him move faster and turns his vision into grayscale except for the vibrant red that denotes enemies and their footprints.
Other characters include a medic that can drop a healing drone and is shielded when reviving teammates, a hulking support character that can deploy a dome energy shield and call down an airstrike, and a robot that can utilize a zipline (just like in Titanfall 2) and even deploy permanent ziplines for teammates to use.
Each Legend has their own strengths and weaknesses and they are well-balanced, with different cooldown times for their abilities as well; using your abilities at the appropriate time and in conjunction with your teammates is vital to achieving success.
After each squadmate has selected their character, players then wait in a drop ship which slowly makes its way across the massive King's Canyon map.
Players can jump out of the ship at a point of their choosing and skydive their way to the ground. The game gives you quite a bit of control of your trajectory on the way down, so if you see a bunch of other players landing ahead of you you can still choose to fly off in another direction (or toward them if you're the aggressive type).
When you get near the ground, a jetpack gently lowers you to safety, and as an added bonus, there's absolutely no fall damage in the game - whether you jump off the top of a small building or off of a cliff, you will take no damage whatsoever (it takes some getting used to for shooter veterans).
The randomly chosen "jump master" for your squad gets to decide when you jump out of the dropship and where you land, though the other two players can choose to break off at any point and go their own way if they so choose. The jump master can also relinquish this duty to another player if they'd like.
Once you've touched down, you'll need to gather loot and supplies to survive as is the tradition in BR games since you start with no gear to help you whatsoever.
All of the items you can pick up are brightly colour-coded - greyish white denotes a lowly common item or a weapon, blue is for rare items, purple for epic, and gold for legendary-tier items.
There's a variety of weapons, throwables (different grenades), body shields and helmets for added protection, attachments for weapons, consumables to replenish your health and shields, backpacks to increase inventory space, and more. Each weapon uses one of four different ammo types, each a different colour that's clearly shown on ammo boxes as well as on the weapon's hoverable popup making it easy to know which kind of ammo you need.
While all of the items and attachments available might seem overwhelming on paper, in practice Apex makes looting incredibly simple.
Gear is easily picked up and automatically equipped in the correct spot, attachments are automatically placed on your weapons or in your backpack if you don't have a compatible weapon yet, and when looking at an item in the world the UI shows you in a quick and simple manner if you don't have room to pick it up or are lacking a compatible weapon for an attachment.
Looting is made extremely quick and painless for players - find a purple extended mag for your heavy weapon that's currently sporting a blue one? Simply tap a button and it'll automatically swap out the attachment and drop the inferior blue one. If an attachment or item is lower in quality to the one you already have, a different icon is displayed and a user has to hold the button in order to swap them, ensuring players don't accidentally swap better items for worse ones.
When you're happy with your loot and ready to fight (or often before or during your looting spree, other players don't tend to wait for a fair fight) the combat is fast but satisfying. Guns are responsive and each is unique, with many being useful at different ranges and improved with different upgrades, while some of the most common ones are only useful in the very beginning when people are scrambling to find weapons and armour.
Character abilities play a vital role in combat and teamwork is essential if you want to make it far.
If you are downed, you can slowly crawl on all-fours to try and get to a safe spot, similar to a game such as Gears of War. Teammates can revive you but it takes several precious seconds to do so during which they are exposed and unable to defend themselves; you'd better think twice before rushing out to revive a teammate.
Of course if you aren't near your teammates, you'll likely continue being shot while down and you'll quickly be killed, or executed; executions can be performed by holding a button near a downed opponent which has your character perform a unique execution move.
Executions are dangerous however - they take several seconds to perform and leave you completely vulnerable and unable to react. If you take damage while executing an enemy, you'll be snapped out of the animation and will have essentially given up free shots to an enemy for nothing in return.
When you do die, you leave behind a "death box" which contains all of your items that can be looted by anyone, friend or foe.
The game isn't over when you die though; your teammates have 90 seconds to retrieve your banner (done by simply tapping a button next to your death box) and attempt to bring you back to life.
Players can be respawned by delivering their banner to a respawn beacon - these are located in areas throughout the King's Canyon, which can be found on the minimap or full map designated by a green icon. When activated, a dropship comes in and drops off the respawned player(s) down toward the beacon, and that respawn beacon is now removed from the map and can't be re-used by your team or anyone else for the rest of the match.
As with everything in Apex, it comes with a cost - respawning a teammate (or two) takes a good 30 seconds from calling in the respawn to the dropship arriving and dropping off its cargo, and it makes plenty of noise to boot, alerting enemies in the area to your presence.
Respawned players of course start anew and thus are very vulnerable when they first land or are scavenging for gear, which coupled with the attention it draws, makes respawning teammates (especially late in the game when the area of play is smaller) a risky proposition.
Of course if everyone in your squad are killed, you are out - you can see your stats for the match and overall placement in the game, can spectate other remaining players, or back out to the main menu and start over. Don't worry, you'll get used to it.
As time progresses, rounds will come and go. When a round begins, a timer will count down to when the "ring", which is indicated in the map by a circle and is randomized each game, begins closing in. When the round starts closing, an orange wall slowly encroaches on the map in a massive circle, damaging any players who happen to be on the wrong side of it.
Getting to the safe zone, or ring, is vital, especially as rounds progress - in round one, you'll only suffer a tiny bit of damage for every second you're outside of the circle, giving you plenty of time to finish looting before making your way in (especially if you have syringes and/or med kits). In the later rounds however, being caught outside the hill takes chunks of your health away each second and is effectively a death sentence if you aren't mere feet away from safety.
The game does warn you at multiple points about the ring closing, and your characters will audibly remind the squad if you're far from the ring when a round is nearing a close. The minimap also shows a direct line toward the ring anytime you're outside of it, so you never lose track of which direction you need to move in.
As the rounds pass, the ring becomes smaller and smaller, forcing the remaining squads to engage and stay mobile. You'll see how many other players and squads are remaining by a counter in the corner, though the number of players is hidden once it drops below ten.
If you manage to survive and best all 19 other squads, you are crowned the Apex champion.
It will take some time to get your first win, but when you do, there's nothing like it. The pursuit of getting a victory hooks you in; once you achieve it, it just makes you want to win again, and again, and again.
It's definitely deep and involves a lot of systems, but Respawn's simple design and very effective mechanics make it easy to learn and understand, even if it's very difficult to master. That deceiving depth is what helps make it so addicting.
The most impressive feature in the title however is a remarkably simple one: the "Ping" system.
Forcing players into squads with no solo options immediately raises questions over communication - when teamwork is so vital to success, what happens if you're paired up with players who don't have mics or are unwilling/unable to talk? In most games, these situations take away from the fun and make playing with people that you know almost required in order to have a good time.
Respawn has found a solution however, and it's all pulled off with a single button.
Tapping a bumper on your controller will "ping" whatever you're aiming at, placing a marker on the screen that you and your squadmates can see in the game world. If you ping something else, the marker is updated. Pinging something also prompts your character to audibly state what you're pointing at as well, effectively voicing what you're trying to say without you having to actually say it.
The highly contextualized ping feature in Apex is so versatile and effective it makes communicating with your teammates a breeze, whether they have mics or not.
Want your teammates to follow you to a different location? Ping a spot in the distance or place a marker on the map for your teammates to see. Spot an enemy? Pinging an enemy places a red crosshair marker to indicate the enemy's position. See an attachment for a gun your teammate has? Ping it to let them know where and what it is. Need energy ammo for your weapon? Pull up your inventory and simply ping your weapon to let your team know what kind of ammo you're looking for. Saw an enemy but then lost sight of them? Simply double tap the ping button to place an enemy marker even when not directly aiming at one.
If you want more detailed pings, holding the button will bring up a wheel with a variety of options for you to choose from. See a looted area in the distance? There's an option to let your team know enemies have been in the area. Want to hunker down and defend a location? There's a ping for that.
It's a system that's so simple yet so effective and easy to use that once you've used it, you'll wonder how on earth squad-based games have been around for so long yet no one had thought of it before.
Even playing with two friends over voice chat, we regularly ping locations to move toward, tag enemies, call out loot that might be useful for someone, and state what attachments or ammo we need all without saying a word. In fact, you can carry on an entire conversation unrelated to the game while still communicating effectively with your team and not putting yourself at a disadvantage.
It really is a brilliant tool and Respawn's implementation of it is flawless. Once you've used it, you won't want to go back and other team-oriented shooters would be wise to copy the system for their own titles.