Out of nowhere, a third major contender in the battle royale space has appeared. Respawn Entertainment, founded by Infinity Ward alums Jason West and Vince Zampella, launched Apex Legends the same day it was announced on February 4, 2019. Set in the Titanfall universe, can this hero-shooter-meets-battle-royale first-person shooter possibly make inroads in a genre that is quickly becoming crowded? After a long week of extensive testing, we have our verdict ready for your consideration.
Three’s a Squad
Apex Legends pits squads of three players up against each other in a team deathmatch fight to the end. Everyone only receives one life, though revives are possible as long as the entire squad isn’t wiped out and certain conditions are met. Everyone also starts out empty-handed, and must spend the first few minutes of the match scrounging for supplies and weapons. All the while, the map shrinks in waves. Players are coaxed into moving towards a safe zone, which gets smaller as time goes on in an effort to force encounters. It’s all pretty familiar for those who have spent time playing a battle royale game such as Fortnite or Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s Blackout. The battle royale mechanics aren’t really explained all that much, even in the single tutorial everyone is required to run through. Not that this genre is particularly difficult to grasp, but for those who may be using Apex Legends as their entry into the genre, there will be a slight learning curve for the first couple of matches.
Where Apex Legends differs from other battle royales is in its focus on specialized characters. There is a heavy emphasis on the playable characters, and squad makeup is important to consider. Each hero is fairly distinct from one another, though there are also the requisite classes such as tanks, support, assault, etc. These aren’t explicitly stated, but certain characters were designed with particular play styles in mind. At the beginning of each match, players are randomly assigned a slot: first, second, or third. Each player has approximately ten seconds to pick a character. Since no hero can be used more than once per squad, this can mean your favorite character might already be selected by the time it’s your turn to choose. While this sounds like a bad thing at first, with the currently limited roster of characters, it does help to ensure that players get familiar with all of them.
One perplexing aspect to Apex Legends—despite it’s setting in the Titanfall universe—is its lack of Titans, the mech warriors featured in the Titanfall series of games. The focus in this game is on the characters, none of whom are pilots. As has been well established in the world of Titanfall, pilots take time to build a relationship with their Titan. Still, a battle royale game that included Titans would have been even more epic. For all we know, they may still make an appearance on a different map in the future. Perhaps Respawn tested their new game with Titans dropped in, and found it didn’t really fit the nature of battle royale games or the game they were trying to make. Regardless, one can’t help but wonder if Apex Legends would have been as successful, or perhaps even more so, with the inclusion of the Titans. Grappling hooks, another staple in Titanfall, are also almost completely absent. One hero, Pathfinder, uses them as his tactical and ultimate ability, which seems to indicate that grappling hooks are not planned to be given to every player. Some of the movement mechanics are present, however, as players can sprint seemingly indefinitely, and combine sliding with jumping to stay fluid and remain a hard-to-hit target.
Titans or no Titans, the gunplay in Apex Legends is solid. Most players will quickly figure out their favorite weapons, whether that’s a shotgun pistol, the classic Flatline rifle, or something else entirely. Weapons can be upgraded with mods, such as different barrels, which are found by exploring the area. Upgrades are performed automatically upon pickup, and weapons are usually found near other useful gear. A good offense is nothing without a good defense, and items such as body armor and helmets can also be found. Portable shield rechargers and health packs are valuable finds as well. Supplies aren’t particularly hard to find, however, the more valuable loot is usually located in large buildings, which serve as a beacon that entices other squads to approach. So, the risk vs. reward struggle is real: do you go for the easy but less powerful loot, or for the items that are sure to be fought over, but which may help you seal the deal and net a win?
There is only one map currently available in Apex Legends, but it is a doozy. While it certainly doesn’t feel as large as maps in other games in the genre, it is packed to the brim with locations. There are 17 named locations on the Kings Canyon map, each as diverse as the next. There’s sprawling abandoned industrial centers, swamps, forests, and even the arid outcroppings of a desert region. Some areas even seem large enough for some Titan-based combat…but I digress. There is plenty of variety in Kings Canyon, and, mixed with the random supply drops that occur in each battle, most players won’t likely feel bored with this map for a while.
Titanfall 2 looked great on PS4, and Apex Legends is no different. There’s no official word on the game’s resolution or frame rate, but it appears to aim for a 60 fps target at all times. As usual, playing on a PS4 Pro on a 1080p set will result in the best chances of hitting that target, however, the frame rate is no slouch when playing at 4K resolution, either. The Source-based game engine this runs on is fluid and supports 60 players without issue.
Communication in team-based games can make or break the experience. Since Apex Legends currently enforces a three-person squad from the start, it’s especially important that people are able to communicate with one another easily. But the reality is that some of us can only play games late at night, when kids or other people in the house are asleep, on work breaks, etc. That pesky life can get in the way of one’s ability to use a mic reliably.
Apex Legends utilizes a smart comm system that is bound to get copied into literally every online-connected game in no time. This context-sensitive system only requires players to press or hold R1 to communicate with teammates. The system knows exactly what the player is aiming at, and will send messages in response, such as pointing out a weapon, armor, gear, or the enemy. Other players can look at where that teammate was pointing at, and even acknowledge their understanding by pressing R1 while looking at the same area. It’s an incredibly smart system that the development team spent a month using as their only form of squad communication to get right. The effort really shows through!
It wouldn’t be an EA-published game without loot boxes. Much like with Fortnite, almost all items available for purchase can also be earned by simply playing the game. Two characters are locked out at the start, and must be unlocked by spending either regular or premium currency. Apex Packs, as they are called, only ever contain cosmetic items or crafting materials. So no one can ever purchase an advantage in the game, just more “stuff” that can be otherwise earned without paying any money. This kind of monetization has worked in the past, and there’s no reason to think that it won’t continue to do so here. Given the massive influx of new players, Respawn may now be sitting on a goldmine.
Apex Legends is an expertly-crafted battle royale shooter, which is no surprise when you consider the development team behind it. It feels like the culmination of lessons learned from other games in the genre, almost as if battle royale has finally grown up. Combining the hero shooting concept of Overwatch and others before it with battle royale seems obvious, in hindsight. What isn’t so obvious is that injecting Titanfall-inspired gunplay makes the package much more compelling. We are only a week into the life of Apex Legends, but the outlook is looking pretty great from where we’re standing.
Apex Legends version 1.02 reviewed on a PS4 Pro. For more information on scoring please see our Review Policy.