What a funny little maelstrom of emotions last night’s surprise release of Apex Legends kicked off. Elation! There’s a new Respawn game, and it’s playable right now! Dejection! It’s a free-to-play battle royale hero shooter? Now there’s a messy melange of concepts, as if someone in some boardroom somewhere spewed up buzzwords and handed them over as a design doc.
Then there’s the excitement! It looks kind of amazing, perhaps the prettiest battle royale game to date, and if there is a hint of knock-off, anonymous MOBA to its art-style (and to its name, which sounds like a credit card and brings to mind such exciting notions as annual percentage rates and variable interest rates), it’s an improvement on the slight murkiness of Titanfall and its sequel. There’s colour and vibrancy here, coupled handsomely with Respawn’s technical nous.
And here comes the disappointment! This isn’t Titanfall 3! And it’s not even an offshoot while we wait for the real thing: Apex Legends, it seems, is the only Titanfall-flavoured experience we’ll be seeing out of Respawn for some time.
That disappointment lingers for the first few matches of Apex Legends. Where have all those beautiful movement options disappeared to? Where’s my double-jump, and my wallrun? What’s the point of having Respawn’s delightfully fluid sense of first-person motion if it’s spread so thin and slow on one big map that’s designed to be cautiously paced around?
But then Apex Legends begins to come into focus. This is a different experience to Titanfall 2 – which is still available, still playable and still as fantastic as ever – and it is Respawn responding to a very different set of needs and problems, all with the same panache the developer has exercised in the past. Titanfall took the multiplayer formula as was prevalent at the time and turbocharged it, presenting a vision for the future of the genre that sadly never really came to pass, and Apex Legends does exactly the same to the now ubiquitous battle royale genre. And it all reconfirms one thing: Respawn is seriously good at this stuff.
So you have neat twists and innovations that are as exciting in their own way as Titanfall’s many quirks. There’s the idea of a jumpmaster, one squad leader who other teammates are bound to as they leap from the plane that slowly glides across the map at the outset of a match. It’s smart – keeping teams together in that all-important moment – and also hilarious when you’re acting as leader, dragging your partners into a hot-zone as they scream in protest. There’s the fact that this is a battle royale game where you don’t have to hear the screams of your teammates, with the impeccable pinging system allowing you to mark out destinations and loot with neat and efficient context-sensitive commands.
Indeed, squad play is baked into Apex Legends at its base level – so good is the ping system, I couldn’t imagine playing it solo (if the option were available, of course – at present, three-player squad play is all that’s available). It’s the perfect system for people like myself – and I’m sure countless others – who don’t want to don a mic when playing multiplayer, and most definitely don’t want to spend their leisure time with randoms breathlessly screaming insults and orders at them.
Apex Legends’ pinging system encourages camaraderie and team-play at a system level, making playing mute with strangers a joy. It’s the kind of thing that could convert a sceptic; just as Titanfall may have convinced you that multiplayer gaming could be kind of alright, so Apex Legends puts forward a good case for the fun of playing together as a team.
And all this is before I’ve even been able to dig fully into the hero abilities – a fascinating web of possibilities and potential pitfalls, and all working towards a much more palatable late-game meta than the quick-fingered chaos of Fortnite’s building-based shenanigans. Fortnite’s a funny old game, and for all that Apex Legends gets right it seems unlikely that its position as the most popular battle royale is likely to be challenged. Epic’s game started out as a canny bit of opportunism that’s blossomed almost impossibly brilliantly ever since, gathering a momentum that seems unstoppable.
There’s opportunism here too, of course, but Apex Legends feels like something else; laser-sighted, deeply considered and incredibly smart, it’s the kind of thing you’d imagine Nintendo might come up with if ever they set their minds to a battle royale. The real test will come in where Respawn can take Apex Legends, and how it evolves as a live service – something that publisher EA has struggled with in the past with its first-person shooters. But after a few hours with this impeccably crafted battle royale, the one overriding feeling I’m left with is keen anticipation to see where Apex Legends heads next.