How does Apex Legends make squad-play so fun while also ensuring that solo players can shine?
In hindsight, things probably shouldn’t have gotten as bad as they did. We dropped in a location that was pretty barren loot-wise. Our teammate – I think he chose Gibraltar or Bangalore – went off in some direction and was gunned down. A disconnect followed seconds later.
It was only the two of us, a Wraith and a Bloodhound, trying to make our way in this game of survival, chasing that ever-elusive Champion status. Navigating to the cliff-side, under some waterfalls, the loot was as “meh” as could be. Before long however, an enemy Mirage appeared, wielding the Peacekeeper aka the Harbinger of Doom. Capable of demolishing you up close and whittling down health from a distance, I kept away. The Bloodhound was closer and tried to fight valiantly, probably thinking I’d hit my shots from a distance. He fell pretty quickly.
"I have had moments of solo brilliance. One time, my team dropped in a venerable desert similar to the Boneyard from Titanfall 1."
It was a back and forth battle between the Mirage and I, one that saw us both drop down into the waters below. Some how, I came out on top. Checking through his loot cache as quickly as possible, it suddenly hit me – the Bloodhound’s banner. There was a zip-line nearby. Maybe hitting ‘3’ and stowing weapons would get me there faster.
“Late” my teammate typed. I was mere feet away when the timer on his banner expired. “Too late” he typed before disconnecting. He might as well have said “You could’ve saved me but didn’t” with how pointed it felt. And no, the fact that Wraith can set up portals and quickly travel between two points in the blink of an eye didn’t escape my notice at that point. Neither did the fact that I could have saved my partner if I had stayed on top and went back to revive him rather than chasing a kill.
There was nothing left to do but run, chasing the ever-shortening circle, probably finding some better weapons and attempting to catch squads unawares. It wasn’t easy though and I was quickly eliminated.
I have had moments of solo brilliance. One time, my team dropped in a venerable desert similar to the Boneyard from Titanfall 1. We quickly went up against another squad that was better armed. While I chose to keep my distance, a teammate went down. The other went for the revive and both were subsequently destroyed.
"In a strategic, competitive-based environment like, say, Blizzard’s Overwatch, the deaths of my teammates affected me less and less overtime."
Rather than take the fight, I ran away. That round was a lesson in survival, knowing how to harass squads and eliminate each member individually. Soon, I got to fourth place, completely solo and with the confidence that I could take on anyone. Of course, the adrenaline rush was interrupted when my game crashed but that’s a different story.
In a strategic, competitive-based environment like, say, Blizzard’s Overwatch, the deaths of my teammates affected me less and less over time. Maybe someone wandered into the choke on Anubis alone. Objective A would be lost and my rage fueled. Maybe my team didn’t pick any healers or tanks, sand-bagging us right out of the gate. Or maybe it was because all of our efforts were so focused on a singular objective, so much so that the adage “Good players can carry but good teams often win” is what mattered more than our individual performances. As time passed, Overwatch had been de-emphasizing solo carrying and reinforcing teamwork more and more.
However, knowing what constitutes “good” teamwork is difficult. The game outlines features like healing, objectives and grouping up but it doesn’t underline how important positioning, game sense, map knowledge and so on can be. More importantly, it takes a lot of that control out of your hands and puts it into that of your teammates, to the point where a single bad move can mean defeat. And if your teammates don’t want to cooperate, either by opting out of voice chat or not picking a hero to compliment your team composition, then it becomes even more frustrating.
Apex Legends may sound very similar but it tackles the obstacles of squad play in very different ways. There’s a very specific rule-set governing the movement. Everyone can slide, run, sprint faster when weapons are holstered and clamber up obstacles. Some characters like Pathfinder can grapple to higher places while Wraith can phase and go invulnerable for a short period of time and retreating. Both of these abilities are on a significant cooldown period and can’t be abused – to that effect, both characters are as governed by the same movement rules as others in most encounters.
"The game itself also does an excellent job of providing visual and audio information without overbearing the user."
Then there’s the map design which is complex but very clear-cut. It never feels visually cluttered, even if the map is packed with so many unique areas and several players are battling it out at once. Each area has its own unique environmental theme, atmosphere and loot but is designed primarily around increased speed by sliding, hitting zip-lines or clambering up specific walls to greater heights. Since Respawn Entertainment had to remove wall-running and double-jumping, that means certain aspects of these maps had to be toned down from their original iterations in Titanfall 1 and 2. They’ve become more concise to discern and navigate in the process.
All of this helps to understand your positioning, the environment and where your enemies could be coming from. However, it also helps to understand your team in those aspects as well. You become aware of places that teammates could take fire from, their vulnerability when it comes to reviving and the potency of their weapons and abilities. You also learn very quickly that standing behind your teammate and trying to shoot past them when an enemy has a Devotion (or was it a Spitfire?) fully revved up and ready to shred is a bad idea.
Then there’s the ping system, which provides a wealth of information at a moment’s notice. Need to track a target’s location at long-range or up-close? How about warning teammates about open supply boxes or death boxes, indicating the possible presence of other players? You can thank teammates with the press of a button. You can warn them with the press of a button. You can request certain mods on weapons, all with the press of a button (and maybe some use of the dialog wheel).
The game itself also does an excellent job of providing visual and audio information without overbearing the user. When taking fire, your character will automatically call out when shot at. If hit, they’ll automatically convey the same. Perhaps the most wondrous thing about this level of feedback is how closely it’s tied to the characters. If I have Bangalore in my team and she’s not bragging about taking down an entire squad? Something is up. It could mean someone is still alive in the area. The ability to revive teammates by picking up their banners, rushing to a respawn station and bringing them back into the fight is also invaluable when encouraging teamwork.
"Apex Legends is the new hotness, there’s no denying that, and it’s because it does so much correctly at such a base level."
Finally, there’s all the little stuff that Apex Legends does. Executions on allies can be interrupted (and you can interrupt your own Execution on a downed foe to bait others in). Knockdown shields can be deployed upon reviving. The skills synergise extremely well in any kind of team set-up – Bangalore’s air-strike will blanket an area in explosions or Wraith’s portal to teleport between two areas. But you don’t really need either to win. You don’t really need Lifeline’s supply drop to bolster your arsenal. They do help and, when used cleverly, offer that extra bit of chance to your survival. Contrast this to high-level play in Overwatch where you need a defensive support Ultimate or two to survive. You need that Brigitte’s Shield Bash to stun the opposing Reinhardt or D.Va’s Defense Matrix to eat that incoming Graviton Surge.
The core gameplay in Apex Legends comes down to raw skill, game sense, map knowledge, weapon knowledge and communication. It keeps the objectives relatively straight-froward but introduces all kinds of neat wrinkles into how you achieve them. Hit-and-run tactics, outgunning foes from a distance, taking and holding high ground, flanking and shotgunning from up close – all of these can be viable and have their own downsides. A team has to adapt to circumstances to survive rather than follow a set meta for success, though most teams I’ve been in would go for Bangalore, Wraith and Lifeline, probably for that “balanced” combination of firepower, scouting and healing support.
Amazing players can most definitely carry teams to victory in Apex Legends. However, there’s plenty of avenue for good teams to come out on top as well (unless you’re up against, say, Shroud). Think about that for a second – a squad-based game where raw aim and game sense can ensure a solo player dominates, where their skill ceiling isn’t restricted by overtly relying on teammates. Meanwhile, it also caters to players with decent aim and game sense who communicate, stick together and properly use call-outs with the intuitive ping system. Balancing both of these aspects – the individual player and the team player – would probably be impossible without the ping system but it’s further achieved by the general map design, fluid movement and responsive gunplay.
Apex Legends is the new hotness, there’s no denying that, and it’s because it does so much correctly at such a base level. It released in the right place at the right time and delivered mostly stable server and game performances. There’s still so much that the game could have in terms of features. While I don’t believe that the lack of Solo or Duos affects the current game, its structure could most definitely support both of them (and more options is always great). I believe that more maps, perhaps those specifically built for lower numbers of squads could provide even more variety. It would also be amazing if Respawn could dig into its own bag of tricks and deliver some PvE maps similar to Frontier Defense in Titanfall but on a much larger scale.
"It’s showed us that innovation is still possible, even within a genre like battle royale, and that a deep gameplay loop can appeal to nearly any FPS fan when executed right."
The proper care and attention is needed when it comes to new weapons, new characters, new cosmetics, new modes and weapon balancing. However, Respawn Entertainment has crafted an incredibly stellar gameplay base to support so many different kinds of first-person shooter fans. Games like Overwatch won’t be going extinct anytime soon, especially since they cater to non-FPS fans with their emphasis on tanks and supports, but it’s always great to have another option that exemplifies the fun of squad-play (and can even showcase it better on many more occasions).
Its popularity in the future is hard to predict. Apex Legends could remain the hottest battle royale game on the market, even if it’s in the free-to-play section. Overwatch or Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s Blackout could potentially surpass it if they both went free-to-play. Conversely, it could just be lost in the shuffle with established competitors like Fortnite: Battle Royale and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds coming out on top. Whatever the case may be, it feels like Respawn Entertainment has given us something truly special. It’s showed us that innovation is still possible, even within a genre like battle royale, and that a deep gameplay loop can appeal to nearly any FPS fan when executed right.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.