Respawn’s latest looks good and feels but consistency will be the ultimate deciding factor.
We were more than a little surprised when rumours emerged of Respawn Entertainment introducing and releasing a free-to-play battle royale title set in the Titanfall universe. So imagine our surprise when that turned out to be true with the official launch of Apex Legends. It hasn’t been long but the response is overwhelming – over 2.5 million players and 600,000 concurrent players within the first 24 hours. Amid the microtransactions and loot boxes, the drop chances for cosmetics, a Battle Pass system to go with the seasonal model and so on, the question seems to be: What just happened?
"Titanfall was fun – barring complaints about its lack of content and the oppressive Smart Pistol – but its skill ceiling could feel way too high at times."
Picture this: Instead of Titanfall 3, Respawn Entertainment decided to develop a battle royale title. The game initially had Titans and wall-running but it was decided that this would impede the learning aspect. As lead producer Drew McCoy explained to PC Gamer, “A lot of the stuff [from Titanfall] that was brought over was brought over purposefully. Our goals are really to make a masterable, learnable, deep game with a lot of strategy. When we first started making it, to be completely honest, we had double-jumping and wall running. We had triple-jumping for awhile. We had Titans in tons of different forms.
“For us, we don’t restrict ourselves when we’re early on in a project about what ‘has’ to be there. So even though we were like, yeah, this is probably going to be the Titanfall universe, we didn’t put any hard requirements on what had to be there. While prototyping and playing and iterating, things stay or they go as a result of whether or not they’re achieving our goals. Things like wall running and double-jumping, they actually really hurt the strategic and learnable aspects of combat. Because a player can get anywhere almost immediately. So there’s no thought process like ‘okay, I saw someone run around that building, now I know they’re going to be in one of two places.’ No—with double-jumping and wall running, they can be anywhere.”
The same process was applied to having squads with just three players despite how chaotically fun larger squads could be. “You didn’t feel like you learned anything after a fight. It just felt like what happened happened, and let’s move on.”
Which sounds reasonable enough. Titanfall was fun – barring complaints about its lack of content and the oppressive Smart Pistol – but its skill ceiling could feel way too high at times. Titanfall 2 attempted to slow things down, turning some abilities into perks, expanding the weapons pool, bringing out numerous balance patches and removing the Smart Pistol as a regular weapon. Even several of the maps presented more MOBA-esque, three-lane structures that were meant to be simpler to understand (don’t look at me like that, you know its true). However, despite the plentiful cosmetics, free content and other support, Titanfall 2 still didn’t crack the mainstream competitive FPS genre. Sure, you can still find some matches to get into but the population isn’t exactly bustling.
"Apex Legends, for all intents and purposes, is a Titanfall game."
Enter Apex Legends, a game that Electronic Arts wasn’t sure about and which Respawn risked a lot to create. While the success is well-earned for the developer, which has had a rough history with its founders being kicked out of Infinity Ward and engaged in a long lawsuit, it’s understandable that some fans would lambaste Apex Legends for catering to the lowest common denominator. Some believe that it isn’t a real Titanfall game because of both the removal of Titans and the overall lack of wall-running or slide-hopping.
Apex Legends, for all intents and purposes, is a Titanfall game. It imbibes the same attitude that Titanfall 2 brought forth with its factions but boils them down into different heroes aka Legends. It takes the perks that defined the multiplayer in previous games and adds a few new ones, allowing for more tactical combat options as opposed to game-changing ultimates and abilities. It emphasizes squad-play but still empowers you to become a strong carry for the team. In short, the gameplay is great. Why is that though?
Because Apex Legends still maintains two of the core aspects that made Titanfall so fun – gunplay and movement. If you’re like me and tried other games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite: Battle Royale, the gunplay may have felt less than ideal. The former emphasizes realism while the latter is more about the mastery of building. Fortnite: Battle Royale mixes the arcadey with the realistic and has seemingly made its bed as more of the former. More importantly the snappiness of the gunplay feels lacking.
Apex Legends is different. Each gun feels great, whether it’s the response of the R301-Carbine, the meatier fire of the Flatline, the fast-firing Sidewinder or the automatic EVA-8 Shotgun. Snapping on to a target feels just right and not at all janky. The transition between moving and sliding to shooting is also quick and very satisfying, to say nothing of the time-to-kill (which admittedly takes a bit of getting used to after Titanfall 2).
"The game will tell you if a new attachment is better than the currently equipped one and won’t immediately attach it if it’s not."
Granted, Blackout in Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 does have its own degree of snappiness. But Apex Legends outdoes it with its second core aspect – the movement. For all the complaining of no wall-running, Apex Legends still feels likethe pilot movement of Titanfall. The sprinting is fast and fluid; vaulting and climbing up objects has a bit more heft but still feels just right. Even the martial arts kick to the face is faithful (though it’s not a one-hit kill). The addition of sprinting faster with weapons holstered and faster speeds when sliding down hills – coupled with the environment being very slope-heavy – makes the pace that much better. Who knew it wasn’t all about just wall-running and double-jumping in a Titanfall game? This isn’t to say that the movement in Blackout is terrible but in the context of such a large map, it can get tedious. There have also been issues with vaulting and entering broken windows before numerous patches.
Further augmenting the sense of fluidity and fast gunplay is the streamlined interface. When looting in Apex Legends, you can pick up weapons, different attachments, items like a Knockdown Shield (which shields you from incoming fire when downed but not from Executions), Shield Cells for recharging armour and Backpacks for more inventory space. Items and attachments have different rarities but you don’t need to immediately compare and contrast them what you currently have.
The game will tell you if a new attachment is better than the currently equipped one and won’t immediately attach it if it’s not. Same goes for body armour, helmets, Backpacks and so on. If you don’t have weapons that can support anything currently equipped, then the game will tell you. This distinction of picking something up immediately if it’s beneficial versus holding down the pick-up button to keep it stored is what keeps the pace fast-moving. Being able to move, albeit slower, while using Shield Cells and Syringes is similarly a nice touch.
Another distinct feature is the ability to revive teammates, even when they’re dead. If you retrieve their banners on death within roughly 90 seconds – which can sometimes be a tough task if your squadmate dies somewhere far away – then you can head to a respawn station and revive them. The process takes some time, from using the station to waiting for them to actually drop in, but it adds a nice risk/reward mechanic to the gameplay. The same applies to the need for Executions – if an enemy has a Knockdown Shield, it could take some time to kill them. Executions do the job in just a few seconds. Take the risk and you’ll save time and ammunition. Be wary though because Executions can be interrupted.
"Despite not really spending a lot of time with any battle royale games in the past few years, everything in Apex Legends just clicks."
I haven’t played too much of Apex Legends since it launched. What I have experienced has been very fun though. Despite not really spending a lot of time with any battle royale games in the past few years, everything in Apex Legends just clicks. It’s the combination of high-octane gameplay, a unique and fun map design, streamlined processes and excellent controls that really does it. Even if it’s a free-to-play model, I feel like the time invested is in line with the XP earned. The longer you survive, the more XP gained but get a little gutsy and take down a marked Champion for even more XP. Being aggressive is key but knowing when to back off is also important.
The real question now is whether Apex Legends will be worth sticking with in the long term. Having tons of cosmetics that can be unlocked is great. Right off the bat you have weapon skins, Legend skins, Execution animations, banners and so on. A Battle Pass is coming with both free and paid items to unlock in March – there will be over 100 exclusive items included. However – and this carries forward some of the complaints from past Titanfall games – Respawn needs to keep the updates coming fast. Weapon balance changes, map changes, new limited time modes (I, for one, hope that Attrition returns as a limited time mode with respawns), new Legends, new maps, replays – there’s a wealth of features that Apex Legends still needs. That’s not including some optimization for lag and performance, though the game ran incredibly well on my admittedly above average system.
Blackout, by comparison, does receive constant support for its various issues. However, it’s also been lagging behind in features like map expansion. Fortnite: Battle Royale is patched on a weekly basis to much praise and even if PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is still lackluster compared to both, it continues to receive support and has a good amount of content already available. This is not a case of Respawn needing to pick up the pace – it needs to keep a consistently strong pace and deliver accordingly.
PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds servers as a pretty decent warning as to why. When it entered Steam Early Access, it got real big, real fast but the development team simply couldn’t keep pace in terms of improvements, optimization, content and support. As soon as a competent competitor (read: Fortnite) rolled around, PUBG started to fade further into the background. It’s still very popular, especially in the mobile market, but considering how big Fortnite has become, you can’t help but wonder what could have been.
"If the developer’s plan was to get ahead of the rumoured free-to-play roll-out of Blackout, it’s been more than successful."
At this point, given the fast-paced nature of the gameplay, Apex Legends‘ main competition will be Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s Blackout. If the developer’s plan was to get ahead of the rumoured free-to-play roll-out of Blackout, it’s been more than successful. It also doesn’t hurt that the gameplay is fun and addictive with an arguably better designed map that features plenty of callbacks to previous Titanfall maps.
I may be singing the praises of Apex Legends but keep in mind that it just came out. Subsequent sandbox changes may ruin the experience. Performance could suffer over time. There might not be any noteworthy content updates in the coming months, even in the Battle Pass. There are hundreds of things that could sour the player base and plenty of competition that will step up, just like Respawn stepped up in this case. That’s the gamble with live service titles and Apex Legends is no exception. If the gunplay and movement can stay as fun as they are now, then I can see players returning for more.
If you’re one of the skeptical few who thinks that this game is simply meant to cash in on a popular genre, I understand how you feel. You could criticize the monetization model or how Respawn released it out of the blue to avoid any early scrutiny. Some of the skins costing $18 is also something that I could see players having an issue with. However, in its current state, the unlock system comes across as fair. You’re not given tons of credits or crafting materials quickly but they’re doled out as a decent enough pace. The loot boxes are also pretty decent, especially since Respawn has been up-front about its drop rates and promising at least one Rare item per box. There are also no duplicates to be had. Grinding for additional Legends may be annoying but it’s not looking impossible, unlike with the initial plan for Star Wars Battlefront 2. And besides, there’s already an incredibly strong roster to utilize from the phase shifting Wraith to the healing Lifeline.
How well Respawn can keep the player base invested is still unknown. It’s good to see the studio rewarded for its hard work and thrust into the spotlight after so many years on the periphery. But the pressure only mounts from here and time will tell if the developer can continue its strong momentum or fizzle out like so many competitors. In the meantime, we have yet another battle royale title and it’s free. Celebrate accordingly.