Last week, Respawn Entertainment simultaneously announced and released “Apex Legends,” a free-to-play battle-royale game for consoles and PC. The game did exactly what every free-to-play battle royale is meant to do: It pulled in 10 million unique players in its first three days and shot to the top of “most streamed” lists.
Respawn is owned by the dreaded Electronic Arts — the Lehman Bros. of the video-game world — which was supposedly working on a sequel to its respected shooter, “Titanfall 2.”
Surprise! There is no “Titanfall 3.” Instead, no doubt at the dark bidding of EA, Respawn secretly shifted to this free always-online battle royale dripping with microtransactions and lootboxes. It lacks the giant robots of Titanfall. It even lacks the complex parkour Titanfall had when not piloting a giant robot. Titanfall likely now joins Mass Effect and Star Wars on the list of great intellectual properties desecrated by EA’s greed and general blundering.
This type of calamitous origin story can ruin a game’s chances of survival. Free games are still competing for time and attention. When a meme like “Titanfall 3 died for this” becomes entrenched, the result can be financial failure. This often means servers are shut down forever, and the game ceases to exist.
The twist is that this game... is good. “Apex Legends” was made available to play before anyone could blast it with the firehose of YouTube outrage its corporate backstory so clearly deserves. And millions of people downloaded and played it. And it now has every chance to continue entertaining people instead of facing the fate of “Battleborn,” “Lawbreakers,” and other perfectly fine games that were sent to oblivion when the stream-o-sphere decided they should be scorned.
“Apex Legends” is a good game because Respawn provided what major publishers like EA so often lack: a clear understanding of the things players want. And it found a way to give those things even within the limits EA presumably imposed from above.
The premise is that 20 teams of three players each drop unarmed onto a dusty island dotted with abandoned shantytowns and military bases. They start by frantically searching the buildings for weapons and gear, then kill each other as a slowly-constricting circle forces them together for the final battle. Last team standing wins.
This is standard for the young battle-royale genre. What’s not standard is the excellent way Respawn has wired a team focus deep into the structure of “Apex Legends.” There is no support for solo play. If you don’t have a squad of friends to assemble beforehand, you are automatically matched with two other random players each drop. There is no 1-vs-59 mode, only 3-vs-57.
Normally, this would be terrible. Your “teammates” would immediately run off and die like animals in some other part of the map, leaving you to get killed by a functioning team. Or you would be corralled by some kind of hard-coded “too far from squad leader” boundary that kills or teleports you when you dare to deviate from teacher’s lesson plan. But “Apex Legends” expertly creates the conditions for random players to decide, on their own, to play as a team, without forcing it. Everything from the opening airdrop onto the battlefield is stage-managed to create opt-out teamwork that few actually choose to opt out of.
The centerpiece of this is the ping system, a very well-thought-out communication method that easily shares large amounts of information to teammates with one button. Want to go somewhere? Aim your crosshairs there and push the ping button; this will set a waypoint for your teammates, and your character will say a voice line suggesting you go that way. See a weapon you don’t want? Ping it, and you’ll mark it for your team and call out what it is.
There are separate lines for marking enemies, gear crates — you can even ping an open door to have your character warn, “Someone’s been here.” You can aim at someone else’s waypoint and ping to acknowledge or agree. It even crosses language barriers, because your teammates are hearing your lines in their own language.
Combat also heavily emphasizes teamwork, because it’s weighted in favor of defense. Most guns are weak until fitted with good accessories. There are several different kinds of shields and armor that can be layered.
You play as one of eight preset characters, each with a passive ability, a short-cooldown ability and an ultimate. These character abilities are not “Overwatch-”style team-wiping attacks; most of them are defensive or help to win the information war.
It’s particularly hard to kill at long range, because the enemy can usually survive, take cover, and use self-healing items. The result is often long gunfights with lots of jumping and other frantic evasive maneuvers, and this greatly encourages staying together.
It’s the opposite of quick-twitch shooters where it’s very plausible to be alone, well armed, come up behind the enemy and get a triple kill. In “Apex Legends,” killing potential is carefully limited. You can turn around and win a shootout after being hit from behind. It is hard to do damage fast enough to survive as a lone wolf in this world of trios.
The guns themselves are mostly copied from “Titanfall 2,” although they do less damage here. There is a heavy emphasis on finding good attachments, something the game handles very smoothly by auto-equipping better gear whenever possible. And if you no longer need or want your good scope? Drop it, ping it, and maybe your teammate will.
When you die, your teammates have a short window to claim your “banner” from your corpse. They can later insert this in a (very public and exposed!) beacon to respawn you. So the incentive is, again, to remain spectating your team even after you’re knocked out.
Solo play would have knocked down this structure in favor of a generic feel. The pings and respawn beacons would be useless. Without the opportunity to concentrate a team’s fire, combat would be frustratingly slow. Combining abilities from different characters to make a push wouldn’t be possible. The fun all flows from the decision to make teamwork load-bearing.
What little story is present is delightfully juvenile and would fit right in with “G.I. Joe” or other kid-friendly military shows. The character bios read like something out of a junior-high RPG campaign. You’ve got the master hunter who never shows his face. The guys who woke up in an empty lab with no memory. The righteous warrior women who only kill bad people for good reasons, honest. They compete in a violent reality show set in the Titanfall universe. It’s thoroughly silly.
“Apex Legends” combines so many red flags. It’s heavy on art assets recycled from an earlier game. It’s a free EA battle royale with lootboxes. It likely signals the end for a good franchise. It issues every invitation to deride it or ignore it. But none of that diminishes the joy of the experience.
It’s heartening to see that even in this age of instant mudslinging, being fun still counts the most.