The battle royale field is nothing if not crowded. PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds and Fortnite dominate the conversation, but beyond them lies a bevy of games, big and small, that all compete for player's minds and controller-wielding time. There's Call of Duty Black Ops 4 's Black Out mode, and an upcoming battle royale entry from Battlefield V ; there's the Tencent-developed Ring of Elysium ; and upcoming titles from the Planetside developers and the creators of Dying Light . The genre is a crowded, busy place, and it's only getting bigger.
All of which makes the choice by Electronic Arts and Respawn, the studio behind the fabulous Titanfall games, to enter the fray with an unannounced release both incredibly predictable and somewhat surprising. Apex Legends is expected because, well, what dev doesn't want to hop on the hot new trend? But it's confounding because its entering a busy market right before EA's own Battlefield takes a spin in the genre. There's a legitimate threat that the game might get lost in the din of other titles.
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But here's the real shocker of Apex Legends : It's good. In fact, it might be very, very good.
The premise isn't important, but let's go through it anyway. You play as one of a number of Legends, Overwatch -style heroes, in a bloodsport-esque competition for fame, money, all that stuff. This competition takes place in the same fictional universe as the Titanfall games, so we're talking mostly-grounded science fiction here, with high-tech guns, physical abilities augmented by robotic exoskeletons, and some lovely robot pals. Unlike those games, though, there are no giant robots, and the movement options are more standard: no double jump, no wall-running. Sorry, Titanfall fans. This is not the sequel you're looking for.
What is on offer, though, plays remarkably well. The game is played, as of press time, in mandatory squads of three as its only game mode. Each match features 20 squads, 60 players total, on a creatively wrought map of sci-fi tropes and elaborate structures to explore and fight through. Mandatory teamwork can be the bane of a lot of multiplayer games, but here it works: Each player, as one of a currently small number of champions, has special abilities that work in synergy with other players. The ability space is pretty traditional—the stealth one, the fast one, the healer—but it adds a dimension of surprise and individual advantage to a genre that's normally defined by player equality. That extra bit of complexity is compelling here, particularly in synergy with what might be Apex 's best idea: the ping system.
One of the big problems in multiplayer games, particularly for the inexperienced, is finding ways to communicate effectively with your teammates. Apex Legends ' ping system is a means to fix that, while also empowering players who, for many valid reasons, maybe don't want to have active conversations with random teammates.
One of the big problems in multiplayer games, particularly for the inexperienced, is finding ways to communicate effectively with your teammates. Knowing how to tell someone where an enemy or an item is often requires specific, careful language, due to the simple fact that, well, you don't actually exist in that space. You can't just say, "It's to the left of me," and necessarily have people understand what that means. There's a lack of orientation due to the lack of being able to experience the space in an immediate, embodied way. The ping system is a means to fix that, while also empowering players who, for many valid reasons, maybe don't want to have active conversations with random teammates in the first place.
Here's how it works: With a quick press of a button, you can mark locations in the environment and have other players on your team see it. The system is tuned to allow you to mark enemies, items, waypoints, and locations of interest quickly and effectively, without breaking your stride or interrupting what you're doing. In practice, this becomes a fast-paced wordless conversation system, allowing teams of strangers to quickly and skillfully make decisions and communicate threats and strategies. Apex Legends isn't the only game I've ever played with a system like this, but it's the best integrated one, and the most useful in practice.
On top of that, the whole package just feels smooth and easy to play, a fully realized idea springing into the world with no buildup and thus no room for disappointment. Does it have staying power? Not sure. Fortnite is still the powerhouse in the genre, but I'm not convinced its position is as stable as it appears. What I do know is that Apex Legends is a pleasant surprise in a game space that hasn't had one in a while. And, whether it lasts for a week or a year, that's a really valuable thing to have.
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