How Apex Legends fixes battle royale

In spite of their myriad issues, battle royale games have taken over the gaming landscape since PUBG hit the mainstream in early 2017. As games continued to iterate on the core experience (Fortnite‘s building being the prime example), few games prior to Respawn’s Apex Legends have attempted to tackle the core issues with the game mode: being killed randomly and without warning, a gameplay loop that rewards camping, communication breakdowns, and a lack of accessibility to casual players. Apex tackles all of these issues in a package that’s so captivating that streamers and Youtubers of all genres and games are starting to look for ways to implement these systems into their favorite games. The ways in which Apex achieves a lot of these goals may not be replicable across the industry, however, and Respawn’s brilliant gameplay and level design speak to why.

Apex‘s contextual ping system has received most of the praise since the game’s launch and with good reason. Easily identifying locations, enemies, and resources and notifying your teammates has solved much of the player-to-player interaction in the genre, and encourages team play in a way that other battle royales struggle to. More importantly, the ping system enables heads-up gameplay rather than the addiction to menus and resource management that plagues similar titles. The problem that Respawn seems to have addressed with Apex is how to streamline the necessary management systems and encourage players to actually play the game rather than spend time planning their next move. Much of the communication in previous battle royale games is centered on a map overlay and the persistent directional compass locked to the top of the screen. Marking in-game elements and locations enables players to coordinate movement and make call-outs without the need to check the compass directions or enter a map screen to find the next location, drawing the eye to your surroundings.

But the ping system doesn’t engender the game’s effortless gameplay alone. Apex‘s greatest accomplishment is the map design itself. Battle royale games are defined by their broad, collapsing play areas full of unique locales. The most persistent critique of Apex is the aesthetics of the map itself, but rarely is it praised for how the map funnels engagements into predictable, structured environments. Most battle royale maps feature hot spots with clusters of buildings that players gravitate toward. The buildings are often surrounded by rolling fields with minimal cover, which is where fights often take place as teams wait for unsuspecting opponents to traverse the map. Apex eschews this trend by having large, non-scalable rock formations occupy much of that middle ground. Traveling from one location to another is no longer a dizzying jaunt where you’re forced to spin left and right, looking for the next ambush. Players are guided into choke points with cover from all sides except in front of you, allowing you to keep your eyes on the environment and oncoming enemies.


The map’s geological barriers also function as parameters for engagements. Because so many battle royale fights happen in open spaces and across great distances, winning a fight often boils down to a few variables: who has the most grenades/throwables/resources, who shoots first, and which team has the better shooters. While it may seem odd to criticize a shooting game that rewards players with good aim, battle royale games often feel inaccessible to anyone other than the very best players. The fights in Apex, however, mostly take place in areas populated with buildings, offering countless pathing options for players looking to make outplays. Aim and mechanical skill are rewarded in Apex, but a lack of those isn’t as damning as it is in a game like PUBG or Call of Duty‘s Blackout mode. The game’s emphasis on player movement extends to all aspects of the experience including–and perhaps most importantly–fights, offering less mechanically gifted players the ability to take smarter engagements via flanking routes, repositioning to unexpected shooting angles, and avenues to disengage.

Combining these engagement arenas with a long time to kill, and Apex‘s fights are more mentally demanding, rewarding, and memorable than those in other battle royales. Fights in Apex are often protracted, allowing players to heal, utilize class abilities, engage with their entire arsenal of equipped weapons, and escape if necessary. These extended battles don’t just suggest that players constantly rethink their tactics mid-fight, they demand it if you want to win with any consistency. Fortnite accomplished similar ends with its building system, but that demanded mastery of an entirely new skill. Apex asks that players engage in traditional FPS fights in more considered and nuanced ways rather than relying on genre-altering mechanics.

Another complaint levied against the game is the relative dearth of weapons available upon spawn. Apex‘s limited weapon spawns work two-fold: they discourage significant portions of the server from landing at a single location (think Fortnite‘s Twisted Towers) and force players to fight and loot more frequently, rather than camp and wait for ambushes. In most battle royale games, weapons abound: on roofs, lying in the open, in treasure chests, etc. Dropping into populated areas at the start of a match ensures that the team that leaves victorious will be fully kitted for the remainder of the game. Apex‘s lack of weapons at spawn means that landing in the highly populated areas is at best a dice roll for survival. Even coming out victorious from a high-value location doesn’t ensure that your squad will be armed to the teeth. Much of your time in Apex is spent traversing from one potential fight to another as you scavenge, even late in a match. The emphasis on fighting and traveling around the map means that the previously stagnant mid-game battle royale experience is replaced with meaningful activities.

Combine all of these elements in a free-to-play game, and it’s clear why Apex Legends has overtaken all challengers on Twitch since its release. To grow the game, Respawn will need to focus on the addition of new heroes/legends with meaningful, balanced abilities, as well as a rotation of new weapons and game modes that keep the meta fresh and challenging, but all early signs point toward a game with serious staying power and one of the most refreshing and singular takes on the battle royale genre.

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Player agency in Far Cry 5 *SPOILERS*


I finally finished Far Cry 5 last night and I have a lot of thoughts about what I consider to be one of the best endings in video game history.


The Far Cry games are murder tourism: you travel to remote parts of the world and start killing whatever evil force has asserted itself there. In Far Cry 3, it was a group of pirates that had taken over a tropical island. In Far Cry 4, a garishly dressed white guy leads a militia that takes over much of Tibet. The protagonist, though you remain voiceless throughout, has always been a white man, which has caused a significant amount of consternation as video games become more socially conscious and aware; that it took a white man to save a group of indigenous people by killing a lot of Bad Indigenous People always stunk of tone-deaf imperialism.

Far Cry 5 is set in rural Montana, the first time the series has traveled to the US and the first time that you could customize your character. The antagonist is a cultist who goes by the name Joseph Seed and who believes that he is a prophet for the end of the world (The Collapse, as it’s called). Because of the setting and timing, many believed that the game had an obligation to address the current political climate in the United States. Far Cry 5 doesn’t do this and never attempts to, despite the fact that it alludes to these issues in passing. Therein lies what Far Cry does spectacularly: break the 4th wall.

In 2007, Bioshock revolutionized video game storytelling when its central narrative was as much about player agency (or lack thereof) as it was about the actual story. You spend the entire game listening to the directives of a disembodied voice being broadcasted over radios. The voice would ask, “Would you kindly [do something]” framing most objectives until you come face-to-face with the man behind the voice, the antagonist Andrew Ryan. You realize that every decision you made was guided by someone else. You did not have the agency that you thought you did in video games; you are following orders.

In the first 10 minutes of Far Cry 4, you come face-to-face with the antagonist Pagan Min (these one-on-one encounters are emblematic of Far Cry games at this point). He’s captured you and brought you to his palace for tea–and maybe torture. He has to get up from the table at one point, and he asks you to wait for him. As the player, you have the choice to sit there or escape. If you sit there long enough, Pagan Min returns, thanks you for waiting, takes you to his gun range where you shoot targets together, and then the game ends. You’ve befriended the antagonist. It was a fun gimmicky story technique that the game employed and something that you’re unlikely to come across unless you know about it beforehand.

Far Cry 5 gives you a similar option. The game opens with an arrest attempt of Joseph Seed. When you’re prompted to put the cuffs on him, you can do so or walk away. The latter ends the game. If you cuff him and escort him out of the building, the arrest goes awry, he escapes, and you spend the rest of the game trying to find and arrest/kill him. Joseph Seed arrogantly claims “God will not let you take me”, as your fellow Marshalls implore you to put the cuffs on him. Once you do, the screen goes black and you hear him say “Sometimes the best thing to do is to walk away”.

This is the first allusion the game makes to your lack of agency, or the idea that you’re making the wrong decision. As Far Cry 5 progresses, Joseph Seed’s lieutenants frequently admonish you that you’re making a mistake, that your sins will eventually be exposed. They prattle on about the end of the world. Typical video game stuff. But the more you hear it, the more obvious it becomes how important this concept is to the game.

At one point, you encounter a friendly NPC that bulldozes the 4th wall. This character explicitly starts talking about Far Cry. He’s a movie director and he’s complaining about how difficult it is to make Far Cry games. He mentions that he’s heard all of the critiques about imperialism and morality and that they’re problematic.”I’d rather put my balls in a vice than listen to everyone with their fucking opinions about world building and player motivation and believability. I’ll kill myself I swear to fucking god,” the NPC says. Even for a game as self-referential and wacky as Far Cry, this seemed important. It wasn’t until I killed one of Joseph Seed’s three lieutenants that it really struck home.

Faith Seed is the only female antagonist in the game. Her role to the cultists is that of a mother figure. Her role in the cult, however, is a drug peddler, the person in charge of intoxicating and controlling the many followers. When you finally kill her, she tells you that Joseph Seed will give you two options, but no matter what you pick, you’re going to prove him right. Which brings us to the final moments of the game.

You eventually encounter Joseph Seed, and you’re once again offered the option to cuff him or walk away. This is the decision that Faith was talking about. If you walk away and let him continue to rule the land, you feel worthless. Instead, you resist him and after a protracted battle, finally put the cuffs on him. The moment you do, an atomic explosion happens in the distance. Joseph Seed was right. He is a prophet for the end of the world. A frantic chase scene has you driving away from fireballs and explosions before your car crashes, knocking you unconscious. You get brief glimpses of the world as you’re dragged into a bomb shelter. You wake up tied to a bedframe with Joseph Seed staring you in the face. He tells you that all of your sins are exposed and that he was right. He is your father and you’re waiting for the nuclear fallout to clear so you can surface to a new world (Eden as they call it). Roll credits.

Now, people HATE this ending, and I can understand why, but it puts all of the 4th-wall-breaking in perspective. The Far Cry series is criticized constantly for lacking moral fortitude and insight. The games are supposed to be fun, exciting adventures, but moral readings of the story are problematic, and I think the Far Cry writers were a little sick of hearing that the thing they created was morally objectionable. So they made that discussion the central story of the game: it turns out you really are a monster, ushering in the end of the world and killing people and animals in the name of righteousness. You’re not a hero. You’re the catalyst for the end of the world.

After beating the game, I was playing co-op with a friend who wanted to kill a bunch of buffalo in order to reach a milestone. I felt awful doing it, knowing that I am not preparing myself to be a super soldier in the name of good. I’m fucking evil and I’m doing evil things. The entire game, you’re being told that what you’re doing is wrong, but you’re being told that by drugged out cultists who are taking over large swaths of Montana and torturing the townsfolk. You’re given ample opportunities to walk away. Far Cry 5 is a Schrödinger’s cat of sorts: if you never play the game, the world never ends. It is a truly spectacular take on player agency and perception.

The end of the game hints towards a sequel, something the Far Cry series doesn’t really do. A post-Collapse world could hold all kinds of horrors and adventures. Hell, it might even be the kind of plot point that hints at Far Cry existing in the larger Ubisoft universe (is this Collapse related to the doomsday scenarios in The Division, for instance?). Far Cry 5 has one of the most ambitious endings in video game history. It challenges the entire concept of player agency and, for one of the first times in the medium, righteousness. Despite the game’s faults (AI wackiness and an over reliance on a few storytelling mechanics, are most prominent) it is a modern masterpiece that should be remembered for how it toys with player perception.

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On suspension of disbelief and open-world storytelling

By now, you probably already know about Ubisoft’s upcoming open world blockbuster Watch Dogs. In the game, you play as Aiden Pearce who has the ability to hack into the city’s—in this case Chicago’s—infrastructure and the informational database it keeps on its citizens to bend the city to his will. The key to the game’s success will be how well this actually works. In all of the existing demos and previews, the player has what appears to be complete control over countless different aspects of the environment: cameras, cell phones, trains, ATMs.

Lesser (and perhaps most other) titles would limit this functionality to combat programming limitations. For example, most people talk about how great the open world possibilities are in the Grand Theft Auto series, but I’ve always found them limiting. In GTA, you can do anything that causes destruction, but little else. The inability to walk into any random building just to investigate the décor is a clear indicator of the game’s focus and gameplay-driving motives. These games are not about experiencing a wide-open world. They’re about killing things and causing destruction in a world that vaguely resembles your own, which is why the recent comments by Watch Dogs senior producer Dominic Guay are so encouraging:

“One of our hopes is that the best moments players will have in the game won’t be scripted events. My hope is the thing they talk about at the office or with their friends is the thing they created themselves,” Guay said. “It’s the scenario where they had a plan and they tried to pull it off, and something wrong happened and they have to improvise. And they know — gamers know when that happens; it’s their moment. They made it happen.

“So that’s what I’m hoping — that the best memorable moments in Watch Dogs are unique to the player.”

Personal storytelling has dominated my motivations to play games over the last three years. In that time, I’ve spent well over 70% of my gaming time dedicated to a handful of games: Battlefield 3, the NBA 2k series, and to a lesser extent Skyrim. The latter of those has received the most press regarding storytelling. The possibilities of the land of Skyrim are seemingly endless, from interactions with NPCs to battles with roving packs of giants and dragons. But Battlefield has been my standby during that time.

The single player of Battlefield 3 is just as terrible as all other modern FPS single player campaigns: scripted sequences and dull storylines combine to make monotonous gameplay. But the multiplayer in Battlefield, with its emphasis on vehicular warfare and large-scale maps, is ideal for the creation of one-of-a-kind moments. (Why else would Dice run the “Only In Battlefield” campaign asking for people to send in their wildest videos?). Though my moments are never quite as spectacular as some of those on YouTube, I’ve spent countless hours talking with my friends about unbelievable, long-range headshots or moments of unlikely good fortune that have come my way in the multiplayer sessions.

What sets Battlefield apart from other modern FPS multiplayers is that these moments are inherent in the game’s infrastructure. In the Call of Duty series, players will have rounds of legend that they share with their friends, but it ultimately comes down to one thing: I killed a bunch of dudes and didn’t die. Battlefield eschews this with the addition of vehicles and large-scale moments. Some of my most memorable Battlefield moments are completely nonviolent: rising over a mountain range in a helicopter to see two enemy choppers hovering nearby or lying in wait as a tank rolls mere feet away from my ill-equipped sniper.

These moments are possible because they’re entirely unscripted. All jets and helicopters and tanks in Battlefield multiplayer are driven by human players. If an opposing tank sees you hiding in the weeds and mercilessly blows you up, good on that player for being perceptive. But there’s never a chance for some AI glitch or game malfunction (“I thought I was concealed behind cover but the AI always seems to find me”). Everything in Battlefield is organic, and this is what Guay’s comments promise regarding Watch Dogs’ potential: open world, organic moments in which the AI acts independently of your presence in the world. It’s like going unnoticed in the Matrix or Inception. Shit just happens and you’re around to see it.

The problem is, as Battlefield has aged, those moments have become more and more seldom. Players have gotten so good at the game that exploits are easier to find. In addition, most players are so familiar with the relatively limited number of maps and typical user attack patterns that one-time grand moments have turned into rote skirmishes. It’s a classic case of diminishing returns: the better everyone has gotten at the game, the more enjoyment and wonderment has been stripped from its structure.

I’ve written here before about the difficulty of video games, but one aspect of the discussion I omitted was the suspension of disbelief. At their best, games consume you. No longer are you sitting on your couch in Doritos-stained boxers holding a plastic controller. You’ve been transmitted into the game itself and care for the outcome of your character. This is one of the reasons FPS have come to dominate the marketplace. Aside from their lowest-common denominator rhetoric and content, the games offer a perspective that’s unmatched in the suspension of disbelief. Add to that the perfection of the control scheme, one that is effectively one-to-one between onscreen action and player control, and the suspension of disbelief becomes nearly impenetrable. That is, unless you die.

Enter Elizabeth and Bioshock Infinite. Much has been written—though not here—about Bioshock Infinite and the player’s interaction with the AI phenomenon Elizabeth, but her real value to the game is in her combat usefulness. A player is supposed to grow connected to Elizabeth throughout the game. She observes things about the environment and far-too-often tosses you a small handful of shekels. And despite trashcans and dead enemy corpses having far too many uneaten sandwiches contained in and on them, the game is relatively withholding of ammunition. With Elizabeth, you have the ability to suspend your disbelief in the heat of battle when other games would have you frantically searching the floor for discarded weapons. She tosses you ammo and salts (used to sustain your magical Vigor powers) in times of need. This allows you to manipulate the world of Bioshock Infinite in any way you see fit, building moments of grandeur without the fear of running out of resources.

This is why the infrastructure of Watch Dogs is so intriguing. Unless the designers implement gameplay breaking aspects like WiFi and cellphone jammers—which they no doubt will during at least one mission in the game to limit your capabilities—your ability to manipulate the world with seemingly endless resources promotes both complete suspension of disbelief and the creation of your own journey. If the AI truly is independent of your actions, Watch Dogs may be the truly revelatory open world urban environment that its hype promises.


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NCAA 13 review

I reviewed the really disappointing NCAA 13 for PopMatters. The moneyquote:

It’s clear that barring a massive upgrade in AI development in the next few years, EA’s football series is kind of stuck, a problem largely brought on by the rules of football more so than any failing of the developer. The main issue facing football video games currently is that there are too many players. Each team fields 11 men, but the player only controls one, meaning the outcome of any play is dependent on whether or not your AI wide receiver can get open against AI cornerbacks, for example. There are obviously considerations with regards to play calls—running man-beating passing routes against man coverage and vice versa—but anyone who has ever played an EA football game knows that there are just times when the game decides that you’re not winning. And these problems extend beyond the skill position players: if your offensive linemen are unable to block the defensive line, your play call hardly matters.

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Morality in Red Dead Redemption

My most exciting realization while playing Red Dead Redemption was an ostensibly pedestrian one. After my horse was killed in the heat of battle, I was saddled with the malnourished steed of a now-headless Mexican rebel. Galloping slowly through the Mexican wilderness it dawned on me: I can either try to rope and tame a wild stallion, the likes of which might be fast and agile, or I can put on my bandanna to obscure my face and rob a citizen at gunpoint, taking his horse and avoiding the shame of a criminal’s lifestyle.

RDR continuously grapples with morality–you’re a former gang member who’s sent to kill people in order to secure the safe return of his family–but organic moral choices like the above exemplify the greatest decision RPGs can force players to make. The game puts an emphasis on honor and fame, and doing righteous acts for random civilians awards stature and leniency throughout the world. Compromising those benefits for the sake of ease is a legitimate decision gamers have to make.

Red Dead is an action game masquerading as an RPG, which leads to many cringe-worthy actions but also helps streamline the story. Red Dead’s second act–spent south of the border, flipping between both sides of the Mexican revolution to further your own goals–explicitly pits good (Mexican rebels fighting against a corrupt government) versus evil (totalitarian Mexican army) and forces the player to assist both sides. The Mexican army is despicable: killing innocent civilians, raping their women, and oppressing human rights. The rebels are led by a womanizer who, by all accounts, is at least a good soldier who cares about his country.

After a few missions, it becomes clear who you should be fighting for. Unfortunately, in order to progress the story, you have to work for both sides, which means killing many of the people you want to help. During these sequences, I felt genuinely ashamed to be taking part in the slaughters I was carrying out. I thought about my character’s legacy: when he’s gone, what stories will be told? In an effort to hide my shame, my character wore his bandanna across his face any time he was assisting the Mexican army. This didn’t stop the rebel NPCs from taking note of my two-faced approach to the war. I wanted to pledge allegiance to their ranks, but my character remained indignant, “I’m not working for anyone. I’m working for myself.” This is obviously bullshit.

RDR plays out a little bit like Portal in that you think you’re acting autonomously, when in fact the whole game has been spent at the mercy of a more powerful being (in this case, it’s the government officials who have kidnapped your family). Your ability to choose one side or the other is nonexistent. The freedom and morality that the game tries to implement become hollow shells, and there’s a sense of inevitability about the story. It doesn’t matter how morally righteous or evil you were; you had a goal and you eventually achieved it. This is the story of John Marston and your role is simply as spectator. He does despicable things; he does valiant things.

It’s an interesting dynamic to stress fame and honor in what is otherwise a purely cinematic experience. Being a criminal–or at least morally bankrupt–is effectively impossible given your frequent, necessary encounters with lawmen. In order to tell this story properly, you can’t revert to typical Rockstar-game mentalities (I can do anything I want in this open world, so let’s cause some destruction). Asking you to be morally upstanding and showing both the good and the bad of humanity completes your character, and more importantly, his story. If you could spend hours plundering towns and killing everyone you come across, Marston’s eventually reconciliation would feel empty, so the game strongly hints that you should be good, despite giving you other options.

There’s a separation of moral decisions then: the ones you’re forced to participate in–good or bad–and the smaller moments that reinforce your eventual redemption. Since they have no true impact on your legacy or the game’s end, these smaller moral choices feel like the moments between the scenes of a big-budget film, the things that are assumed or taken for granted. You live a life in RDR in the shallowest way possible, your hand being forced to do things you otherwise wouldn’t. The grandest, most important moments are those that you have the least control over and are generally the most morally questionable. It’s the smaller moments, then, the brief bits of true autonomy, that ingrain you in the world. They’re respite for not only a weary frontiersman, but also for the player, forced to do terrible things to innocent people throughout the game.

By the end of the story, despite all of the horrible things you’ve been forced to do, you genuinely want to see a happy ending for Marston. It’s the same motivation that keeps you from robbing every civilian you come across and what forces the action forward. You’ve done good deeds both for strangers and to further your own cause, and you’ve even been pulled into depravity from time to time, all in the name of redemption. By the end of the game, both the player and Marston need it.


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