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.