A new battle royale game from the creators of mech shooter Titanfall offers squad-based play in a ruined sci-fi world – but is it enough to take on Fortnite?
It was only a matter of time before another world-class game developer entered the lucrative battle royale genre. The new type of multiplayer online shooting game, which drops up to 100 competitors on to an island and requires them to fight until only one remains, is dominated by PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and the cultural phenomenon that is Fortnite, currently earning $300m a month. Last October, Activision joined the fray with Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s Blackout mode, and now Beverly Hills-based Respawn Entertainment, creator of the respected sci-fi blaster series Titanfall, has thrown its explosive hat into the ring.
Simultaneously announced and launched on Monday, Apex: Legends is located in the Titanfall universe, taking place 30 years after the events of Titanfall 2. Set in a remote area of the galaxy named the Outlands, the game is essentially a cross between Fortnite and Blizzard’s popular hero-based shooter, Overwatch. Players are left in a ruined planetscape, in squads of three (you can’t play solo or in a duo), and must gather weapons and items while fighting 19 other teams to the death. Before the action starts, each player must choose one of eight characters, all of which have their own special skills and offensive abilities. Gibraltar, for example, is the brute strength option, capable of calling in an air strike to take out an entire side, while Wraith is able to create a wormhole from one point of the map to another, allowing her team to either escape a tricky shootout or warp straight into one.
What’s immediately noticeable about the game is its departure from a variety of Titanfall elements. The visual aesthetic switches from the realism of previous titles to a stylised comic-book look, and there is none of the sustained wall-running or double jumping that characterised the Titanfall titles. Movement, however, feels fluid and dynamic, thanks to a pleasing slide mechanic, the ability to sprint when you holster your weapon, and the array of rope slides littering each location, making it easy to cover lots of ground quickly.
The other big thing is – there are no titans. The vast armoured mechs that players could call into battle in the other two Titanfall games have been retired. In an interview with Eurogamer, lead producer Drew McCoy explained this is all to make the game function as a squad-based battle royale shooter: no parkour means teams stay together, while titans apparently unbalanced the whole feel of the game.
The diverse range of hero characters certainly recalls Overwatch (and lots of players have applauded Respawn for including people of colour among the opening roster), but there is another series Apex Legends seems to owe a debt to. With its mature graphic novel visuals, jokey voiceovers and apocalyptic wasteland setting, the ghost of cult RPG shooter Borderlandsdrifts over these battlefields. True, the Apex map has a lot of the feel of the locations in Titanfall 2 – its mix of jungle terrains and hi-tech industrial-military emplacements, for example – but the concept of weird characters left to fight it out on destroyed worlds loaded with abandoned weaponry feels very similar to the Gearbox series. Also, the busily colourful graphics and map designs make it difficult to pick out enemies at distance – something long-range combat fans will have to learn to deal with.
In action, Apex Legends feels fast and polished. The basics of the game – touching down, exploring buildings for loot, then battling it out with other players – are very familiar. The weapons, too, are highly derivative, with the usual SMGs, LMGs, assault rifles, snipers and shotguns to work through. But Apex has some really nice touches. The various abilities of the characters forces you to think and act as a squad, almost tag-teaming into action depending on the environment while keeping support characters, such as the medic Lifeline, in the background. It’s also possible to revive downed teammates, even if they’ve been killed rather than just wounded, by grabbing their banner icon and taking it to one of the respawn points on the map. This feature can create tense little mini-dramas as your focus shifts from attacking another squad to rescuing a fallen comrade.
Another major bonus is the highly intuitive ping system that lets players highlight key areas, weapons and items on the map, alerting teammates to useful stuff or possible dangers. All you do is look at the object and hit one button and the contextual system lets your squad know exactly what you’re highlighting. This makes complex strategies possible without the need for voice comms. As Respawn producer Tina Sanchez pointed out on Twitter: “It’s pretty liberating for female gamers. You can mute voice but still be part of a team. (I come from a generation of online shooter games that were extremely … erm … vocal on previous consoles.)”
Apex Legends is free to play, but there is a combination of loot-box-style packs and battle passes to tempt players to pay for customisation elements – though everything is cosmetic and it’s impossible to buy your way to improved weapons or armour. Furthermore, everything that is purchasable in the game is also available through earning in-game currency – it seems publisher Electronic Arts has learned a valuable lesson from its PR nightmare with the cynically monetised Star Wars Battlefront II.
Apex Legends is fun and frantic, rather beautiful in places, and has lots of fresh elements, with the promise of regular challenges and additions later on. Respawn says it’s going to be supporting this game with content “for years”, which may well worry Titanfall fans hoping for a third addition to the main series. But battle royale is where the money is and in combining this game style with the hero shooter genre and the genes of Titanfall, Respawn is doing all it can to claw some marketshare away from Epic Games and its Fortnite monster. Attracting more than 1 million players in its first night of play suggests that there’s plenty of interest in a newcomer of this stature.
It’s a shame the team found no way to include the iconic titan mechs, but with the promise of more characters and features to come, Respawn may well be just holding on to its joker. From now on it seems, the battle royale genre is a marathon, not a sprint.