If Apex Legends has one thing going for it, it’s the feeling that the game is complete–something not all battle royale games can boast. The explosion of popularity in the genre means there are a lot of games that do last-player-standing competition pretty well but with some kinks. Some existing shooters are adding battle royale modes to their offerings, fitting their existing gameplay into a new framework; other battle royale games are constantly struggling to work out bugs, kinks, and balancing issues; and still others started life as something else and managed to retrofit their ideas the battle royale mold, with some fitting better than others.
Meanwhile, Apex Legends focuses on doing one thing extremely well. That thing is team competition in the BR genre; at launch, it only includes a team-based mode where 20 groups of three players square off against each other. Everything in Apex Legends works to further teamwork: that includes a number of improvements to issues that plague the whole genre, like cleaning up inventory management and increasing accessibility, and the addition of new ideas, like squad composition elements and special character abilities.
Apex Legends excels by combining good ideas that have worked in shooters before. The battle royale ruleset is the same as in similar games, with very few changes: Teams skydive onto a huge island with nothing and scramble to gather up weapons and items to use against any other teams they encounter until only one team survives. While there are no titans or wall-running, it’s still possible to see the bones of Titanfall 2 undergirding Apex, which reuses Titanfall’s weapons and some of its fluid movement mechanics, like sliding and mantling. But the core of the formula here is the tight, three-player squad structure, which all the other pieces benefit.
Another big change to the battle royale formula in Apex Legends is one extremely similar to what Blizzard brought to multiplayer FPS games in Overwatch. At the start of each match, each player chooses one of eight characters, each with specific abilities that serve specific roles. The defensive Gibraltar can drop a shield and call in an airstrike to drive another team back; the offensive Wraith can create portals between two locations and briefly disappear to avoid damage; the supportive Pathfinder uses grappling hooks and ziplines to help the team reach areas where they might have a tactical advantage.
It all plays back into the focus on teamwork, since no character is especially powerful, and no abilities are useful all the time. You’re not a lone wolf–instead, you have a specific role that complements teammates as you play, and that works to help find a new side of battle royale that hasn’t been explored before.
Moment-to-moment, though, what’s remarkable about Apex Legends is that it just works. Battle royale is a bit of an obtuse genre with a lot of moving parts; in most games, you find weapons, gun attachments, armor, healing items, and more. You’ll spend lots of time digging in menus to manage inventory. Apex streamlines all of that with user interface tweaks that make it possible to instantly identify what you need and ignore the things you don’t. Ammo types are color-coded to the guns that use them. Attachments automatically join with guns they fit and swap to appropriate new guns when you pick them up, while things you can’t use or don’t improve your gear are brightly marked as such. It’s an even more accessible version of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4’s battle royale improvements with its Blackout mode, and the rest of the genre should adopt it.
The best feature in Apex Legends is its extremely robust “ping” system, which lets you press a button to create a marker on your teammates’ screens. The ping system is super smart–aim it at a gun or a helmet and your character will identify that object’s location to everyone else. You can ping in your menu to call for things you need, mark places you want to go, or identify spots other players have passed through. Most importantly, you can use pings to mark enemy locations. The system is so responsive and well-implemented in Apex Legends that it can fully replace talking to your team at all. In fact, the accuracy of a ping on-screen can often be better at helping you quickly convey information than talking.
A revival system also helps you get more engaged with your team. If a teammate falls in battle and is knocked out of the match, you can recover their banner, an item that drops with their loot, and use it to respawn them into the game as if they just started. The system adds some intense, harrowing strategy to Apex that requires you to risk everything to save your squad; you can only call back dead teammates at specific, single-use Respawn Beacons on the map, but you’re completely exposed while doing so. Pull off a clutch play, though, and you can bring your team back from the brink. The system provides a great incentive to stay in matches and keep talking to and aiding your team, instead of just leaving when you die to join another match.
Like in Respawn’s previous games, shooting here is hefty and satisfying, and Apex sports a wide variety of cool guns to learn and master. However, gunplay sometimes gets held back because lots of guns carry strangely small magazines. Players have a lot of health, which gets increased greatly with the addition of armor, so it often takes a lot of shots to take people down. Ideally, you’re always shooting someone with the help of a pal, but the small magazines have the effect of making you feel underpowered alone. In most matches I’ve played, shotguns get the most use from players because they have the highest likelihood of actually taking down an opponent, while many of the other guns spray bullets too much and leave you vulnerable as you reload and reload and reload.
As a free-to-play game, Apex Legends includes both loot boxes and in-game items that can be purchased with real money, and loot boxes can also be earnt by playing. Everything on offer is cosmetic, much like in Fortnite or Overwatch, so paying money isn’t essential to playing the game and staying competitive, and you can largely ignore microtransactions if you aren’t interested in paying.
The one place Apex Legends’ microtransactions can irritate is in trying to unlock new characters. At launch, six characters are available for free, with two that can be unlocked either with paid or earned currency. Neither is essential–they offer different abilities but not better or worse ones–but as an average player, it still took me around 17 hours of play to earn enough currency to buy one character (it’ll be shorter if you get more kills and more wins). With Respawn adding more characters to the game in the future, it’s fully possible trying to unlock new characters will become a slog that turns off casual players and those unwilling or unable to pay.
Apex Legends is a mix of smart shooter ideas that makes for a competitive, team-based game that gets at all the best parts of battle royale while addressing a lot of the weaknesses. Respawn’s intense focus on team play makes Apex more than just a worthy addition to the genre; it’s an indicator of where battle royale should go in the future.