When Apex Legends first launched, my initial instinct was to write something about how it’s crazy—stupid crazy—not to have a solo mode. Forced squads struck me as an incredibly bad idea. This, on top of no Titans and none of the Pilot mechanics we were used to from the Titanfall games (like wall-running and double-jumping) all seemed to conspire against Apex Legends.
It is pretty weird to just abandon all this stuff and still have the game set in the Titanfall universe. And it’s even stranger to have a battle royale game where you can’t just play solo. My temptation was to point all this out and wag my finger at Respawn over such bizarre decisions.
But after two days of playing on both PS4 and PC—playing enough that I didn’t get any of my intended writing about this or any other game done until now—I can safely say that I’ve changed my mind. There will be no finger-wagging from me today. (I’m saving that for Anthem.)
Apex Legends doesn’t need Titans. It doesn’t need wall-running or double-jumping. And—shockingly—it doesn’t need a solo mode. I can’t believe I just wrote that, but it’s true. After playing with squads (both good and bad) I can’t even imagine playing this game solo. It could work, of course, but it wouldn’t work as well, at least not without some changes.
That’s because Respawn has made a game where playing as a squad is surprisingly satisfying and intuitive, even if your squad-mates don’t have mics or don’t speak the same language. This is one of the best, most creative implementation of squad gameplay I’ve played, period. The game is polished, exciting and unique. Respawn has done a remarkably good job at crafting a squad-based game that not only encourages teamwork, but makes it viable even without a headset.
No “I” in Team
Before I get into the nitty-gritty of the game’s squad-based gameplay, a quick primer on what Apex Legends is all about. Basically, the game combines the hero shooter gameplay popularized by Overwatch with the battle royale concept popularized by PUBG and Fortnite, and plays like a faster, slicker Blackout from Black Ops 4.
So there’s a huge map—more on its excellent design later—and 20 teams of 3 players each battling it out for the victory royale. A circle shrinks as the match progresses, driving squads closer and closer to one another until the bitter end.
Players team up in squads of three. Each round, players get to choose from the available roster of Legends in order. Sometimes you’ll get first pick, sometimes second, sometimes third. One player is randomly chosen as “Jumpmaster” and gets to decide where the squad will land when they leave the drop ship. All three players will exit the ship at the same time and fly together to the ground. Crucially, you have to opt-out of this to fly solo, making it much more likely for squads to launch and land together. It’s also cool just watching all the various squads plummet toward the ground, colorful jetstreams criss-crossing the sky.
The Jumpmaster can relinquish their role if they choose, and other players can use the ping system to suggest possible landing points.
The innovative “ping” system allows you to communicate with other players using text-to-voice. Warning teammates of enemies, for instance, doesn’t just create a visual cue, the player will voice the warning. You can call out where specific items are for your teammates to come loot. You can even warn that other players have been in the area already. One of the most useful things you can “ping” is simply where to go next.
The revive system in Apex Legends gets around one of the most vexing aspects of squad-based battle royale: Being eliminated and having to just sit around and wait for your team to finish the match while doing nothing.
In Apex Legends, you can quickly revive a downed player so long as they aren’t finished off by an enemy and you get to them before they bleed out. If you get to them in time, it’s just a few second animation and they’re back on their feet—health depleted, but gear and weapons still intact.
If you don’t get to them in time, you still have a minute or so to get their character banner card from the corpse crate that spawns when a player is eliminated. You can then bring this card to a respawn point and your teammate will be drop-shipped back into the match, minus all their gear. It’s a great concept that adds another layer of risk and reward to gameplay. More than anything, all these various mechanics serve to make you want to play as a team. Teams who play well together have a much higher chance of winning, and Respawn makes it easier than ever to coordinate.
I’m not usually the type of player who loves teaming up with randoms in a game like this, but Respawn has done such a good job making this a game about teamwork that I’ve only encountered one squad that just broke apart with players doing their own thing (and quickly dying).
I love that I can communicate with other players using the ping system instead of headsets, because sometimes wearing a headset in a multiplayer game can be a real bummer, or just downright annoying (many players are great, but you get the ones who just complain constantly, or who have loud music on in the background or crying babies, etc. It’s nice to not have to deal with that but still have an easy time communicating.)
Legends of Tomorrow
The game’s hero shooter mechanics also lend themselves to squad-based play.
Each of the game’s Legends (Heroes) is unique, with their own personality, voice and special powers. This is honestly the best effort at creating compelling heroes in a hero-shooter since Overwatch, which bodes well for the longevity of this game. Nothing will sink a hero shooter faster than obnoxious heroes—think Lawbreakers and its annoyingly edgy roster. Apex Legends has fun heroes with cool abilities.
One Legend can create a pair of portals that her and her teammates can travel through, giving you an easy escape route or a sneaky flanking position against an enemy squad. Another can track where enemies just moved, helping you smoke out campers and avoid ambush, or simply track down a troublesome quarry.
More traditional special powers include an artillery barrage. Each character has their own abilities and personality, but you can still all use the same weapons, armor and so forth. It’s more similar to Black Ops 4 than Overwatch in that sense, though I find that the special abilities in Apex Legends are more interesting than the Specialists‘ in Black Ops 4 (none of which have special abilities in that game’s Blackout battle royale mode.)
The game has a very fun, upbeat arena warfare feel to it as well. The Legends all seem happy to be there. They’re all having fun. You can see the banners of the top players up all over the map, with a bounty to take down the Champion (the top player from the previous match, or the player with the current kill lead in this match). The presentation is great. The vibe is fun. It’s one of those games that just feels good to play.
What about no wall-running or double-jumping?
According to Respawn, they tried to make this game with the Pilot mechanics intact and it just got too crazy when it came to both combat, and to players actually moving together as a squad. The free-flow, super-fast movement of Titanfall 1/2 didn’t work as well on such a huge map.
As I noted above, at first this bothered me. No Titans, no wall-running, no solo mode . . . surely this was a rush-job, pumped out to fill in a stop-gap in EA’s release schedule, something to tide us over until a proper Titanfall released. Jumping on the battle royale bandwagon certainly makes sense from a financial standpoint.
But this is not a rush-job and it doesn’t need any of those things (though I’d still be curious to see how solo play worked.) Holstering your weapon also allows you to run faster which is a nice twist.
The map itself lends itself well to moving about quickly. Balloons across the map float on long yellow ropes that you can ride to the top of and redeploy from, allowing you to make flying leaps across the map to easily out-distance the ring.
Really, the map is just terrific. There’s such a variety of locations, from swamps to industrial bases to the skeletal remains of some gargantuan beast, that no two areas ever really blend together.
It’s also incredibly vertical. You’ll find yourself high up in the mountains one minute; the next you’ll be in a shootout in a valley. This verticality opens up one of the game’s best mechanics: Sliding.
You can run into a slide like in so many other first-person shooters, but if you’re going downhill you can keep sliding the whole way. It’s a bit like skiing in Tribes: Ascend, and it feels great.
I still have to see how this game unfolds in the coming months before settling on a final verdict, but right now I’m absolutely loving it. It’s different than all the other battle royale games out there. It’s probably most like Blackout, but minus vehicles, zombies and different modes. Instead, you get Legends with special abilities, faster movement speed and a better map.
It’s nothing at all like Fortnite, so I see both free-to-play games co-existing nicely in the battle royale space. FPS fans may prefer Apex Legends for its better gunplay and first-person perspective, but it has none of the building mechanics or various other quirks that make Fortnite so appealing. I honestly have a blast in both games and I can’t wait to see how Respawn handles new Legends, maps and so forth in the months to come.
For the time being, I highly recommend you go download Apex Legends. It’s free-to-play. Its micro-transactions are completely cosmetic (outside of unlocking two Legends) and you don’t have to spend a penny to play and have a blast. Even if you’re traditionally a solo player (like me) I think you’ll find much to love here.