Respawn Entertainment is back with a battle royale shooter that raises the bar in a number of ways.
Titanfall 2 was one of the most criminally underrated triple-A shooters that we've played in recent years, at least in terms of how the game did at retail. Sandwiched in between 2016's big hitters, the game never managed to draw in the audience it deserved and so Respawn's shooter somewhat disappeared into the night with question marks hanging over the viability of the fledgeling series. Now, just over two years later, the studio is back with Apex Legends, and it's time to right some wrongs and put Respawn back on the map.
First of all, as you no doubt know already, not least because the clue's in the name - this isn't Titanfall 3. There are no mechs dropping from orbit, there's no single-player campaign, there's no small-scale squad-based multiplayer, and you won't be running on any walls. Apex Legends is a battle royale shooter cut from the same cloth as PUBG and Fortnite, but set in the years after the events of Titanfall 2. Although it's certainly not a continuation of that story, it's the framework upon which the rest of the game hangs, and the setting works well.
It could also be argued that it's a hero shooter in much the same vein as something like Overwatch, or perhaps Realm Royale would be a more fitting comparison to make. Either way, there are eight of the titular legends available at launch, six that are ready to roll as soon as you've downloaded the client, and two more that can be unlocked with either in-game credits or cold, hard cash. Actually, let's use that as a segue to discuss one of our issues with the game, and that's the price of some of the cosmetic items. While the two extra playable characters, Caustic and Mirage, are reasonably priced (you can get them both for around £16) some of the weapon skins are ludicrously expensive, costing more than both legends combined.
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At the end of the day, in a free-to-play game such as this one, expensive cosmetics are hardly a major sticking point, and given how much fun you can have with Apex Legends without spending a solitary penny, we're not going to grumble anymore because to do so would be to distract you, dear reader, from the fact that Respawn Entertainment has crafted one of the best battle royale shooters ever made, and it easily ranks alongside the juggernaut otherwise known as Fortnite, and more recent high-flying competitors such as Call of Duty: Blackout.
Standing on the shoulders of titans means that the lore is already there, which is great in the sense that Respawn doesn't have to attempt a standing start and there are already players invested in the universe. Moreover, the gunplay that worked oh so well in Titanfall 2 is transplanted into Apex Legends, although there's no wall-running and double jumps, and no giant metal mechs dropping into the battle, which means that it definitely feels like its own thing rather than Titan Royale.
Beyond the far-future sci-fi setting, the thing that really sets Apex apart is the structure of the matches. The games are exclusively (at least at the time of writing) for three-player teams and there are no options for solo play, duos, or teams larger than three. But, as the old saying goes, three is the magic number, and this hard limit ensures that each encounter is far more tactical than your typical last player standing shooter. What's more, you can't select the same character as another player on your team, which means that you're frequently going to be playing with different combinations which, in turn, opens up new tactical options.
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Another great twist is the revive mechanic. When a player is downed they have a small amount of life and will slowly bleed out giving their buddies the chance to revive them. If you're engaged in a long-range battle and lose, it means there's a good chance that you'll be back on your feet, especially if your team is playing in a coordinated manner. It doesn't always work out that way, however, and sometimes your opponent will take you down and then finish you off, at which point it's up to your team to find your final resting place and grab your tags, which in turn can be taken to one of several respawn stations found dotted around the map, whereupon you'll be able to drop back into the game and resume hostilities after a short delay.
If and when you're returned to the battlefield - which is crammed full of interesting areas that are just waiting to be explored - you'll have to either grab your old gear if it's still there or forage for fresh supplies if they're not. Either way, you'll spend a lot of time gathering new equipment, ammo, and weapons, upgrading your items, and generally trying to give yourself every advantage possible on the battlefield. Things are made somewhat easier thanks to some great communication tools that allow teammates to clearly identify items they see, so if you're in dire need of shotgun ammo and your friend sees some, they can effortlessly mark it for you.
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You can also mark enemy positions or areas on the map that you want to tackle when you're dropping in at the beginning of the match. Speaking of which, trials of coloured smoke that tail each team gives attentive players a rough overview of who's dropping where, which in turn can lead to tactical decisions relating to where you drop, and how close you stick to your comrades during the opening. Sometimes you'll have time and space to scavenge for supplies, other times you'll drop straight into a battle and an early fight for survival. Likewise, sometimes a match can be over in two minutes after a failed fistfight, other times you'll battle right to the bitter end, moving in as the circle gets smaller and smaller with teams funnelled into inevitable conflict.
The mix of weapons, the revive mechanic, the excellent design of the map, the fluidity of the controls, and the stellar gunplay all combine to make a slick first-person experience, but it's the legends that give it real character. Characters have a couple of unique abilities; one that has a short cooldown and can be used frequently, and another that charges over time and can be triggered by pressing L1/LB and R1/RB at the same time. These abilities vary greatly, from a zip line that can help you move your team about more freely, to holographic decoy/s that can be used to distract enemies and buy you a few seconds or maybe even the element of surprise.
Each character has their own stats, so you can see how a player has performed with them in the past. There's also a ton of customisation options, and using the contents of the loot crates you unlock as you progress you can tweak the appearance of your favourites along with a number of other personalisation options (including lots and lots of weapon skins). Apparently, there are more legends to come but the selection at launch is solid if a little on the low side, but then again, everything feels really nicely balanced at the moment and that's much more important than having a whole heap of characters to choose from. Given how many people have jumped into the game since it released, there's every reason to expect that Respawn is going to have plenty of time to add more legends to the roster.
Which leaves us with the inevitable final question; is Apex Legends the best battle royale shooter so far? And to that, we'd say: not quite. The three-player setup means there can be a fair amount of downtime when you're just watching on in hope, and you could argue that the inclusion of a solo mode at launch would've given even more variety especially as playing with randoms can be a most unsatisfactory experience. That said, we wouldn't rate any other battle royale game higher either, and between Apex Legends, Fortnite, and Blackout the genre is in great shape (and that's not forgetting PUBG and the myriad of other options that keep popping up). With one of this trio part of the most successful shooter series on the planet, and the other two completely free-to-play, it's no wonder that so many other promising battle royale shooters are struggling to keep up.
9 / 10
Tense and tactical battle royale action, fun characters with interesting abilities, looks good, great gunplay, free-to-play.
Expensive microtransactions, some downtime which can be frustrating if you're playing with randoms.