Today in “WTF EA”: Why Apex Legends’s surprise launch makes a strange sense

Nyne lives? —

Plus, impressions of Respawn’s first game in over two years: A battle royale shooter.


There's some nitpicking about <em>Apex Legends</em> below, but I will say this: I dig its character designs. Even if there are only eight thus far.” src=”https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Screenshot-50-800×371.png”></img><figcaption>
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There’s some nitpicking about

Apex Legends

below, but I will say this: I dig its character designs. Even if there are only eight thus far.

EA / Respawn

A few days ago, I saw a rumor emerge about a new PC and console video game from EA called Apex Legends, which would marry the high-speed mechs-and-guns combat of Titanfall with a free-to-play economy and a battle royale gimmick.

Upon learning that the news had come from an unverified source, I laughed the whole thing off. “Why would EA stealth-release a new, online-only video game in the same month as another new, online-only video game?” I asked myself.

Why indeed.

The news picked up steam over the weekend, and a tweet in the middle of the Super Bowl confirmed it: Apex Legends was a real game. Yes, it was a free-to-play battle royale shooter from the makers of Titanfall, set in the Titanfall universe. However, it doesn’t have any of the series’ trademark wall-running (what?) or massive robot-armor suits (WHAT?). Sure enough, this game was launching on Monday, February 4, for free on PC, Xbox One, and PS4. If you’re wondering, that’s less than three weeks before Bioware’s sprawling, sci-fi team-combat game Anthem hits stores.

I’ve since put Respawn’s new game through as many paces as I could in its single day of existence. Before getting into that, I’d like to dig into the absolutely bizarre fact that, yes, EA is once again positioning a major Titanfall-themed title within the launch window of another massive video game. What is going on?

The simplest answer is often the best

Here’s what we know:

In October 2018, EA teased that its wholly owned subsidiary, Respawn Entertainment,  would release “games”—no extra emphasis, just a surprise plural—by holiday 2019. At that time, the only Respawn game we knew about was Jedi: Fallen Order, one of the many titles announced in the EA/Star Wars deal.

Since that October 2018 tease, one of the company’s expected Star Wars games, which had already been set back by a total reboot, was scrapped. EA has only gone so far as to say that the game in question, which had been known by code names Ragtag and Orca, “will evolve into future Star Wars content and games.”

In November, Battlefield V launched for PC, Xbox One, and PS4, and, while its formal sales numbers haven’t yet been announced, they aren’t looking great so far. The best public numbers we have come from UK sales agency UKIE/GfK, which noted a severe dip in Battlefield V‘s launch-week sales compared to those of Battlefield 1 two years earlier.

But even if

BFV

somehow breaks even by adding more digital sales than

BF1

had in the same period (far from a guarantee), it loses out in a key EA sales metric: season passes and microtransactions.

BFV

had

all season-pass content stripped

as part of a Jar Jar-sized mea culpa following the

disaster

that was 2017’s

Star Wars Battlefront II

. EA thought that gesture of goodwill would result in a big leap in sales and that the newer game’s momentum might be jolted by a promise of a—get this—battle royale-styled mode.

The Battlefield series is already popular for its massive maps and 64-player battles; surely, it’d kick the 1-vs-99 genre’s door down with gorgeous battlefields, big tanks, and refined mechanics. But its developers at DICE have yet to offer any hints of Battlefield Royale’s launch window, price, or gameplay footage.

EA previously told stockholders that BFV would help drive a fiscal Q4 goal of $1.375 billion in net revenue. That was before BFV‘s launch failed to meet expectations. And if EA wants to comfort stockholders about its future earning potential, it probably shouldn’t let any of them read about Anthem‘s first public demo, which took place over the past two weekends. Even after overlooking its worst temporary problems, I still cannot fathom how the unoptimized, buggy mess I played is going to cross the retail finish line this month with enough positives to outweigh the negatives.

EA has also begun moving forward on compliance with a very tiny nation’s ban on loot boxes. As my colleague Kyle Orland pointed out, Belgium’s ban on the practice won’t necessarily sap EA’s wider international portfolio, buoyed in part by EA Sports’ Ultimate Team modes being available across most of the globe (and making a ton of money, at that). But it does remind us that many other nations (along with the state of Washington) are keen to follow legislative suit.

Command and Conquer: Rivals, the classic RTS series’ microtransaction soup of a mobile version, formally launched in December on iOS and Android. It has fallen off both platforms’ top-50 lists.

Last on my far-from-comprehensive list: EA’s Q3 2019 investor call takes place in… let’s see… a few hours, at 5pm EST on Tuesday, February 5. Roughly one day after Apex Legends‘ launch.

Duty calls…

To be clear: Respawn has come out ahead of potential naysaying and insisted that this game was all Respawn’s idea, not EA’s. But Apex Legends‘ mix of polish, problems, and timing still makes me think to myself, “isn’t this a coinkydink.” Thus, here we are, checking out a free-to-play battle royale game (as a stopgap for another already-announced battle royale game!) that immediately has a microtransaction-loaded store ready for your token conversions.

  • Welcome to Apex Legends, where every battle royale battle requires that you play in a team of three. (No solo or duos here.) What makes this more tolerable? Click through the gallery for the answer.

  • The ping system! A single button press lets you automatically target any object (an item, a bad guy, a path) to point it out to teammates. It makes playing this genre without a headset that much easier.

  • The game only ships with one island. Here is its map.

  • Another look from the “drop” angle. One player controls all three squadmates’ dives, though players can wrest control and dive individually if they want.

  • But I just don’t get the aesthetic Respawn is going for here. Nothing about this island feels unified or lovely.

  • Ever seen a slightly charred forest before?

  • This little swampy section looks cooler in action, to be fair, with ziplines connecting houses that are otherwise inaccessible.

  • Zoom to strike.

  • Yep, there’s useful stuff in there. Like other battle royale games, Apex makes you pick up all-new weapons, armor, and items every match.

  • Here’s an example of the items you might find. You’ll need a “backpack” item to add more slots. Different items come in different rarity colors, as well.

  • You’ll also get… ugh… loot boxes.

  • Instead of duplicate loot, you get scrap. How much is a single loot box’s scrap worth?

  • …that’s going to take a lot of loot boxes to get up to that much scrap.

Apex Legends is, at best, a competent online shooter that copies an insane number of battle royale conventions. I may fall asleep typing this list: drop from the sky onto an island; pilfer whatever weapons, armor, and items you can find scattered around; keep your eyes on a constantly shrinking circle of death, which forces each match’s 60 combatants ever-closer to each other; vie to be the last team standing.

You may look at the terms “Titanfall” and “battle royale” and start salivating. Robots! Big, honkin’ robots that players can call down from the sky, leap into, and operate as machines of death! Now that is a battle royale tweak. These delightful monstrosities are nowhere to be found in Apex Legends, however, in spite of the game advertising itself as part of the “Titanfall universe.” Fans of the series may hear about the lack of robots and at least hope for the series’ delightful wall-running and double-jumping moves, which make its non-mech sections plenty delightful, as well, but nope.

Respawn has already said in interviews that it tested those original Titanfall mechanics in a battle royale sandbox and found they didn’t fit with their design vision. So be it. But why even mention the Titanfall “universe” in that case? If someone ever tries to sell me a “battle royale” version of Rocket League, only to remove the ball and the goals and replace all of its super-powered cars with bicycles, I’m going to have words.

What remains is standard run-and-gun combat that feels less like PUBG or Fortnite and more like Call of Duty—which makes sense, considering Respawn Entertainment was formed by ex-CoD devs. I’ve played my fair share of CoD’s version of battle royale, which shipped in Black Ops 4 in October, and it’s totally solid stuff in terms of gameplay. (Its microtransaction model is another matter.)

In some ways, Apex Legends is right on par with CoD’s caliber of competent, powerful gunplay. Weapons are punchy and predictable by default, and careful island hoarders will lap up the range of weapon attachments needed to drop recoil and supercharge their guns for epic endgame shootouts. But where CoD sets itself apart with some really fun gadget options, Apex Legends only has an Overwatch-like “power” system as a big selling point. This means you have to choose from one of eight classes (and no three-person team can have two of the same class), who each come with one “passive” ability, one minor power that requires a 10-second recharge, and one major power that takes much longer to recharge.

These powers feel pretty anodyne. Many of these dump waves of damage into a given zone (maybe bombs from above, maybe a noxious gas cloud) that can hamper your teammates as much as your foes. Others create temporary quick-movement options, but they do so with easy-to-spot objects like zip lines and shining portals—so they mostly put a giant target on your team’s back if you use them. My favorite character has an easily recharged ability of sending a running decoy in any direction to draw out enemy fire… but this character, Mirage, is one of the two characters at launch who must be unlocked, either by the slow grind of leveling up or by paying roughly $7.50 in microtransaction tokens.

  • Before each match, you and your two squadmates (always two) pick from the following eight classes. (EA hasn’t confirmed whether we should expect more.)

  • Each class gets three powers: a passive ability, a minor rechargeable ability, and a major rechargeable ability. Otherwise, they have identical speed, strength, health, and so on.

  • That zip-line power puts a giant target on your back. I don’t recommend using it unless you like having your entire team spotted throwing a giant line into the sky. But this class’ grappling hook is one of the only really Titanfall-y powers in the whole game.

  • These last two currently cost $7.50 in the game’s token currency to purchase.

  • Mirage is my favorite. But unlike the first six, he costs money to use.

Otherwise, Apex differentiates itself with smaller-scale tweaks that feel less like genre differentiators and more like good ideas up for every other competitor to steal. The best is a robust one-button “ping” feature, which lets any soldier look at something on the battlefield—an opponent, a useful item, a path—and mark it on everyone else’s heads-up display. Anyone who has played higher-level PUBG knows the common annoyance of calling out a specific piece of gear, then having to use voice chat to tell them where to go or which story of the building the shield is on. Respawn’s tweak on this genre annoyance is a godsend, and I look forward to Epic swiping it for Fortnite any day now.

The other tweak is that players can tap the “crouch” button if they’re running on a decline, at which point they… slide slightly faster down said hill. Whee! It’s fine, but nobody who plays battle royale seriously is going to employ that kind of movement very often, especially since the game’s downhill slides are mostly in very open spaces. (Meaning: the worst places to be in a battle royale game.)

A downhill slide, huh?

Apex Legends has the look of an early PS4 game, what with its “military island scorched by global warming” aesthetic that mixes ho-hum foliage with cookie-cutter metal buildings. Worse, there’s something wrong with the PC version’s optimization at launch; where Titanfall 2‘s online modes consistently hum on my testing rig (i5-6600K, RTX 2080) at 60fps/4K resolution, I have to drop Apex to 1440p to enjoy the same stutter-free combat.

And at launch, players only have access to one small island, with only a couple of inspiring zones (particularly a swamp town whose buildings are connected by zip ties that you can swing across) that appear between a ton of copied-n-pasted outdoor shooter tropes. It’s the kind of bland combat arena that reminds you that for all of Fortnite‘s oversaturation, at least its art team puts some fun and originality into its open-world designs.

Apex Legends trailer.

Let’s be clear: this is nowhere near the rushed mess that we got from 2018’s Radical Heights. There’s plenty of fun to be had here for the low, low price of free (or at least “free”). But it’s also a really strange release from Respawn—as in, this is the first playable product they’ve released since Titanfall 2 in late 2016. (And it’s apparently the only thing we’ll see for a while, as the team has confirmed in interviews that there’s no Titanfall 3 in the wings.) Just one map? Barely any new combat ideas? More originality and spark in its microtransaction store than its “TF2 but slower” gameplay?

It’s uncertain if EA and Respawn have enough ideas to keep this game alive and kicking in a genre that is absolutely not suffering for options. Fortnite has to remix its combat arenas roughly every six weeks just to keep its massive player base’s attention. Is Apex Legends built to flex in the same way? I’m not so sure, and I have reason for my skepticism. The last time I saw a “familiar but snappy” shooter try to pump a few sci-fi ideas into the battle royale genre, I got very excited—only to watch that game’s player base crumble as a response to a lack of updates and support. And that game didn’t have a corporate parent trying to juggle two brand-new “always online” shooters with fan bases desperately hungry for quality-of-life updates on a regular basis.

Apex Legends‘ downhill slide maneuver may be fast, but here’s to hoping it’s not a metaphor for what’s to come.

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