Confirming the weekend’s worst-kept video game secret, Electronic Arts and Respawn Entertainment announced Apex Legends, a free-to-play battle royale shooter game set in the Titanfall universe. The game is available today to download and play on the Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC.

News started leaking since Friday. Vince Zampella, CEO of Respawn, hinted at the launch when he tweeted a four-hour countdown to an announcement on Monday morning. I’ve played this on the PC on EA’s Origin platform. The gameplay is fun, thanks to some key design choices that the Respawn team made.

I think it’s going to be very well received, even though it’s coming very late in the battle royale market dominated by Fortnite, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Call of Duty: Blackout, and other titles. It’s the first game that Respawn is releasing since EA bought the Los Angeles studio for $455 million in 2017. And it looks like EA may get its money’s worth.

Because it’s so different from the first two Titanfalls, which were shooters with big mechs, the team decided to brand the game with a different kind of name, Apex Legends.

“While it is in the Titanfall universe, it’s something new and unique,” said Zampella in an interview with GamesBeat. “We want people to know that and understand that. Someone might have heard that Titanfall is such a hardcore game, so maybe if this one is branded that way, they don’t want to try it. This is something new. Come and give it a fair chance.”

Development background

Vince Zampella is CEO and cofounder of Respawn Entertainment, maker of Apex Legends.

Above: Vince Zampella is CEO and cofounder of Respawn Entertainment, maker of Apex Legends.

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

The secrecy and speed with which Respawn made this game are surprising. While the team toyed with survival-game designs before, it began working on what would become Apex Legends in spring 2017. At that time, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds blew up into a viral hit, catching the company’s attention, said Respawn design director Mackey McCandlish in an interview with GamesBeat.

“It was just one guy making a map and another guy putting the mode in at first, back in late March or early April of 2017,” he said. “It wasn’t until after Frontier Defense shipped that we had some more bandwidth. Those guys then joined our nascent battle royale. We identified, through our wide prototyping, that there was an opportunity within the squad, social space.”

They did a lot of iteration, trying out ideas like putting Titans, the hallmark of the previous two Titanfall games, in the battle royale game. But Zampella and the rest of the team learned that it didn’t make sense for balance reasons. The Legends characters, however, have a lot of additional capabilities that normal ground troops wouldn’t have.

“Once you play it, you don’t even think about that. It has to be fun,” Zampella said. “You could force something in for the sake of a name or an identity, but this is part of the Titanfall universe. It’s not just about having giant Titans. It’s about the characters, having more identifiable characters and less generic sci-fi pilots.”

What’s interesting is that EA has more big games coming soon. BioWare’s Anthem is launching soon, and the DICE studio in Sweden is reportedly working on a battle royale mode for Battlefield V.

“I mean, I hope their game does well too. [Battle royale] is a new mode that’s kind of — it’s a genre, right? It’s here to stay,” Zampella said. “Battlefield V can exist. They’re doing things differently. They have the vehicles and those Battlefield moments that feel completely different from us. I don’t think we have to worry about them.”

Drew McCoy, project lead at Respawn, said at a preview event that the game takes place 30 years after the events of Titanfall 2 — in a remote section of the universe dubbed the Outlands.

“This isn’t a game anyone expected us to make, especially us at Respawn,” McCoy said. “We chase the fun.”

Battle royale innovations

A squad of three descends on the map of Apex Legends.

Above: A squad of three descends on the map of Apex Legends.

Image Credit: EA/Respawn

Apex Legends adopts some design conventions of other battle royale games: the ever-shrinking circle on the battlefield, an aerial launch into a single large map, and landing on the ground having to scrounge for weapons. It has a wide variety of loot items, with three classes of weapons, some special gear, and items that will keep you alive like medkits and shields. You have to find loot, compete with others in a Hunger Games-style arena, and only one team is left standing at the end.

But the game is also designed for collaboration, with three players teaming up in a squad. Only 60 players, instead of 100, are on the Kings Canyon map, which is smaller than other battle royale maps. When you launch, only one player controls the squad and picks where the team will land. You can communicate via voice with the team but also mark spots on the map like locations of good weapons.

“It’s that whole theory of, we’re not just chasing a number. We’re chasing fun,” Zampella said. “We tried bigger. We tried smaller. And again, some of that will probably change over time. We’ll probably release other maps that are bigger if we decide they’re fun. This was just the — as we started playing and growing and shrinking, this number felt right. The 60 players in squads of three is the most fun we had.”

And if one player gets shot, others can heal that player. And if the player is killed, you can pick up the player’s tag, or banner card, and take it to a respawn point on the map to revive the player, who respawns without loot. The map has areas, such as high loot or medium loot, that are marked.

The user interface is fairly clean. You can see in the upper right-hand corner how many of the 20 squads remain in the action.

Starting the game

Overhead view of the map in Apex Legends.

Above: Overhead view of the map in Apex Legends.

Image Credit: EA/Respawn

As you get ready to play, one of the players chooses a character first. Once all three have chosen on a quick timer, the game starts. No lobby exists where players have to gather until everyone is ready. Instead, three players on a squad make their character selections, and the game loads right into the air drop.

After one player chooses a character first, the others follow. Then, another player gets to be “jumpmaster,” deciding where to drop on the map. Other players can suggest points by pressing down on the mouse wheel. But only the jumpmaster controls the jump so that all three of your squad land in exactly the same place.

If you spot a dropship hovering over the map, you can try to land on it to get high-value loot. But chances are that the other teams will target the same location, and there will be a quick battle on the ship’s decks. I tried that once, and my team got wiped out.

Jumping together is good for keeping the team together, but it also means you compete for loot around the landing area. To help increase the cooperation, you can highlight items on the map with context-sensitive “smart prompts” to signal things that your comrades might need to know — like the location of a heavy weapon that you don’t need. And when you see the first enemy from a distance, you can highlight that enemy, and your teammates will see a red dot on the screen where you saw the enemy.

The characters are like comic book heroes

Gibraltar is the heavy tank of Apex Legends.

Above: Gibraltar is the heavy tank of Apex Legends.

Image Credit: EA

One of Respawn’s insights is that most of the players in battle royale games have to enter the match as a normal grunt. They may differentiate themselves with the weapons they find, but they’re all pretty much the same character. With Apex Legends, Respawn has brought the differentiation of co-op characters — like medics, assault, tank, or sniper characters — as well as others to the mix. Now players can control more of their style of play by picking a hero, or Legend, with known capabilities. That adds variety and replayability.

The game has eight zany characters, known as Legends, that feel like comic-book characters.

  • Pathfinder is a funny trash-talking robot, saying stuff like, “I believe with 10 kills, the loot should be mine.” He has a grappling hook and portable zipline. You can use the zipline to get back up to a drop ship and land in a different part of the map. Pathfinder is sadly always looking for his creator.
  • Mirage is a trickster, able to send out a few decoys to distract enemies while he closes in for a stealth kill.
  • Wraith exists in multiple dimensions, and so, she can open a portal on one part of the map and instantly appear in another. She’s the closest thing to a time traveler in the game.
  • Gibraltar is a tank-like character with a dome that can protect a whole squad.
  • Lifeline is a medic who has a big shield that can protect others while she’s healing them quickly. She has a healing drone and a care package that drops out of the sky.
  • Caustic is a sociopath who can drop poison gas that can kill a whole squad.
  • Bloodhound can see footprint trails and can quietly stalk others.
  • And Bangalore is a professional soldier with a lot of offensive capability.

Friendly monetization

McCoy said there is no “pay to win” monetization in the game. You can spend money on cosmetic items to make your character or your weapons look better. The randomized Apex packs that drop have cosmetics. All players have the ability to earn items that are in those Apex packs.

“We are protective of our players,” McCoy said. “We’re running away from pay to win or pay to power.”

You can make direct purchases in the shop, which has rotating items. You can buy the Apex packs with randomized cosmetics. You can purchase two of the Legend characters, Mirage and Caustic, or you can earn them. Those characters provide a different way to play, but they aren’t overpowered, McCoy said.

The Kings Canyon battle royale map in Apex Legends.

Above: The Kings Canyon battle royale map in Apex Legends.

Image Credit: EA/Respawn

Over time, Respawn plans to add new cosmetic items, customizations, and other kinds of updates for the game.

Zampella said, “It’s exciting for us because it’s something new for Respawn. It’s a new way of developing, the live service stuff. It’s embracing the future of how people take in content. It’s something new for EA. It’s putting EA in this position of slight discomfort. We haven’t done this before, but let’s do it. They’re embracing it and backing us. For me, it’s exciting to see that because that was the promise. Let’s get together and do great things. The fact that they’re living up to that is exciting.”