Apex Legends won’t dethrone Fortnite, but there’s still nothing like it

By Nick Statt

When Apex Legends surprise launched in early February, it took the gaming community by storm and instantly catapulted to the front of the battle royale pack. Now, nearly two weeks since developer Respawn launched its much-anticipated first season and battle pass subscription, the game’s roadmap finally feels clear enough to properly evaluate where it has succeeded and where it still has quite a lot of work to do.

When Apex Legends first launched, it was lauded for all the thoughtful ways Respawn reimagined how a battle royale game should work. Most notable was the ping system, which let players who typically shy away from on-mic multiplayer experiences communicate with teammates nonverbally. The feature was so well implemented that Epic quickly moved to copy it for Fortnite. Additionally, Apex’s respawn system removed one of the most frustrating elements of BR games — having a friend die while you survive — by giving players a tense and risky, but deeply rewarding, opportunity to bring squadmates back into the fray.

The novelty of those features has worn off a bit in the weeks since, and they’ve become something like customary elements of the Apex experience that keep it from becoming overly frustrating. What has actually kept Apex so fresh, fun, and fascinating is the way its design makes the core combat loop feel almost endlessly dynamic. Even two months in, every game has a unique rhythm to it.

In one recent game, my squad and I had bested two other full teams, only to find ourselves fighting for our lives inside the circle, in the valley of the Bridges, in an attempt to reclaim our lost loot after getting revived. In another match, we used the Pathfinder’s zip-lining abilities to pull a crafty flank at Runoff, leaving the final team stuck below us as they pushed into the final zone. And it’s never boring when you land on the roaming supply ship or at the Bunker, where you just might find yourself fighting a dozen other players with only your fists in an all-out frenzy.

These moments always have a unique flavor to them. One thing that separates Apex from competing battle royale games is that your enemies could have wildly different arsenals, abilities, and mobility options that make it possible to upend a familiar situation by injecting a new variable into the mix. What’s kept me coming back to Apex nearly every day is the fact that each game can, under the right circumstances, produce these adrenaline-fueled, chaotic situations that erupt out of nowhere. The rush from surviving even an early fight feels like you might as well have won the match.

There are a number of reasons why Apex delivers this when other competitive games don’t, and it’s hard to imagine other games like Fortnite won’t copy more of the formula soon. For one, it requires extreme precision and skill to down someone without that person having at least a second or two of wiggle room to squeeze out an escape. That means it’s easy to disengage, heal up, and find a new angle of attack. The subclass abilities only amplify that strategic push-pull, while extremely audible gunshots ensure that you’re never safe to sit on your hands and loot idly because a team could be rolling up to ruin your day at a moment’s notice.

Not only that, but you can carry the equivalent of a small medical clinic in your backpack, letting you heal yourself and your teammates without fearing you’ll run out of supplies. Even when you do get downed, you can ping opponents for your team and pull up an energy shield, which lets you defend yourself from a complete knockout and even draw enemy fire as a distraction. All of these design decisions create a game that incentivizes near constant conflict while simultaneously giving you a mountain of resources to stay alive and keep fighting.

Apex Legends has dropped from the number one spot on Twitch, where it enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity in its first few weeks after launch. But the game has nonetheless earned its spot in the growing battle royale pantheon by rethinking what makes these types of games fun. It’s not a Fortnite killer, but Respawn — having boiled down the best elements of its Titanfall series into a fast-paced, visceral BR shooter — has created an experience that will likely grow and thrive in the years to come. The issue now is figuring out how to keep it popular and fresh as even more entrants stake out a position in the ever-growing BR battlefield.

Apex Legends

No sentiment best exemplifies that issue than an Onion headline from earlier this week: “Apex Legends players finally getting good enough to make game impossible for average people to enjoy.” It’s a familiar gripe, especially for casual online multiplayer fans that don’t have the time or energy to try to match the hardcore community’s skill level as it ramps up over time. But it’s especially true of battle royale games, where you have just one match per life, and of Apex Legends in particular, where there’s little reason to play the game if you don’t have the intention of trying to win.

Respawn tried to alleviate the issue with the launch of its Fortnite-like battle pass, which features a leveling system based on experience points that rewards you for time spent playing. Unlike Fortnite, however, there are no weekly or seasonal challenges that create activities to do outside of murdering other players. That means that casual fans, those not good enough to win matches with regularity, are stuck playing against an ever-improving player base with little incentive to keep logging in.

The battle pass rewards are also lackluster. In Fortnite’s latest season, you can dress like a shapeshifting ninja or an anthropomorphic banana. In Apex, you’re stuck largely with drab camouflage character skins and generic weapon wraps. The only unlockable items unique to the game, like the banner badges and showy finisher sequences, are rarely seen, making them far less desirable.

The game’s approach to microtransactions and the in-game economy only makes things worse. Everything is grossly overpriced; a single legendary weapon skin in the rotating item shop costs $18. There are no $5 items, or even $10 or $15 ones. Some smart observers have pointed out that the high price tags are because Apex has a loot box system, sometimes awarding you a legendary, $18 item for just a $1 slot machine pull. But you’re given an ever-dwindling number of ways to earn those Apex packs without spending real money on a bundle of 10 or more, leaving players with almost nonexistent avenues for unlocking the items they may actually want and would likely pay for if the prices were lower.

The end result of all these additional layers is that players who aren’t quite serious about winning and constantly improving are left with a game that doesn’t reward them for their time and doesn’t provide more than a singular, win-focused way to play. Sure, Apex is a free game, but that makes it even easier to walk away when the shiny veneer of a new experience has worn off. And that’s a huge issue Respawn needs to address going forward.

The developer could consider following in Fortnite’s footsteps and adding new, limited-time game modes that play with the BR formula, or perhaps map-changing elements that keep the game environment fresh. Or Respawn could follow PUBG and add new, smaller maps with different server sizes to mix things up.

It’s clear that the battle pass and the in-game store need serious reworking. We don’t know how well the game is doing financially; maybe Apex is a huge moneymaker. Anecdotally, I don’t know a single player who feels comfortable spending $18 on a shiny shotgun wrapper, and loot boxes are fast becoming an easy target for regulators to crackdown on exploitative, gambling-like game design. It stands to reason that Respawn could sell far more cosmetic items if it dropped its prices, and the battle pass could certainly be made more attractive with the addition of some more well-designed skins and other unlockables.

None of the economic issues are enough to sink the game; Apex Legends remains an exhilarating shooter that does things its competitors don’t. But the fun factor of any online game, especially a free-to-play one, is a diminishing resource. As Epic has figured out with Fortnite, the attention economy is only getting more competitive. Video games are no longer just competing with other games on an ever-expanding number of platforms, but with Netflix, podcasts, and the rest of life.

If Respawn wants to make a hit that stays relevant, it needs to make Apex a game that can change and adapt just as fast as the attention spans of its players.