The Holy Grail in gaming right now is the Fortnite killer.
Every company wants in on the sweet, sweet battle royale action popularized by PlayerUnknowns Battlegrounds (PUBG) and then commoditized by Epic Games’ obscenely successful Fortnite.
Companies big and small are throwing their hats in the ring to get a slice of the pie. And when at first they don’t succeed, they will try again (and again, and again).
The latest and possibly even greatest entry is Apex Legends, a game that no one knew existed until it was out in the world, and it has already blown up, hitting 10 million players in just three days and 25 million in its first week.
Apex Legends comes at an interesting time for publisher Electronic Arts, whose Battlefield V, despite selling over 7 million copies, didn’t meet their expectations. In the company’s recent earnings call, CEO Andrew Wilson blamed this disappointment in part on their decision to not put out another Battle Royaler and instead focus on a single-player campaign.
Which is to say, the opposite of what Activision did with the latest Call of Duty. Black Ops 4’s biggest innovation was jumping on the bandwagon for a franchise that once defined its genre, removing the campaign and replacing it with an excellently crafted Battle Royale mode of its own. Though that has proved popular, publisher Activision wasn’t entirely happy with its performance either, and the company announced in its own earnings call that the next entry will bring the solo campaign back. Go figure.
All Battle Royalers—PUBG, Fortnite, Black Ops 4, Apex Legends—share a core conceit: you and dozens of others are flown over an enormous island. You dive down, aiming for a space where you can safely gather weapons and supplies. You are unarmed and unarmored. You have one life.
The map begins to contract. As players are picked off, you get closer and closer to the remaining players—always the most dangerous.
If you/your team are the last alive, you win a chicken dinner, bragging rights, or maybe even millions of dollars a year from regular folks who just want to watch you play.
Of them, Fortnite remains the most interesting to spectate, as a result of its short matches and an easy-to-use-but-hard-to-master building mechanic, which, in the hands of an expert, is a sight to behold. All of this is made more fun by its cartoonish aesthetic.
Plus it’s free, so anyone can try it out and get sucked in with no money down. Since it is now available on every platform under the sun, it has an unparalleled reach that has resulted in more than two hundred million players signing up since its 2017 launch.
Now, Apex Legends is gunning for it. And it, too, is free to play. It’s nearly frictionless to just give it a shot, and everybody is taking advantage.
Those amazing initial numbers that it’s put up, including two million concurrent players at some point in its first weekend, have a lot of room to grow, and will definitely do so. Each match contains 20 three-person squads, enticing players to bring in their friends who will bring in their friends, and so on and so forth. Soon, the game will allow people across platforms to play with and against each other, a rising trend in online games that signals the death knell of the bad old days where your ability to play with friends was based on a shared console of choice.
But whatever platform you try Apex Legends on, it’s not going to be a one-and-done affair. Because the real trick to Apex Legends wasn’t its buzz-building out-of-nowhere release or even its free-as-in-beer nature; no, it’s the fact that the game is really, really good.
And why wouldn't it be? These are the same folks who made Titanfall: Respawn Entertainment.
Respawn was founded by Call of Duty veterans, and their pedigree showed when they released what could reductively be described as CoD with Mechs in Titanfall. The addition of pilotable robots to the extremely solid first-person fundamentals really seemed like it might be the start of a whole new juggernaut franchise.
But then the sequel was buried by its publisher, released smack dab in between EA’s own Battlefield 1 and that year’s Call of Duty. Its commercial failure was as inevitable as it was frustrating.
With Apex Legends, Respawn is finally getting the broader recognition they have always deserved.
Like Black Ops, it is a strictly first-person affair; but like Fortnite, it is definitely a cartoon, eschewing the photorealistic aspirations of CoD for a look reminiscent of Gearbox’s 2009 shooter Borderlands. And that look is more significant to the gaming experience than you might think.
Where Black Ops excels is in the tension you feel as you peek around corners, the first-person view locking you into a constant, claustrophobic dread. Every mad dash across a field is terrifying, knowing full well that someone can see you and is probably lining up that shot. The visual realism heightens the fear, as do the unsettlingly lifelike gunshots exploding in the distance.
Apex Legends, on the other hand, is not scary. Despite the fact that a few bad choices could easily result in your entire squad being taken down, whether you’re in minute one of the match or 15, that simple act of traversal through an uncovered area isn’t tense—it’s exhilarating. You move quickly and responsively, and I could spend hours just sliding and jumping and roping around. Even before you encounter an enemy, you’ll be having a genuinely good time. And when you do get to encounter them? That feels great, too. There are a handful of characters—each with their own special moves—that can help your team turn the tide of battle, and figuring out how best to utilize them adds another layer of strategy to the proceedings.
Since there’s no solo play (yet), it’s critical that the game allows for effective communication among team members, and Apex Legends does it better than anyone. Even if you aren’t wearing a headset, you can simply coordinate using the “Ping” system, which I fully expect (and hope) every single team-based shooter will copy in the years ahead. Other features, like the ability for a capable teammate to be brought back from death by a teammate from a respawn point, really drive home the cooperative nature of the experience. So does the character selection screen, in fact, as each member of the squad chooses a character in sequence, so you’ll never inadvertently end up with three of the same specialists. These details show an incredible amount of care and craft went into this game. Secret though it was, Apex Legends clearly wasn’t rushed.
What remains to be seen is how the game will evolve over time. Crucial to Fortnite’s long-term success has been Epic Games’ commitment to expanding the experience. They’ve done so with everything from new modes and styles of play to a full-on Marshmello concert complete with digital recreations of the sorts of digital backgrounds that the DJ himself uses in his shows.
And it gives people a reason to keep logging on as their interest wanes.
Apex Legends is off to a fantastic start, with a near-flawless base of mechanics for Respawn to build on in the weeks, months, and years to come. And if they can do that, keeping things fresh or spicing it up (mechs, please), then the company may have found its Holy Grail.