Apex Legends 2020 Review: Still in the Ring

Apex Legends 2020 Review: Still in the Ring

With cross-play and a Switch launch looming, now feels like a fine time for a reevaluation.

For a good, long while after it launched, Apex Legends was like a great song I couldn't get out of my head. I played it nightly, lying to myself over and over about doing just one more match and compensating with an extra large mug of coffee in the morning. It was one of a few constants in my routine with two separate life shake-ups: a transition to working from home, and starting my role here at USgamer. For about a year, Kings Canyon was my go-to for relaxation, excitement, and—on really tough days—a sense of normalcy.

While I was on a vacation to see friends and family in Montana early last summer, my mind kept drifting to the matches I was missing out on, a feeling I hadn't had about a game in well over a decade. Also, I accidentally got one pal hooked on it while I was there.

A lot has changed since those first months I spent with Respawn's battle royale in 2019. After five seasons of new content and updates, the game is quite different. And, while some saw the genre as waning when Apex was released, at least one other serious Fortnite contender has emerged since. These developments are why another review is warranted.

The shine from those early months might not be there for me in Apex Legends all the time, but the jolt I get from finishing a match as Apex Champion is as terrific as ever. As for some of the elements intertwined with Apex's core battle royale proficiency, certain parts could use work. Others, like Respawn's new storytelling efforts, stand to flourish with some love and care. With Apex slated to get cross-play later this year as it expands to the Nintendo Switch, that's one weakness set to be fixed; others remain, but there's no doubt in my mind that Apex is still an excellent experience in 2020, and is positioned well to get even better.

Opening up the Outlands

The core tenets of Apex remain much the same as when our Senior Editor Caty McCarthy reviewed it over a year ago. That is: 60 players divided into small teams of three (or, after the April Duos update, two) drop onto a map and compete to be the last ones alive. Weapons, armor, and other items are scattered across the massive arena, making looting a central part of the experience. The contextual ping system is as wonderfully handy as ever.

Yes, dropping into Skull Town was fun, but Kings Canyon is still good without it. | Respawn Entertainment/EA

Since launch, Apex has received new Legends, numerous tweaks, miscellaneous events, the Duos mode, and a whole new map—plus, Kings Canyon is nearly unrecognizable. Fortnite and Call of Duty: Warzone might be a bit quicker to push new content, but Apex is no slouch. Although Respawn CEO Vince Zampella initially said the studio would keep to more substantial seasonal updates, mid-season events and content drops have kept Apex evolving at a fairly consistent, fast pace (A recently unearthed Glassdoor review of Respawn alleges that things are moving too fast during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to crunch; Respawn has responded by saying it would sooner delay an update than lean into overwork).

With the Season launches, Apex has a leg up over other battle royales in that new Legends really can change the entire feel. So far, at least with the ideas behind each new Legend's ability and ultimate sets, it doesn't feel like Respawn is retreading familiar ground. Wattson and Caustic, for instance, have similar defensive capabilities on paper, but are differentiated enough to allow for unique playstyles. Loba (who, as a character, is unfortunately a bit trope-y) can bolster a team's looting spree in a way that doesn't make Lifeline's care packages irrelevant. A good chunk of time spent as Crypto isn't even tied to conventional FPS movement thanks to his drone.

Learning the ins and outs and synergies between Legends is good fun on a longer timescale, and in shorter stints, Respawn has also done a fine job introducing surprises and twists with limited time modes. My favorite event of its run so far has been the year-opening Grand Soiree event, which saw Apex quickly try on seven different modes. Should Apex have a permanent third-person mode? Probably not, but it was good fun for a few days.

One of Apex's most promising experiments with its limited time modes—and one almost certainly done because of Call of Duty: Warzone—was the late April move to drop players into the map with a P2020 pistol and armor equipped. It ever so slightly cut down on the early game loot rush, and I'm sort of surprised that the change or something like it hasn't become permanent.

With this current pace of seasonal Legend debuts and events in-between, Apex never goes that long without something new to check out. As for its daily cadence, Apex's overall approach to player progression does leave something to be desired.

Fortunes Fading

Apex's battle passes have improved since the slow trudge of Season One, and the other monetization schemes around it haven't been quite so brazen since the Iron Crown pushback last August, but neither aspect is perfect. As a free-to-play title, Apex's experience grind and cosmetics loop are designed so as to not be easily ignored, with the danger being that they can distract from the overall experience.

At PC Gamer, Emma Matthews has written the definitive take on the prime example of Apex's progression sins: the dreaded "get 12 assists" daily challenge. It's now been changed to a "get 12 kills or assists" challenge, but even that's a big ask of players who may only have time for a few matches per day. The first battle battle pass had no challenge system in place—that came in Season Two. The challenges help a bit, but right now, dailys are tilted to favor players who'll have no trouble completing the battle pass regardless.

Getting the option to spend Legend Tokens on rerolling daily challenges about four months after Season Two's launch did come as a relief. Still, some dailys beg for rerolls, which is easier for players sitting on a mountain of Tokens that are otherwise only used once per season on a new Legend or for skin variants. If, on the other hand, you're trying to save up (like I am on PC now), you're sort of stuck with what you get.

The battle pass grind, challenges, and tokens can get in the way of just enjoying Apex. It's heavy with loot boxes, and clearly made to encourage accruing stuff. Most of said stuff then doesn't matter much in-game; you don't see most of a skin in first-person, and things like banners, poses, and dive emotes mainly matter right before a match starts.

Finding a New Path

Unfortunately, this general approach to progression and monetization has also carried over to Season Five's new Quest system, which is Respawn's biggest venture into storytelling and character work with Apex yet. If you're a daily player, keeping pace with the Quests is free and easy. If not, the single-player or co-op levels (and associated cosmetic rewards) can be yours for some Apex Coins.

Season 5's story focuses on Loba and Revenant, but most Legends get a chance to shine. | Respawn Entertainment/EA

There's room for growth in the Quest mission design—Season Five's were repetitive, and mowing down Prowlers isn't all that fun to begin with—but at least the story weaved through them has been engaging. The generic science fiction worldbuilding of Titanfall that serves as the starting point for Apex got better with each story beat that the Quests served up.

Getting to see what the Legends get up to outside of the Apex Games is exciting. It enhances one of Apex's core conceits: that the Apex Games are just one part in some very shady business involving criminal mercenaries and powerful arms manufacturers. One of the things that initially endeared me to Apex is its in-universe framing as sports entertainment, which separates it from the wild brand promo mishmash of Fortnite and leaves less room for the kind of military fetishism that Call of Duty indulges in.

I like that Apex is basically "professional wrestling plus sci-fi guns," and I do hope Respawn continues to inject more story-focused content into the game. If there are more missions to come, I just hope they're easier to access and a bit more varied in design.

Too Much of Some Good Things, Too Little of Others

For the most part, Apex's core gunplay and battle royale mechanics haven't suffered much as Respawn makes additions and tinkers with Legends, but its balance as a hero shooter hasn't always been harmonious. It did take a long time and lots of updates to get Gibraltar to a point where he no longer feels like a liability or a nigh-unknockable powerhouse, and Lifeline and Octane players were left waiting for ability reworks while other Legends proved better or more versatile at similar roles. Mirage languished as a low-tier pick from launch until Season Five, when he finally got a long in-development buff.

Seriously, if you've fallen off of Apex, give the new-and-improved Mirage a spin. | Respawn Entertainment/EA

There is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't problem inherent in growing Apex over time. Get too agile in rolling out balance fixes or tweaks to Legends and players will have a hard time keeping up with the changes, good and bad alike.

Apex also has a growing loot pool, which has been met with an expansion of player inventories. New items like Evo Shields (shields that level up the more damage you net) and mobile respawn points add neat new layers to combat, but their mere existence drags out the amount of time spent juggling loot.

It feels like the upshot of most Legend tweaks and new items has been to make every firefight a little bit more survivable. There's more looting and more shooting, which does make matches where you do very little of the latter feel a bit more unsatisfying than they did in Apex's early days.

Going from Trios to Duos exacerbates these pacing issues, as the increase in teams from 20 to 30 leads to more fights and, by extension, less chance of surviving an early encounter. If one pair gets guns and the other lands on top of extended magazines and backpacks, having less backup (and less opportunity to use a Legend ability to escape or reposition) often means quick, irksome defeat.

Still Humming That Drop Theme to Myself...

For all my nitpicks and critiques, though, Apex Legends remains one of my favorite games in recent memory, and I anticipate I'll keep playing it for months, if not years to come. It's got the best gunplay and movement of any battle royale. I like most of its characters. Kings Canyon is still a great map, even sans Skull Town and Thunderdome, and World's Edge is a lot more fun than it was upon its debut thanks to some nice revamps.

I do hope that some of the looting loop gets streamlined, and I'd welcome any kind of experimentation with making player progression more than checklists and hurdles for rewards. These do feel like relatively minor concerns, and seeing Apex march onward into Season Six, Seven, and beyond without progress on those points wouldn't be a dealbreaker to me. I'm eager to see where Respawn takes its characters next, and I'll be plenty happy if Apex Legends merely continues to keep things interesting. At a time like this, I'm happy to have Apex as an option when the feeling strikes, and so long it doesn't stray too far from the sweet spot it's in now, I'm happy to keep its tune in heavy rotation.

After five seasons of updates and changes, Apex Legends is still very much the top-notch battle royale experience it was shortly after it launched. Recent efforts to fold more story content into its offerings show promise and elevate its setting, even if the first slate of Quest missions themselves were repetitive. The battle passes and the loot box-heavy progression approach can distract from Apex's core competencies at times. Respawn could take some match pacing notes from Warzone or even Hyper Scape, but overall, Apex Legends is looking plenty healthy as it approaches a launch on Switch and prepares to add cross-play.

4/5

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Mathew Olson

Reporter

Mathew Olson is a writer formerly of Digg, where he blogged and reported about all things under the umbrella of internet culture (including games, of course). He lives in New York, grew up under rain clouds and the influence of numerous games studios in the Pacific Northwest, and will talk your ear off about Half-Life mods, Talking Heads or Twin Peaks if you let him.

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