Apex Legends Feels Incredibly Cynical

It was the 90s! Spice Girls! Nude darts! Playstations! Obviously only the latter interested me, and amongst all the gaming triumphs on Sony’s behemoth the port of Mechwarrior 2 really caught my attention. One particular mission really stood out. Tasked with infiltrating an enemy base, I was disappointed when I found out that in practice this turned out to simply mean wandering around a courtyard without being attacked by the usual baddie mechs. “How cool,” I thought, “would it be if you actually had to do something at the base as a pilot, climbing out to see your giant stomping cyber death machine towering imposingly over you?”

Fast forward 20 years (Little Mix! Fidget spinners! Socially acceptable neo-Nazism!), Respawn Entertainment’s Titanfall series instantly justified its place on FatNicK’s hard drive of awesomeness. Not only had they managed to turn my earlier wish into a reality, but they went far beyond it. In Titanfall not only can the player choose whether or not they want to fight on foot or in a giant stomping cyber death machine, but those who chose the former still have a fair chance to take down the latter without causing the mechs to feel weak or underpowered. It’s a balancing act that amounts to digital alchemy.

Consequently I wasn’t too upset to learn that Respawn were working on a battle royale. It was a bit rubbish that the ‘rumours’ suggested that there would be no Titans, granted, but I hoped if anyone could fix the flaws in battle royale and move the genre in a new and much more exciting direction, it would be Respawn.

No, what upset me is that Apex Legends is quite clearly one of the most cynical releases of recent times.

Perhaps the first and most irritating aspect of of Apex Legends is that it isn’t a terrible game. By inheriting Titanfall’s basic movement controls (if not its more advanced and entertaining parkour-related features), the basic act of moving through the game world and targeting/shooting opponents is still incredibly polished and enjoyable – more so than some of the other battle royales out there.

However beyond that everything feels like a bit of a mess. Considering that Respawn singlehandedly created a new standard for placing giant mechs into first person shooters while quietly creating a parkour system which is up there with the likes of Mirror’s Edge, it seems massively disappointing that standard battle royale mechanics – complete with their inherent flaws – have been transplanted from PUBG and its imitators. Do you arrive via the air and skydive to any location under the carrier’s flight plan? Absolutely. Will you have to raid dozens of useless item drops because most of them will only supply you with a pistol and 15 different rifle stocks? Yes you will! Hiking for 15 mins of tedium before being shot in the back by a morbidly obese shut-in? Cowabunga!

Indeed, the only real attempts at ‘innovation’ seem to be elements that are quite transparently lifted from other games. These transplants, like my own attempts at amateur surgery, come with mixed success. As the game currently only supports team play the spotting system brought over from disappointing atrocity simulator Battlefield V is polished and works as intended. By way of contrast, the heroes themselves – conceptually pretty much stolen from Overwatch – don’t work quite as well.

While in Overwatch the special abilities of the heroes are tempered by the fixed arsenal each character has access to, in Apex Legends any character is free to use any weapon they find. Consequently this means that, though robotic scout Pathfinder’s abilities are centered around the ability to rappel to high places, this may not be of much use to a player if the only weapons they can find before being sniped by a Mountain Dew-addicted 12-year old are pistols or shotguns.

As a consequence, Apex Legends is a disappointingly average game. As battle royale games go it is polished and the basic play mechanics perform well enough. However it becomes clear pretty quickly that this is a game primarily designed to poach players from other battle royale titles, with every other mechanic having to be cynically structured around this overriding objective.

Now in all of the articles Apex Legends is presented as some sort of plucky underdog, but it’s clear that this title has the full financial backing from one of the biggest and most crooked publishers on the planet. On the non-traditional front, about half of the sponsored tweets on my feed this week have been about Apex Legends, while the (not so shocking) revelations about the sexuality of some of the characters has kept the ‘organic’ Twitter chat ticking over. On Twitch it’s clear that a number of influential streamers were brought on board early at the very least (if not actually ‘sponsored’) to ensure the game had visibility on the streaming scene. On the traditional side, the main journalistic gaming outlets had suspiciously similar articles ready for the game’s launch, followed by a constant drip of revelations throughout the week (‘Bloodhound identifies as non binary!’ ‘Here’s why Apex has no Titans!’)

I’m loath to be overly irritated by a marketing team doing a good job. Indeed, I think we should laud them for it. They found a gap in the schedule, kept the game under wraps for months and used every channel they could to gain maximum exposure. Watch and learn, folks. Watch and learn.

One aspect that did irritate me however is the gaslighting. Considering that Respawn managed to get pilot-on-mech combat working inside relatively small urban arenas, it seems a little far fetched that it was impossible for them to work their titans into much larger maps which contain both wide open spaces and more enclosed and cover-filled areas that would make for perfect Titan ambush points. It seems awfully convenient that – out of all their experiments – the core mechanics that provedthe most entertaining just happened to be the ones that a Fortnite or PUBG player could leap into with only minimal adjustment.

Equally, despite the articles dedicated to the contrary, I find it difficult to believe that a publisher like EA had no hand in steering a game that quite clearly has the full weight of its marketing department behind it. Indeed,unless there’s been a particularly fractious split, is it really normal for studios to take to the media to denounce their publishers?

The wasted potential is also something that annoys me. There are some developers who are really good at latching onto an existing genre and simply doing it really well. There are other developers who are better at creating the mechanics that lead to those new genres. The fact is there are several other games that play more or less like Apex Legends but only Titanfall really plays like Titanfall. If the mech series absolutely had to be retired, I’d have much rather have seen Respawn work on something new they could genuinely call their own instead of a title that is so clumsily built on top of the work of others.

Finally: you ‘orrible lot! Considering how the apparent depravity of EA is a consistent (if slightly overegged) gaming opinion, I find it strange that you’ve all given a free pass to a title that fulfills the dictionary definition of average (let’s not forget that Apex Legends isn’t even the first battle royale to include heroes) Even obvious ‘pinkwashing’, which certainly caused me to raise my eyebrow when considering Overwatch’s immense LGBTQ following, seems to have been given a thumbs up. It’s funny, these days I’d generally argue that we could all do with being a little less cynical. In Apex Legends’ case, I think we should probably be a little more so.