Despite Titanfall 2 not being quite as successful at launch as Respawn and EA might have hoped, one of the biggest surprises of recent times is that Respawn have moved on from that game and that particular style of play. Apex Legends launched last night, but features none of the falling Titans, none of the wall-running and double jumping, and heads off to take on the titans of the Battle Royale genre.
Design Director Mackey McCandlish explained to us how the shift came about: “Well, we finished Titanfall 2 and identified the opportunities that we wanted to pursue in the future. [We identified that] social play is important, and Titanfall 1 and 2 suffered a bit from ‘play together, alone.’ It was a game that encouraged you to spread out around the map and not to be in one place, and it’s hard to try to wall run and follow a guy in front. So we wanted more social play that was play together, we wanted to be free to play, because we identified that games as a service wants you to be Free to Play, and if you can continually support the game you can make the game continue to grow.”
“We also wanted to continue this trend we started from Titanfall 2, where we switched from a mix and match model to a character-based model. In Titanfall 1, pilots and Titans were all mix and match, but in Titanfall 2 the Titans were our first steps away from the mix and match, so they were all character-based, you didn’t get to change their weapons, you didn’t get to change their loadouts.”
As Respawn experimented with all of this, they collided with the emerging Battle Royale genre in early 2017. As Mackey mentioned Respawn’s process of rapid prototyping which led, amongst other things, to Titanfall 2’s dialogue options and the superb time travel level, it makes sense that they would latch onto this new idea and chase after it, even if it meant that it took them away from developing Titanfall 3.
“It’s a disruptive opportunity to change what people are playing, like when MOBAs came along and disrupted RTS games. It doesn’t happen very often and when it does it’s a chance for another company to get its foot in the door. […] Now, obviously, we’re coming out almost two years after the genre, but that’s because we wanted to do a AAA version, and it’s also because we felt like we were coming from an established IP.”
Apex Legends started off built on the foundations of Titanfall 2, making the biggest map possible, featuring as many characters as possible, and went from there, challenging the initial pillars of Battle Royale and Titanfall along the way.
“I think with the very first version it was just pilots, but then we tried putting a Titan here and a Battery there, so you first have to find the battery to put into the Titan. We quickly realised that Battle Royale has its own rules, its own assumptions or genre conventions that games are discovering are true and important to the genre, like 100 players or a staging ground before you play the game, that it’s for 1, 2 or 4 players. These conventions were being established by PUBG and then reinforced by other games in the genre.”
In the process, they’ve made dozens of smart changes for a squad-based Battle Royale, some of which are more readily apparent than others. I spoke in our early hands on feature last night about how there’s a Jumpmaster to keep players together as they drop, there’s a truly ingenious Smart Comms system that makes communicating without a headset a breeze – or as pointed out to me on Twitter, for players who are deaf or unable to speak – and being able to respawn fallen squadmates means you don’t always have to sit on the sidelines or quit out if one of you dies early on.
Less obvious is the impact that characters have on the formula, giving you contrasting abilities that make team composition and player strengths important to consider beyond the guns they seek. Some have real nuance to them, such has Wraith, who passively “predicts” incoming dangers, can step into an alternate dimension for a few moments, and can create portals to teleport between two points.
“I mean, I’ve got to say she’s my favourite character,” Mackey said, “but I played her for a month before I finally started to click with her ultimate. I was up on a ridge with a sniper rifle and shotgun looking down at a building that had an enemy squad in there, and I said, ‘Wait! That’s what I can use the portal for!’ So I put one end of the portal on top of the watchtower, jumped down and went under the building to put the other, went in the building to start shotgunning them, went back through the portal to get back up there with a sniper rifle, and they’re running out of the building to get away from someone shotgunning them, and I start sniping them!”
Just last night, I was able to do something similar. With enemies sniping down on me and a buddy from a vantage point, I created the first portal, stepped into the void and sprinted forward, then created the end portal, creating a safe passage across treacherous ground so we could blitz their vantage point.
Smarter play has also been enabled by the design of the Kings Canyon map. Mackey explained, “A convention of Battle Royale is large maps, long sight lines, big terrain with no chokepoints. That was a convention that we challenged from first principles, and we found that our approach to map design, where you have intimate Deathmatch style arenas actually could work in Battle Royale.
“So a signature feature in our map is that there’s arena-like Deathmatch towns, but there’s also chokepoints on the map where you see where the ring is going and could go two ways, but it’s a chokepoint choice, not just traversing terrain. That creates some really interesting dynamics where you have to anticipate enough to get ahead, and if you’re already ahead, you’re going to see players coming through the chokepoint and can set up an ambush.”
But how can the map continue to grow and evolve over time? Or will Respawn add further maps? Mackey was tight-lipped: “Map evolution, be it through change to the map or change to a different map, is an important part of the genre. We’re focussed on the launch right now, but we’re working on things and you’ll know more about what we’re doing with maps in the future.”
Any changes and additions will come alongside a series of seasons that have already been outlined, each lasting for three months and featuring a new character, new weapon and a bunch of new cosmetics that will hopefully lead to the game being profitable.
Of course, there’s still bound to be a lot of people disappointed that this isn’t Titanfall 3, that it’s the Titanfall team that are committed to making it, and that it lacks that series’ unique movement style and great big mechs. It does still continue the story, in some ways. “This is the continuation of the universe, but I think you might have noticed that Blisk puts his card down [in the game’s intro], it says Apex Predators and this is the Apex Legends Tournament.”
Our advanced time with Apex Legends came at an event in Los Angeles last week. Travel and accommodation were provided by EA.