In perhaps the biggest surprise of the very young year, Respawn Entertainment has not only announced a new game that is not a sequel to the absolutely phenomenal Titanfall 2 but also released it as a squad-based, free-to-play battle royale first-person shooter that is both set in the Titanfall universe and has zero mechs. For those of you keeping score at home, none of those words make sense and you are right to still be reeling.

Somehow even more surprising, though, is that it is quite the game. It sounds like someone shook up a jar of gaming trends of the past decade and poured it out into a design doc, but this is a thoughtful, measured response to the current gaming landscape that is as inevitable as it was unlikely. And it does so while maintaining the core of what Respawn would like you to believe is Respawn’s ethos.

Let’s be clear: it is not reinventing the wheel here. In most battle royale way, it puts you and two teammates in the sky to land on an island with 19 other squads, a bevy of weapons and items to find littered across the map, and a shrinking, scientifically improbable circle that guarantees a marginal decrease in the odds of dying to the the world and a drastic increase in the odds of dying at all. If you know PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds or Fortnite, then you know Apex Legends.

The difference is everything Respawn has built around the core experience. It is impossibly smart in almost every regard. Some of them are also old hat for some, such as a very Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 Blackout-style for automatically handling attachments when you pick up new weapons. Many others are shockingly new.

Most notably is that there are distinct characters. There are currently eight available that cut varying silhouettes with different sets of powers. Each one has both a sick look and a refreshingly diverse background, but they also have a passive power (like running faster after taking damage), an active power (like establishing grappling hook points for teammates), and an ultimate (which is pretty much self-explanatory).

In that way, it might feel a bit like Blizzard’s Overwatch, but Respawn expressly wants to avoid this comparison, even going so far as to consciously avoid calling these characters “heroes.” This is because, on a base level, everyone plays the same with identical sizes, speed, health, etc. The only differences are their abilities, none of which are game-breaking or game-making, but they make a big enough difference that you’ll definitely start to develop favorites.

Apex Legends

To wit, each squad can only be comprised of unique characters. In the pre-match, players will take turns picking who they want to play as. This adds an element of systemic strategy that you often miss in other battle royales as powers tend to work synergistically if you can manage it. Having Caustic, for example, pop his poison gas to trap a squad can open Wraith up to portal behind them for an ambush.

Another big one is built around the universal experience of determining where to land with your squad. You and your two killer cohorts dive out together, and you will automatically stick together as one of you is assigned as the jump leader (usually the person to pick their character last). Unless manually overridden, you will all glide and land together, so no more asking “where we going” or counting down. This is such a critical factor that in every instance I’ve seen someone peel off, that person died upon landing.

They’ve also added smoke trails that make it easier to track where your opponents are falling. It amps up early game drama by facilitating your ability to drop somewhere no one else is going but also predict where people will come from and where you can go to do your dirt. The drop often feels fraught in ways you don’t get from PUBG or Fortnite because of this.

Apex Legends

There’s also a banner revival system that’s new. When a teammate goes down and out, you have a timeframe in which you can go and collect their banner. Once you do that, you can take that to a respawn station to bring them back into the game. The problem is that they’re often located in dangerous locations, and as the game goes on, almost always outside the circle. This leads to some tremendously tense situations of balancing risk and damage to get a squadmate back from the grave.

Magically, this often works just as well with and without voice communication. Built into the game is a fantastic callout system. You can tag enemies from afar, note locations of items and weapons for squadmates to pick up (as well as request them), and even organize movement and defense. The big revelation for me was pressing some buttons for my character to say that they were going to defend the location and having a teammate say they would do the same. Quick, easy, and deadly efficient.

But really, it’s the little things like this that make it. Looting dead enemies will highlight ammo that you can use, your teammates’ status blocks will flare up whenever they are firing or taking fire, team comms appear in the kill feed. It’s all about surfacing the information you need, details you didn’t know you needed, and generally just making it less of a grind to play. (That said, if you don’t like the loop of battle royales, none of this will change your mind.)

Apex Legends

The headliner, though, that many people are either completely ignoring or latching onto too tightly is that this is a Titanfall game without Titans or Pilots. Respawn has stated that this is because there’s no way to make a balanced battle royale game feel meaningful with Titans and the enhanced traversal techniques (e.g., wall-running) that come with Pilots make the game less legible for new and casual players.

But the map is designed completely around this idea and what the characters can do. There’s plenty of slopes and subterranean sections, all of which play fantastically into the incredible-feeling slide. (Seriously, sliding away from an encroaching circle while diving into a crowd and firing the whole time is an ascendant experience.) Combine this with the way defensible locations are purposefully built around having just enough points of ingress to make them as desirable as they are vulnerable and it makes players move in a way that feels like Titanfall without the Titanfall.

This is, however, still a very new game, so there’s a lot left to figure out where this game can go, if it can go anywhere at all. Respawn has, after all, described this as a season one, so who knows what we can see down the road. Perhaps a mode built around Titans? There’s too much left on the table at this point, but for now, Apex Legends is one heck of a surprise and an even better game.