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Monday, April 22, 2024

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State of the Game: Apex Legends – something's got to give

My fireteam and I – hitherto committed to PUBG but casually on the lookout for something else, so unhappy were we with the lack of communication, infrequent updates, and all-too-common disconnects – had been on the hunt for a new team-based shooter, and Apex Legends scratched an itch that neither Fortnite nor PUBG could reach. Fun, chaotic, and built on fantastically snappy gunplay, Respawns surprise battle royale hit the floor running, and we fell for it faster than Bangalore drop, shock and locks. Apex Legends arrival was smooth, too, immediately feeling polished, and it offered a frantic, pacey twist on the battle royale formula. It became our go-to game, not for a few weeks or months, but for years.

The wheels started to fall off for us when Apex Legends introduced skill-based matchmaking (often shortened to SBMM). Yes, yes, I know its an unpopular view and something Respawn is unlikely to change, but I loathe SBMM in unranked play. I know its there to balance out lobbies and make it easier for newbies to get acclimated. But if youre only a little above average in the game – or play with someone who is – your slightly-better-than-average arse is continually up against “Apex Predators” who melt you from across the map should you so much as glance in their direction.

Jealous? Me?! You bet I am. It doesnt matter how many hours I sink into Apex or how many rotations I rehearse; Ive resigned myself to the fact that I have neither the reflexes nor the dexterity to ever become a trail-blazing Predator. But its one thing to encounter sweaty players if youre choosing to go against players circa your skill level in Ranked gameplay – quite another if youre playing unranked and chilling with some pals. RNG and good luck have always been a big part of the appeal of battle royales – you win some, you lose some; thats the way it goes – but ranking us in unranked matches can be unnecessarily frustrating. Forcing me into SBMM is not making me a better player; its just making me not want to play anymore.

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A trailer for the new Legend, Vantage.

Today, SBMM in Apex Legends frustrates me just as much as it ever did, and thats not the only thing. Random teammates continually disconnect and leave whilst downed – still without penalty, of course, and even when theres still a chance you can grab their banner and respawn them. Half the lobby is usually dead by the time I land, and the other half by the time the first ring connects. Respawn knows its a problem because it keeps expanding the size of its maps, but increasing maps does nothing if the same impatient bastards keep instantly jumping from the dropship.

Im not alone in my frustrations, either. Its communities are rife with cranky Caustics and huffy Horizons, with complaints about everything from logging in to broken abilities to tracking issues to progress-breaking bugs. Some of the loudest voices seem to be coming from those who dabble in Ranked play, but not exclusively. Right now, Apex Legends appears to be upsetting pretty much everyone, and even Day One fans like me are unhappy with Respawns direction of travel.

The unhappiness across the community has even led to a snappy hashtag – #NoApexAugust. Irked by a litany of errors and problems, a Redditor sidled up to the fanbase and suggested that it banded together to send a message to the games creators. Whilst acknowledging that theres not much a single person can do to budge the needle on one of the worlds biggest shooters, particularly if its free-to-play, they wondered if “maybe, just maybe […] we could all pick one day to not log on EA and Respawn will have an oh shit moment”. That, in turn, turned into a proposed month-long boycott with its own hashtag.

Apex Legends - a close up of a Legend running towards the camera

Apexs key USP, its Legends, continue to be the shooters main draw, but its typically well-balanced roster – which has been so good for so long, ripe for experimentation and diversifying your playstyle – is slowly filling up with dud characters that dont offer a strong enough tactical advantage. Wraith, Pathfinder, and Bloodhound – three characters that debuted way back when the game did three years ago – continue to be among the most popular, accompanied by the new (and outrageously over-powered) Valkyrie and not-so-new Octane.

Late arrivals like Rampart, Crypto, Mad Maggie, and Newcastle barely get a look-in and sport some of the lowest pick rates of all. Are the old characters still too strong, or are the newest recruits too weak? Is it just because were not taking the time to get used to the new arrivals? Whatever it is, it makes for a very dull fight if you hang in long enough and make it to the final ring. I mean, yesterday we finished second not because we were better than the third-placed team, but because we had a Valkyrie who picked us up and flew around in a circle above the fight as our opponents died below us…

Apex Legends - a look at the discounts in the storefront during the Awakening event

Cheeky? Yeah, Ill give you that. But its to Respawns credit that up until just recently, every Legend offered wonderful-slash-infuriating moments like these. Before SBMM arrived, Ive won games without any of us firing a single shot, thanks to a delicious medley of forgiving final circles, fortuitous looting, intimate map knowledge, and a clever utilisation of Legends skills and abilities. Thats what made playing Apex Legends such a thrill and every match such apologetically good fun; with just a bit of skill and a dollop of good luck, anything could happen, and anyone could win – not just the sweaty players.

And thats why were still here, even though were battling against more random disconnections, broken abilities, and bugs than ever before. The pandemic continues to have a real and lasting impact on games and how theyre made, but that alone likely doesnt account for the lack of not just fixes but new content, too. The older Apex gets, the creakier it feels, and the more these issues persist – and its getting increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that things that made me fall out of love with PUBG are trickling into Apex Legends, too.

Apex Legends - a high view of the map

Yes, its got cool character abilities. Yes, it boasts sublime gunplay. And yes – SBMM frustrations aside – I still have fun, too. But even the most ardent fans will fall away if the communitys plethora of real and sustained issues arent acknowledged and addressed.

Something needs to change, and quickly. Sure, theres a new season on the way, not to mention an all-new Legend, Vantage, too, but it doesnt matter how good Apex Legends is to play if disconnects, glitches, and a heavy-handed monetisation strategy – however much I personally am able to ignore it – get in the way of that experience.

This piece is part of our State of the Game series, where we check in on some of the biggest service games running to see how theyre getting on. You can find plenty more pieces like it in our State of the Game hub.

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