Apex Legends first released in February 2019 and promptly rewrote the rules of the entire battle royale video game genre. Published by EA Games, Respawn Entertainment’s follow-up to the critically-acclaimed mech-shooter Titanfall 2 dropped out of nowhere with little to no marketing and became not just an overnight smash hit, but a genre leader whose innovations (remember the Dark Ages before you could just ping all sorts of comms to your teammates with a single button?) were immediately emulated by its peers.
However, while it most certainly shook up the industry with its arrival, Apex Legends has been pretty tame since. It’s always been very, very good at what it does (the best battle royale game on the market, in my opinion), and seasonal updates would see the launch of new hero characters and new maps/map reconfigurations to keep things interesting, but everything still operated within the framework that was established at launch. That all changes with the upcoming Season 9. Folks, I give you Arenas!
After teasing us with something new for a while now, the brand new Arenas game mode has been fully unveiled. I attended a virtual briefing session with Respawn and also got given a few days of early hands-on time with this build of the game to face off against other press and content creators from around the world, I can tell you that it’s a blast! So what is it?
In a nutshell, Arenas is a 3v3 team-based deathmatch using the Apex Legends heroes and locations we know and love, but combining them with gameplay elements from other popular arena shooters. Two teams go head-to-head by starting out in their own spawn rooms with no weapons and only limited abilities. For a short period at the start of each round though, you can enter a Shop to purchase weapons/abilities using materials. Everybody starts out with the same base amount of materials and a few of their abilities unlocked. The P2020 and Mozambique cost no materials to acquire, but everything else does, with the more devastating the weapon or ability, the more expensive it is. Materials are acquired by actions in-game and wins, but you can also find materials scattered on the map which only one player has to collect for their entire team to get them.
When purchasing weapons, they all come with nothing more than a standard scope (1x for everything except sniper rifles which default to 6x scopes). For an extra bit of materials though, you can upgrade a weapon to have all white attachments. Spend more materials and you get blue attachments, allowing you to choose between 2x scopes, with a purple tier requiring even further materials but allowing you access to even better attachments with a wide choice of long-range scopes. Similarly, most characters start out with just one use of their tactical abilities available (Just how many of which ability is available at the start differs slightly between characters, which is a very neat way of Respawn balancing the characters for a deathmatch environment without actually changing their mechanics) but more can be purchased for materials along with things such as med-kits, shield batteries, gold backpacks, etc.
Here’s where things get interesting though: At the end of each round, everybody is back to the base empty loadout and have to spend materials – which aren’t reset and accumulate over rounds – all over again for weapons. This results in a tactical game of either buying cheaper guns for the earlier rounds to stockpile enough materials to unlock/upgrade something major or even grab your character’s ultimate to swing a battle, or spending it all every round and making do with what you can get. The choice is up to you.
Not that you have a massive amount of rounds to go through, as it’s the first team to three rounds to win… but in another twist, you have to win by a margin of two rounds to be declared the overall winner. With that two-win buffer games, it means there’s always a better chance of coming back from a bad start to turn things around. If that should happen repeatedly and you end up on a 4-4 stalemate, a sudden death round begins in which both teams start out with red shields and fully kitted out weapons available for a “Winner takes all” final standoff.
Even before that point though, how all of this plays out is a frantic back and forth battle that is all action and nerves all the time as there are no respawns (although you can revive a downed teammate). Because you face the same team over a series of rounds on tight little areas, you can learn which characters/playstyles you’re facing and can thus adjust intelligently. As the Respawn devs stressed during their presentation for arenas: no third party ambushes, none of the RNG looting of the battle royale mode. Making Arenas even more intense is that games play out on a series of smaller maps. Two custom-designed maps were available to us: Party Crasher, a colourful and debris-covered map set in the crashed remains of Mirage’s disco-ship on Olympus that caters to fast, in your face action; Phase Runner, a hilly and open map set around a prototype phase runner portal on Typhon that provides longer sight-lines and more strategic approaches with a working phase runner portal providing flanking opportunities.
A third playable map during the session was actually the Artillery area from King’s Canyon that had been cordoned off. It’s the first of three other such reutilized areas from existing maps – the others being Golden Gardens from Olympus, and Thermal Station from World’s Edge – that will respectively be added into rotation with the custom maps every second week. More custom maps are in the pipeline but they take a bit longer to get just right, hence the use of recycled areas to bolster the lineup.
Personally, I loved Phase Runner the most as it felt perfectly balanced with its open centre and more built-up outskirts allowing for every play style out there. It was also an especially good map to try out Valkyrie. Yes, I got to play with Apex Legends’ latest character and she’s rapidly become a favourite!
Thanks to her debut trailer, we already know quite a bit about Kairi “Valkyrie” Imahara, a high-flying rocketeer whose backstory underpins this season’s title of “Legacy”. The daughter of Titanfall 2’s Viper, Valkyrie is here to live up to the memory of her father while avenging his death and will be doing so using a kit that pulls inspiration straight from her father’s Northstar titan. And it’s all built around one thing: Her jetpack. That was the barebones elevator pitch that saw the birth of Valkyrie, but her design quickly filled out to include one seriously potent kit. So potent that there’s already rumblings from the devs that she may be too powerful.
Personally, in my play time with Valkyrie in both Arenas and the classic battle royale mode, I found her very balanced in that her abilities are strong but she’s got exploitable weaknesses. Overall though, she’s just plain fun. And that fun starts the moment you jump out of the dropship in BR as whenever Valkyrie is performing a skydive, her HUD changes to one similar to that of a Titan providing all sorts of additional info on screen, most notably marking any enemies within her direct line-of-sight. There will be ample opportunities for this as Valkyrie’s ultimate, Skyward, sees her charging up her jetpacks with a cool-looking animation. During this time, teammates can interact with Valkyrie to latch onto her. When Valkyrie players press their ultimate button a second time, it launches her and any attached teammates vertically after which they can then skydive to any location. It’s essentially a mobile Jump Tower that can be used to quickly reposition or get the jump on an enemy team. It also helps to get to those pesky hard to reach survey beacons, as Valkyrie is classified as a Recon character, allowing her to scan beacons for upcoming ring locations in the Battle Royale mode.
Unfortunately, that does make it an ultimate that is almost useless in Arenas and loses usage opportunities the further into the BR game you go. But that’s where the rest of her kit comes in. Simply tap jump for a second time while airborne (or hold jump, depending on your config) and activate VTOL Jets, aka Valkyrie’s jetpack which allows her to fly forward/upwards, or hover on the same elevation, leading to surprising flanks or scouting out enemy locations.
Flying isn’t as overpowered as you may think though. You have a limited fuel tank which depletes rapidly, and while it automatically refills there’s a gap of around 7 or 8 second before that gauge starts to climb up again. Activating VTOL Jets is a also noisy affair, alerting any enemies in the area, and while airborne, you’re also not that maneuverable, making you an easy target for any sniper with good aim.
On top of this, while flying Valkyrie can’t access any firearms (there’s also a slight delay between her landing and her being able to arm herself). What she can do though is blow the hell out of things in front of her with her tactical ability, Cluster Missile. Holding the tactical button brings up a 3×4 grid on the ground which you can aim. Releasing the button unleashes a barrage of rockets launch skyward before hitting back down in a wave running away from Valkyrie (think of a tightly contained Bangalore rolling thunder). Individual strikes from Cluster Missile don’t do excessive damage, but combined they can really mess you up. Enemies can see the targeted location appear around them, so they can move away if they’re quick enough. Once that first missile hits though, it may be too late as the barrage comes with a very noticeable stun, similar in visuals and effect to having walking through a Wattson fence.
And it’s here where Cluster Missiles really shine as the ability can be fired at massive range, relatively close, in the air, on the ground, etc. It’s extremely versatile and very effective as the stun alone will disrupt enemies enough for you to finish them off with your weapons. Maybe even using something like the Bocek!
A brand new entry in the Apex Legends universe, the Bocek is a bow that is now slotted into the brand new Marksman class of weapons (the G7 scout rifle and 30-30 repeater now also find themselves here). Yes, this is a standard world weapon in BR, and not a special airdrop weapon as some suspected. The Bocek makes use of arrows, a new ammo type that will be in short supply on the map. However, fired arrows will stick into the terrain and can then be retrieved. Arrows will stick into enemy players as well, but they can only be retrieved upon death, when you will find them in the shot player’s lootbox. As the dev also noted, they went to great pains to also correctly model how arrows get stuck into surfaces, so you can look at the angle of its entry and work out the trajectory along which it could be fired. I didn’t have time to do any of that as I just went full Robin Hood and shot everything!
And I could do that because the Bocek is pretty easy to handle and get to grips with, boasting surprising range and lack of bullet drop, coupled with solid damage output. Holding the primary fire key/trigger draws back an arrow, filling a short meter on-screen to indicate shot strength, while releasing the key/trigger fires the arrow. Notably though, the Bocek comes with two brand new hop-ups, both of which can be attached simultaneously. The first, Deadeye’s Tempo, grants you a noticeable buff in firing rate if you release the key/trigger at just the right point while filling the bar. This can fire rate increase can seemingly stack twice. The second hop-up, Shatter Caps, splits the single fired arrow into several projectiles that scatter in a shotgun pattern allowing for more close-quarters damage but sacrificing range and accuracy.
It was stressed that the Bocek is not a full-on stealth weapon. It still makes a noise when fired although not at loud as some other guns, so don’t go thinking you’re an invisible ninja when you have one. Even with that being said, all in all, it’s a super fun weapon to use, and absolutely deadly in the right hands. During our session, I was already witness to one of the top streamers absolutely destroying a lobby using it, hitting over 4000 damage in a BR game. And speaking of things being destroyed, there’s something weird happening on Olympus in Season 9!
According Lead Level Designer Dave Osei, when the Olympus map was introduced into Apex Legends in Season 7, the new location launched with points of interest than previous maps. The devs wanted to address that while also planting the seeds for future story content. And it all begins with the Icarus, the first of a series of ships that have somehow managed to breach planetary space around which Olympus orbits and docked with the floating city. But Icarus holds a dark secret that is soon unveiled as it’s opened to find its crew dead and in their place a parasitic extraterrestrial plant of unknown origin that quickly overruns the ship and it’s surrounding area on Olympus.
This gives us a new drop location found in what used to be the area known as Crossroads, between Bonzai Plaza, Solar Array, and Orbital Cannon. According to Osei, they noticed this wide expanse saw fewer players dropping there than on other locations of the map, on top of the area being a bit of a sniper’s paradise making traversal very risky. Introducing the Icarus and it’s weird plants should solve both those problems as players will want to check out new area, with the reworked terrain providing new avenues of attack and retreat. One major reason why you would to explore Icarus that it’s filled with the corpses of its dead scientific crew, one of whom will randomly have a Bridge Keycard than can be collected, granting access to the front of the ship where the best loot is stowed. And where another team is probably waiting in ambush to claim your keycard and take the loot for themselves!
That’s if that squad doesn’t get ambushed themselves, because as well know, third-party squad attacks is still a major grievance in the game. Respawn wants to do something about it though – and I don’t just mean getting you to play Arenas. Two of the Redeploy Balloons have been removed from Olympus. The first was situated just outside Golden Gardens was in a prime central location that allowed squads to use it to drop in on unsuspecting players in several zones, after resulting in those annoying third-party team wipes. Taking away this option should help to lessen the prevalence of third-partying in that portion of the map. The other Redeploy Balloon was close to Orbital Canon, and while the data didn’t show it to be used that much for third-partying, it was decided to cut with the terrain now being drastically altered with the inclusion of the Icarus. A Redeploy Balloon just didn’t make sense here anymore.
Interestingly, the devs revealed that they believed that the Trident vehicles offered such strong rotational options, that for a while they actually play-tested a version of Olympus that boasted no Redeploy Balloons at all. Eventually though they settled on this medium. Another note is that during our hands-on time, we got access to quite a chunk of pages from this season’s comic, and it’s clear how the introduction of the Icarus will drive the narrative elements of the game in some interesting directions.
On top of the additions mentioned above, Season 8 of Apex Legends also brings with the obligatory character and weapon balance changes. No official patch notes were shared with us, but I can tell you about three very noticeable tweaks already:
- Lifeline no longer gets a shield when reviving allies using her D.O.C. drone. Even as a Lifeline main myself, I have to admit this ability was a little overpowered, and now going for a revive mid-fight turns into a very sweaty situation
- The devs felt that people were abusing Octane’s stim too much, making him far more powerful than he should be. As a result, you will now pay a much bigger health penalty for activating stim, resulting in players having to be more tactical about when they use it.
- Horizon’s ability to maneuver in the air while on her gravity lift seems to have nerfed quite a bit. Personally, I’m very happy for this as trying to hit a Horizon just hanging in the air, swaying back and forth and dogging bullets with ease as she heals up, was a very frustrating experience.
- The Triple Take has now been promoted to a Care Package weapon, getting what felt to me like a nice damage buff.
- With the Triple Take out, the Peacekeeper is back into rotation with shotgun coming auto-equipped with a choke mod, just like the Triple Take did.
- The Skullpiercer mod for the Wingman and Longbow is now gone, but the previously mentioned Deadeye’s Tempo mod can now also be used on select weapons (based on my playtime, I believe this would be on the 30-30 and the Sentinel sniper rifle.
I’m sure there were will be many more game tweaks and changes which will find out about in the coming weeks, but for now that is all we have. And that’s plenty as I’m already chomping at the bit to jump back into some more Arenas when Season 8 of Apex Legends debuts on 4 May 2021.
Last Updated: April 26, 2021