Apex Legends' battle pass is a joyless slog
A Wraith of money.
After two hours playing Apex Legends with my friends on Tuesday evening, I can't say I was particularly thrilled to finally reach level two and finally receive... an orange-brown skin for a gun, and a loot box with some junk in it.
Three days and a whole lot of playing later, I'm now at level six on the battle pass, and it's sucking much of the joy out of my Apex Legends experience. There are two main reasons for this: one being the battle pass' disappointing content, and the other being the messy progression system.
And, unlike the thoughtful and well-designed gameplay in Apex Legends - this battle pass doesn't bring anything new to the table. The first Apex Legends battle pass feels like it's lacking soul, and Respawn clearly has a lot of work to do in getting the system right.
To start with the elephant in the room, the biggest problem with this pass is its content: both in terms of quantity and quality. Even though Apex Legends' strength has always been its mechanics rather than its dull art style and (very Borderlands) design, I was still expecting more from this pass. The theme, "Wild Frontier", feels neither cohesive nor exciting, and isn't well-realised in the battle pass designs. While some of the banners are passable, the weapon skins themselves are mainly dull shades of brown-orange, and the character skins are very basic.
When I went to the Apex Legends preview event in January, there was an emphasis on enhancing the lore of the Titanfall universe, with producer Drew McCoy stating there was "a lot of story to tell". In my interview McCoy also said Respawn is interested in "finding more ways to add depth to this world", so the battle pass definitely feels like a missed opportunity to do this. Unlike the Fortnite battle pass, which is heavily tied to a seasonal narrative, Wild Frontier doesn't really have much meaning beyond a few paint smudges. With no connection to in-game events nor any strong relation to new legend Octane, it feels entirely separate from the rest of the game.
Beyond the quality of the game's shaky art direction, the lack of content in this battle pass (and how it's doled out) is another issue. While other battle passes are also guilty of including "filler" content, this seems to make up the majority of the Apex Legends battle pass. Many of the rewards are trackers, badges, kill quips, coins, Apex Packs and battle pass points boosts: some of which are useful, but not something you actively want to work towards. There are only four new weapons skins - three of which are just repeated on several different guns - while the mediocre character skins are all dumped on players at the start of the pass (excluding Octane, but his skin can be earned even on the free version at level 48).
The first actual item I'd actively want to unlock is the Thrill of the Hunt Prowler skin, which is at level 51, and after that the evolving Havoc skin at level 100. This is a level which, despite playing frequently, I am realistically never going to achieve: particularly as there's not much else to motivate me to grind along the way.
On top of this, it's disappointing to see loot boxes included in the battle pass, as it feels like an effort to tempt players into buying more Apex Packs - even after they've already paid for the pass. I've managed to remove some of these by swapping to the Belgian version, long may it last.
So that's the content side of the pass - but on top of this there are issues with progression, as the pass currently feels like a real slog.
Over the past few days, there have been plenty of posts on Reddit complaining that the battle pass feels too grindy. Respawn's product manager Lee Horn has written a number of comments to clarify the situation, explaining the battle pass will take about 100 hours "if you use the bonuses and get a few kills here and there" - something my own calculations seem to confirm. Assuming this is a 90-day season from the roadmap, this equates to a little over an hour per day.
While it's not an obscene amount (particularly when compared to Blackout's 400 hours at launch), I would say this still rules out a huge amount of casual players from reaching level 100. Maybe this wouldn't be such an issue if there were better rewards in lower tiers, but so far this battle pass feels unfriendly towards weekend players - and I don't feel the top reward should be the preserve of a tiny handful of hardcore players. Making people feel like they get value for money is probably a better business strategy.
The pass also feels like a grind, however, because the battle pass levels have no XP gradient: each level requires a flat 29,500 points to improve. Fortnite's pass works well because each week brings a wave of new challenges (several of which are easy to complete), while levelling up the account (which also feeds into the battle pass) is tapered so the first levels can be achieved quickly. Thus, the grind for high-tier items comes later, and this gives a much fairer sense of progression.
There are some XP boosts given via the Apex Legends battle pass - but these feel fairly negligible and over-complicated. You get a boost of plus five per cent survival time as battle pass points per squad member (2.5 per cent every 10 levels afterwards) which can stack, but this also requires you to play with friends.
It also took me a while to figure out what was going on with the XP system for battle pass points, but I think I've finally got it down. Your battle pass points include: your total match XP (things like kills and damage as displayed in white), a friends bonus (which so far hasn't worked for me), a "first kill of the day" for each legend, plus an extra "legend bonus" (which is just your time survived XP points). You can earn a max of 25,000 battle pass points from each legend per week, which is probably more than enough for most people.
The problem with the legend bonus is it doesn't reflect kills or damage done, relying only on survival time, and therefore rewards cautious play over aggressive playstyles. While I doubt players are going to start hiding in huts just to level up the battle pass, it does feel unrewarding to only get 200 battle pass points for four kills.
With no extra quests or worthwhile cosmetics, the battle pass seems to be yet another way to record progress, and it's beginning to feel like a chore. I used to pay little attention to my Apex Legends level and just enjoy the gameplay, but with two separate XP systems, the scores after every match now remind me I'm constantly being measured. There's a lot of stick and not much carrot.
So what does Respawn have to say about this? As I mentioned in a previous article, the developer has explained that the reason for avoiding additional quests is because it wants "the initial version to allow players to just play and learn the game", which seems reasonable. But Respawn has also said it's struggling to pump out high-quality cosmetics, with Horn claiming on Reddit that the "very high detail character and weapon models" means "there are long lead times to produce legendary content".
But with neither good cosmetics nor additional gameplay content - for the same £8 price tag as Fortnite - what's the point in getting the pass?
The point Horn makes about cosmetics also raises questions about Respawn's planning. Sure, it's the developer's first attempt at a battle pass, but the monetisation system has been around for a while, giving Respawn plenty of time to learn from successes (Fortnite) and failures (Blackout). Apex Legends has brought some great additions to the battle royale genre - such as the ping system, jumpmasters and respawning - but no such clever innovation can be found in the game's battle pass.
For now, Apex Legends players may be disappointed, but on the whole there's willingness to give Respawn another chance to improve, and I'm sure this first pass will still have sold well. Plenty of the other additions in season one are positive: Octane is a fun and fast legend, while Respawn is finally addressing quality of life improvements like a (much needed) report button.
It's not too late to adjust some things - like the amount of XP required for lower tiers - but if Respawn wants to maintain Apex Legends' momentum (and cash flow), it needs to re-think how to make the battle pass as thrilling as its gameplay.