Apex Legends' Arenas mode is the "first step" in going beyond battle royale
In for a wild ride (of the Valkyries).
The ninth season of Apex Legends is a big one - so much so that Respawn has decided to do away with the numbers, and simply name the new season "Legacy". There's a whole lot of Titanfall lore, significant map changes, and a brand new game mode called Arenas. It's all part of Respawn's much-teased plan to bring Apex Legends "beyond battle royale", as game director Chad Grenier first told me in an interview for Season 7. Last week I got to take a peek at some of this in a demo session, and hear a little from the developers about the design decisions behind the mode.
In a Q&A session with press and content creators, Grenier said that Legacy was the culmination of "almost two years of experimentation and innovation," and that it's easily the biggest update for Apex Legends so far. "The long term goals for Apex were to go beyond battle royale: we've got this great cast of legends, really tight gameplay and gunplay - and we want to offer that in more ways to compete," he added.
This has taken the form of Arenas, a 3v3 competitive mode that will remain a permanent fixture of Apex Legends, separate from the battle royale. It's essentially a series of short, fast-paced rounds that take place on miniature maps - providing a more intense and less randomised experience than the battle royale mode. No third-partying to be found here, for instance. To win a match, a team must win at least three rounds and be ahead of the opposing team by two points - or else the two teams enter a tie-breaker ninth round.
At the start of each round, players are presented with a shop and limited crafting materials, meaning you'll have to carefully plan how you spend that cash. (Two P2020s, obviously.) You can use your crafting materials to buy weapons, grenades and healing items, and upgrade your weapons to give them better attachments. There's a limit on character ability uses, and you'll have to purchase charges from the shop. The good news is that while weapons must be re-purchased with each round, ability charges carry over to the next round. It's a simple and well-designed shop that's easy to navigate, and the intensity ramps up with each round: your armour gets an upgrade, and you get a larger budget of crafting materials to work with.
As for the locations, there are two custom maps for Arenas called Party Crasher and Phase Runner: the former is the crashed ruins of the Mirage Voyage, and the latter boasts a massive portal akin to the one seen on Olympus. Some more familiar haunts from the battle royale maps are making a return as Arenas locations - such as Thermal Station, Artillery and Golden Garden - and Respawn plans on adding further custom maps in future.
Arenas was first prototyped back in September 2019, and apparently the first version of it looked rather different. "It took place on Kings Canyon, it was 24 players, eight squads, and four 3v3 fights happening at once," senior designer Robert West explained. "These were at the same time and the same map, but separate instances - so you were only ever fighting one other squad that time each round. Teams spawned on opposite sides of Artillery, there was loot everywhere. When the rounds started, you'd scramble to find the best loot that you could before engaging the other squad. Every round half the squads would get eliminated until the final round was between the last two squads.
"The prototype was far from perfect, but it gave us one point of clarity: intense 3v3 matchups with no third partying felt amazing."
Respawn then made a bunch of changes to refine the mode - removing the tournament-style eight squad system, for instance, in favour of pitching two squads against each other for several rounds. This would allow two squads to get to know each other's tactics, and develop counter-strategies accordingly. Although the maps still have some random loot, crafting materials and supply drops for players to collect, Respawn decided to implement a shop to create more consistent matches where "skill and strategy [win] the day".
Lead level designer Dave Osai explained Respawn wanted matches to be proactive rather than reactive, so the maps have been designed "with deliberate pacing that ramps up over time, where two teams can see each other from afar, gain information about where the circle is, and from there make a choice about how to close the gap."
So that's an overview of the Arenas mode, but what about new legend Valkyrie? As you probably guessed from her lore video, her abilities have been designed almost entirely around her jetpack (fashioned from the remains of her father's Northstar Titan). Her jetpack passive allows you to fly around with a surprising amount of freedom, but there are some limitations. Flying vertically can make you the perfect target for a Kraber bullet, while there is also a short delay between using your jetpack and engaging your weapons - meaning you have to let go of your jetpack before returning fire and can't just snipe from the air. The jetpack also has limited fuel, and it's extremely noisy. At least you can always fire a barrage of missiles at any nosey legends coming to have a look - something that's useful for flushing enemies out of cover, and will also leave them stunned.
Valkyrie's ultimate, meanwhile, is an extremely useful tool for repositioning and escaping the ring. Called skyward dive, it allows you to collect your teammates and fly up in the air to essentially re-drop (if you can convince your squadmates to actually hook up to you first, that is). As part of this ability, Valkyrie is also able to detect nearby squads when skydiving, and that information is shared with squadmates. Just don't do what I did - which is accidentally double tap on the ability, deactivating it and losing about 25 per cent charge in the process. Whoops.
The new season is also bringing some changes to Olympus: a parasitic plant has landed on the map via a crashed ship called the Icarus. If you can get inside the vast ship without being shot by other players first, you'll find a cavernous space with some grisly scientist corpses inside. One of these corpses holds a keycard, and prising this from their cold, dead hands will let you collect some lovely loot in the ship's bridge.
The Bocek Bow is another new addition this season - a medium range weapon that uses a new arrow ammo type (which, mercifully, you can pick up again once shot). It allows for two hop-ups at once - one which increases the draw speed, and another that essentially turns it into a short-range shotgun. While it's not an entirely stealthy weapon, it's still a little quieter than some of the other offerings in Apex, and so far it seems to be quite a powerful weapon. I found myself getting peppered with arrows a lot, at least.
As for general meta changes, there are some surprisingly drastic ones: some of the redeploy balloons in Olympus are being removed, for instance, as players were able to rotate through the map too quickly, and these balloons were encouraging third-partying. In response to a question from Pavel Shirchkov, lead game designer Daniel Klein said Respawn is "carefully touching" Octane. One in four players are currently picking Octane in the battle royale mode, which Klein said was "a little much". It sounds like using the stim will now incur new health costs to encourage players to pay attention to their health.
Oh, and low profile - the penalty for smaller characters that increases damage on small characters by five per cent - is being scrapped entirely.
Phew - that's a lot of changes arriving with the new season on 4th May, and Respawn has recently made some moves towards getting the mobile version of Apex Legends into the beta testing stages. There's plenty going on, and Respawn also has plans for Apex Legends to continue evolving beyond battle royale, with Arenas being the first step in this direction. I asked Grenier if Respawn sees the future of Apex Legends as a platform for several modes - and asked how experimental Respawn might go with these.
"For a while now we've been saying that we've got this great cast of legends," Grenier said. "And we have really great gameplay and we love the gunplay... but previously just battle royale, which is a lot of fun, and it's going to continue to be our focus. But it's also - I don't know if niche is the right word - there's a subset of shooter players who enjoy playing a battle royale.
"We've been thinking about how we can bring all of our legend abilities and the fun gameplay (and you know, we're a pretty good shooter maker)... so how can we offer that in other ways? So the first step has been Arenas, we've got these other things that we're doing in play tests, where we're trying to expand even further than that. I think you'll continue to see some innovations in some limited time modes, and us try a few things here and there. We do hope that Apex can be more than just a battle royale game."