Apex Legends has shown me what’s missing from Fortnite
Respawn’s world isn’t yours to destroy (and is better for it)
this week, like everybody else in the Gaming World, i have been playing a helluva lot of Respawn’s new free-to-play battle royale game, Apex Legends. for a quick review: it’s real good.
comparisons to other battle royales, especially PUBG and Fortnite, abound. i come to Apex from the latter, that cartoony behemoth that has damn near taken over the world. after playing Apex, though, i don’t think i’ll touch Fortnite for awhile. this weird and wild new game goes far beyond scratching the same itch.
i am nowhere near qualified to make this statement, but if there is one thing that defines great Fortnite players, it’s speed. those who win engagements move quickly to overwhelm their competition with sheer output. because you can build your own cover, those who build fastest (and with the most complexity) will almost always win the day. there is, of course, skill and strategy, but there’s a reason one of the big meme “pro tips” for Fortnite is “just build lol”. it’s hard to do quickly and well, but that’s most of what you have to do.
this homogeny of tactic leads to a homogeny of experience. when you first play Fortnite, its ramshackle battlefields can seem oddly compelling. you look out over the half-broken towers and wonder, what happened here? but the answer is always the same: whoever built the taller structure almost certainly killed their opponent. empowering players to build their own cover is a fascinating twist to the shooter formula, but like with any game design choice, this addition is also subtractive.
this homogeny of tactic leads to a homogeny of experience
many people have championed the game’s creative features, but Fortnite doesn’t do anything to reward players’ creativity. it just rewards output. in each match, players decimate as much of the map as they can, reducing it to rubble to create their cookie-cutter walls and ramps. yes, they create new structures, but they’re all normalized and boring, singular in murderous purpose. it is expressive, but generic.
it’s a shame, too, because the Fortnite island is tremendously designed. at this point, though, after playing hundreds of hours of Fortnite, i almost never think about where i should fight next, because it almost never matters. it could be one of the cities, it could be the middle of an empty field. the strategy will always be exactly the same.
(wow i wonder where i’m going in this piece? might i be about to say that Apex Legends isn’t like that at all?????????? let’s find out.)
Apex Legends, on the other hand, isn’t like that at all (good guess)! it’s only been a week, but so far, my favorite thing about it is what sets it so apart from Fortnite: the game forces you to be thoughtful, every match, in deeply compelling ways.
unlike in Fortnite, you cannot transform the world to your whim in Apex Legends. this lack of agency, this subtraction, ends up being highly additive (at least in my opinion): you are forced to engage with spaces as they are. this leads to more interesting choices over the course of a match; because you are never able to simply create your own advantageous position, you have to plan ahead, consider your options, and react accordingly. you need to think about where your cover will be, from any direction. so you have to learn the space.
you are forced to engage with spaces as they are
the thoughtfulness is not an accident, i don’t think. many of these same principles are reinforced by Apex’s team-based structure. because of your more-limited individual agency, you have to rely on your teammates in the same way you have to rely on the terrain. there are things that are out of your control.
it’s a highly subjective thing, but i prefer this. so many games are about giving players endless agency; in a case like Fortnite, this comes at the cost of the existing landscape. i am much more interested in Apex Legends’ version: expressions of agency that aren’t dismissive of the world that is already there.
(i’ll also be playing Apex for the foreseeable future on PC and PS4 so…hmu)