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Surprise hit Apex Legends is Fortnite for the rest of us

EA’s sudden battle royale sensation does none of the things that supposedly made Fortnite a hit—which is just fine with me.

Surprise hit Apex Legends is Fortnite for the rest of us

Can you imagine a live Marshmello concert breaking out in the middle of an Apex Legends match?

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That’s one question we now have to ponder as the battle royale shooter from publisher Electronic Arts has come from out of nowhere to take on Fortnite. Comparisons between the two games are inevitable, if only because both are free to play and use similar “drop from the sky and shoot each other to death” mechanics, and because Apex Legends has become wildly popular in its two weeks of existence. (Twenty-five million people played the game in week one alone, easily topping the debut of Fortnite: Battle Royale in late 2017.)

What’s most notable about Apex Legends’ ascent, however, is how different it is from Fortnite on practically every other level. I’ve read plenty of pieces explaining why Fortnite is such a huge hit–I’ve even written one myself–yet Apex Legends does almost none of the things that people attribute to its rival’s success. Either we’re wrong about why Fortnite became a singular sensation, or it’s wrong to think that Apex Legends can keep up in the long run.

One of the best overviews of why Fortnite took off comes from Polygon‘s Colin Campbell, who offered a long list of potential theories in a piece from last March. Below, I’ve picked out the ones that don’t apply to Apex Legends:

  • “The world is cartoonishly pretty.”
  • There’s “a rolling buffet of varied environments.”
  • There’s also a “complete absence of gore.”
  • It’s “easy for beginners to play.”
  • It enjoys “near-platform ubiquity.”
  • Its novel building mechanics lead to “tactically complex endgames.”
  • It introduces “interesting timed events” to keep things fresh.
  • Its “cultural icons . . . are used in memes.”
  • It’s designed to be a “blank slate for vivid personal stories.”

By comparison, Apex Legends looks like a typical futuristic shooter, and mostly plays like one that’s been grafted onto the battle royale format.

It does offer a few twists, such as character-specific abilities and a slick way to communicate without voice chat, but in the heat of battle it still boils down to skillful dodging and quick aiming. And while the game introduces some colorful characters, they include none of Fortnite’s goofiness. (You won’t see them wearing bunny suits, for instance.) Those characters have no qualms about violently executing one another, either.

Apex Legends is also brutally difficult. The action is faster than Fortnite, and because you have to coordinate with two other teammates–unlike Fortnite, there’s no solo mode–it’s harder to move at your own pace and employ stealth to stay alive. It doesn’t help that, at least for now, Apex Legends is only available on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4; Fortnite’s mobile and Nintendo Switch versions are more forgiving for shooter novices.

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Even Apex Legends’ economy doesn’t feel fleshed out yet. You can level up your player to unlock new outfits and weapon skins, but development studio Respawn Entertainment is still working on a “Battle Pass” that will likely dole out cosmetic enhancements at a faster clip. Besides, the game’s first-person perspective means you can’t see what your own character looks like, and all those accoutrements become a blur on other characters when you’re trying not to get shot amid Apex Legends’ breakneck pace.

The overarching difference, though, is that you can still enjoy Apex Legends on its own merits, rather than as part of some broader cultural phenomenon.

A lot’s been made of how Fortnite has essentially become a social network, in which the game serves as window dressing while players–primarily younger ones–gather to talk and goof around. Special events like the aforementioned Marshmello concert and limited-time items like hoverboards only reinforce the idea that the game is best enjoyed with a group of friends. (To wit: Fortnite now has a “Creative” mode where players can mess around without fighting.)

Apex Legends seems fundamentally at odds with Fortnite’s social approach. Sure, you can form a squad with a couple friends, and you can use voice chat to improve your odds of success, but the game’s “Ping” system for flagging nearby enemies or points of interest means you don’t have to.

Besides, Apex Legends’ grittier tone and faster pacing aren’t as conducive to the kinds of freewheeling events that Epic Games has injected into Fortnite. Its focus is squarely on combat, and, even if Respawn fleshed out the game world over time, it’d likely have to be within the context of its already-established characters and backstory. Whereas Fortnite feels like an empty canvas for social interaction, Apex Legends feels much narrower.

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I don’t buy the argument that Apex Legends and Fortnite serve entirely different audiences. Certainly, there’s going to be overlap when you have two games that involve dropping from the sky and shooting guns at other players. Yet when I look at the reasons Fortnite didn’t resonate with me, it’s largely because of that social layer, which felt more like a permutation of Instagram than the first-person shooters I grew up with.

The overnight success of Apex Legends proves there’s room for a polished, free-to-play battle royale shooter without all the layers of social networking, special events, and pop culture that Fortnite has accrued. What’s less clear is whether the absence of those things will ultimately make Apex Legends expendable in the billion-dollar gun battle for gamers’ attentions.

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