Feature Article

Apex Legends Had A Transformative Second Year

Apex Legends had an eventful Year 2, especially in terms of how Respawn told its story and balanced its meta.

Just like its first year--which we detailed in our Year 1 recap--Apex Legends Year 2 (February 4, 2020 - February 3, 2021) was a transformative period for developer Respawn's battle royale game. The final days of Year 2 will see the start of Season 8: Mayhem, which adds playable character Fuse, remakes Kings Canyon for a third time, and implements the 30-30 Repeater, a bolt-action rifle, to the general loot pool. But before that arrives, it's worth looking at just how much Apex Legends has evolved in the past year.

"I think a big part of [Year 1] was just actually getting comfortable with and getting to learn what it is to make a live service game and build a relationship with the community," team director Steven Ferreira told me when talking about how Respawn's strategy for Year 2 was informed by the battle royale's first year. "And that was always the plan, but like any well-laid plan, it's not really real until you actually get into it, and then things change. I think that first year was definitely figuring out what was the right balance in terms of how much content could we actually make in a healthy and sustainable way."

He continued: "How much content was the community looking for? What types of things were they looking for? How did it influence our creative process in terms of making sure that we weren't locking things in so early that we couldn't react to the community's feedback, season to season? So I think we've really started to hit a stride and hit a sweet spot in terms of being able to find a balance of what we're building, how we build it, and in a way that feels like a partnership almost with the community and including them in that process as well."

And to that end, Respawn did include feedback from the community in much of the process for updating Apex Legends in Year 2. Many of the original characters' abilities have been iterated on in some way to make them more viable, for instance. And beyond that, Respawn has added cross-play support, a story mode, a complete revamp for how body armor works, and a whole lot more.

The Start Of Year 2

Respawn must have figured it needed a way to one-up itself in how it launched Apex Legends the day it was announced because the days leading up to Year 2 were packed with blind sides. The biggest of which was that Respawn admitted it was willing to trick its playerbase in order to tell a good story. In the final weeks of Season 3: Meltdown, Respawn announced that Season 4's new character would be the close combat-focused Forge. This turned out to be a clever smoke screen, one that let players know that Respawn is willing to take big risks with how it told Apex Legends' story and that nothing in the battle royale is ever safe--characters can be killed, maps can be destroyed, and weapons can be removed.

Season 4: Assimilation (February 4, 2020 – May 12, 2020)

And with those revelations, we dove into Apex Legends Season 4: Assimilation. The season added Forge's murderer, Revenant, as a playable character and the Sentinel sniper rifle as a new weapon--the first of its kind for Apex Legends, as it could be charged to fire more powerful shots. Both seemed aimed to impact the in-match meta in different ways, with Revenant presenting as a close-range threat and the Sentinel acting as an intimidating long-range danger.

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Devotion To Weapon Balance

To lessen the impact of the Sentinel and sniper rifles in general, sniper rifles were given their own ammo pool, limiting your inventory space. One of the most open-ended areas of World's Edge, Fuel Depot and the field around it, also became the landing ground for a massive Harvester, removing a major sniper sightline and splitting the map down the middle.

Respawn also used the new year to take a good look at weapon balancing in regards to energy weapons. The Devotion was moved into care packages and the L-STAR became a general loot weapon. The Turbocharger was also removed, nerfing the Havoc.

New Year, New Changes

Though several characters had undergone buffs, nerfs, and other balancing changes throughout Year 1, Year 2 saw more drastic updates to characters in order to change how you played as them. Season 4 kicked that off with a major adjustment to Bloodhound, buffing their ability to track down enemy squads.

In March, System Override added Evo Shields. The shields were a game changer--they started as the weakest body armor in the game but grew more powerful as you damaged enemies, eventually surpassing purple and gold armor in terms of protection. In this way, they encouraged players to move away from staying put and bunkering down, a strategy that had become all too common since the introduction of Wattson in Season 2. Players were receptive to Evo Shields and, following the event, Respawn permanently added them to Apex Legends.

The Old Ways event permanently brought back Duos mode and Kings Canyon with a new map rotation feature. The event also added Bloodhound's Trials to World's Edge, blue loot bins with secret compartments that only Lifeline can open, and a huge buff to Revenant. After that, April's Battle Armor event further iterated on Evo Shields by establishing the concept of players spawning with them, an idea so good that it would become permanent later in the year.

Season 5: Fortune's Favor (May 12, 2020 – August 17, 2020)

In May, Season 5: Fortune's Favor added Loba Andrade to Apex Legends. Following Pathfinder's transformation into a Recon character, Loba became Apex Legends' second Support legend alongside Lifeline. Loba's ability to supply teammates with any item made her the far more useful Support though, sparking conversations that Lifeline was due for a buff.

Additionally, after finding success with the Devotion, Respawn pulled the now way too dominant Peacekeeper shotgun from the general loot pool. It went into care packages, switching places with the Mastiff shotgun.

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A Story-Driven Battle Royale

To account for all of Apex Legends' evolving narrative threads, a new story-driven PvE mode, Quest, was added. Quest encouraged players to tune in every week for new lore and revelations, like a serial TV show. Conditional legend chatter--unique in-game dialogue that would only occur if certain characters met the right conditions, such as interacting with a specific teammate's ping or travelling through a peculiar landmark--was added to reflect the now changing relationships between the playable characters. It was a cool way to address a problem that other hero shooters usually ignore: strange match-ups of heroes and villains suddenly just working together.

This was also when the community started coming more into play, with Respawn recruiting artist JEL (@_jelart) to provide visuals for the story and create comics for the chapters of Season 5's Quest, like when Wraith and Octane heard about Wattson's accident or Bloodhound refused to participate in the other legends' squabbles. This practice would continue beyond Season 5, with Respawn hiring JEL and other artists from the Apex Legends community to bring the battle royale's stories and characters to life in a variety of artistic styles.

Reworking Old Legends

In a first for Apex Legends, one of its original characters got a significant rework in Season 5, with all three of Mirage's abilities changing in order to make him a more successful trickster. Though not to the same scale as Mirage, other characters would get updated abilities later in Season 5 during its Lost Treasures event. Lifeline's Combat Medic passive was replaced with Combat Revive, making her the only legend who can revive a squadmate and fight simultaneously. Octane's Jump Pad was changed to allow players to double jump off it, making it easier to aggressively push on fights. Wattson's Intercept Pylon no longer remained indefinitely to reinforce her role as a strategic defender that focused on careful placement. And Wraith's Phasewalk was altered so that it was slower to activate but she could now see enemies while using it, making its use less for escape and more so for repositioning while attacking.

Also during the event, Mobile Respawn Beacons were introduced, providing a way for players to bring back teammates from anywhere. Kind of like Evo Shields, it promoted taking risks to complete big plays: even though they made it easier to bring back teammates late in a match, Mobile Respawn Beacons basically advertised your position to every nearby squad. Players liked them though, so Mobile Respawn Beacons were permanently implemented into every part of the game following Lost Treasure's conclusion.

Destroying An Old Friend

Loba's introduction also marked the destruction of Skull Town, the most popular drop spot in the entire game, reinforcing the notion that Respawn wasn't above taking away what players loved in order to shake up Apex Legends' meta and craft new experiences. However, it became increasingly obvious as time went on that Skull Town's destruction had seriously messed with the overall balance of Kings Canyon. The loss of the landmark had made Apex Legends' smallest map feel even smaller. The addition of Crypto's Map Room during Lost Treasures did not help.

Season 6: Boosted (August 18, 2020 – November 4, 2020)

Season 6: Boosted was the first indication from an outsider's perspective that COVID had begun to impact the overall roadmap for Apex Legends, as the start date for the season was delayed by a week.

"We delayed Season 6 because of work from home struggles and working at a slightly slower pace, but we've made up for that lost inefficiency in other places," game director Chad Grenier told me. "And in some cases, we've done better from home. We certainly want to take the team's own personal health [into account], and we don't want to crunch and overwork. And so we're being very cautious to work healthy from home, but we've been able to ship a lot of the big features that we've been hoping to ship. And a lot of them are still to come. We've been iterating for a long time on some really big things that are on the way. Luckily, we haven't had to cut a season or make any major changes."

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Season 6 introduced Ramya "Rampart" Parekh as a playable character, a weapon modder who excels with light machine guns. Interestingly, Rampart is the sixth Apex Legends character to use a Titanfall 2 Pilot ability as the basis for her tactical, as her Amped Wall is a variation on Titanfall 2's A-Wall. This just leaves Cloak as the only remaining Titanfall 2 Pilot ability to not have provided inspiration for a new Apex Legends character. And speaking of Titanfall 2, Season 6 saw the introduction of the Volt, a fan-favorite submachine gun from Respawn's sophomore effort.

Season 6 saw World's Edge get another makeover. The Devotion also finally returned to the general loot pool, as did the Turbocharger hop-up. Meanwhile the R-99 was rotated into care packages. Quest was also changed--instead of PvE missions, the mode now offers a new issue of the Apex Legends comic every season, with new pages for each issue unlocked on a weekly basis. This is a better way to relay Apex Legends' story. It was too difficult to read text conversations while fighting off enemies in PvE missions.

"We've got many developers here that would love to do something like [PvE again]," Grenier said. "The problem is, well, we did the Quest, and then we had a lockdown. And you're always trying to prioritize where to put your effort. We want to make sure that we're supporting the battle royale game and the core game has all of the support and content that the fans want. So it's really just a priority juggling act. And so we felt like the story was the priority [with Quest] and wanted to keep telling the story. We thought that there was a really cool opportunity to show comics."

He continued: "And then we went away from just the amount of work going into creating the actual label PvE portion. But a lot of those people have moved on to work on things for future seasons, to tell a story and bring some new, cool things to the game. So, we're not done doing things like that. We're always innovating and trying to push things forward. And we've got a lot of people on the team that loved doing things like that. So, yeah. Cool. Think you'll be surprised with future stuff coming out."

Recon Class Gets An Upgrade

In Season 6, the entire Recon class was changed so that they all gained Pathfinder's ability to hack into survey beacons and reveal the position of the next ring for their squad. Crypto was also buffed beyond the new passive ability, finally giving the legend with one of the lowest pick rates some much-needed utility as a scout.

An Evolution To Combat

With the exception of gold body armor, all body armor became Evo Shields in Season 6, and all players now drop with Evo Shields already equipped, albeit at level 0. It wasn't perfect at first. Far from it actually--Evo Shields were initially way too weak to compensate for Apex Legends' aggressive meta. But Respawn would continue to tweak and rebalance Evo Shields in the first few weeks of the season and they're now at a really good place.

Season 6 also added crafting. Through the collection of Materials during a match, players could go to Replicators and craft ammo, weapon hop-ups and attachments, Evo Shield improvements, and more. Like Mobile Respawn Beacons, Replicators allowed squads to exist and fight for a little longer even after suffering setbacks, and the hunt for more Materials encouraged squads to remain mobile.

"We've added crafting as one way to mitigate the too many weapons problem," Grenier said. "We can put weapons in a care package and get them off the ground loop, and we can put weapons in the Replicators, but at some point, we have to figure out [another solution.] If you extrapolate, two more years from now, are we going to have eight more guns in the game? That's probably too many unless we solve that problem. So I think we've switched in our pattern for creating--don't create a weapon every season, just for the sake of having one; create really great new weapons that are meaningful and have their own place in the game and release them as they're ready."

Crossing Into Cross-Play

In October, the Aftermarket event introduced cross-play support. A less popular change, Aftermarket also adjusted Wraith's running animation, forcing the character into a more upright run in order to make her incredibly tiny hit box much easier to hit. Fans were (and still are) a bit miffed about the change, but it's admittedly a good one considering that Wraith continues to dominate in all aspects of play. Making her easier to shoot is a far more agreeable adjustment to just nerfing her abilities again.

Also in October, Fight or Fright returned. Its new Shadow Royale mode is the first time that Titanfall 2's wallrunning was implemented into Apex Legends, if only for a limited time.

Season 7: Ascension (November 4, 2020 – February 2, 2021)

Dr. Mary "Horizon" Somers--a gravitational manipulator who can change the layout of a battlefield when attacking--was added to Apex Legends in Season 7: Ascension, which started in November. Horizon dropped into the game already plenty powerful--her ability to quickly ascend multiple stories or drag enemies out of cover makes her terrifyingly adaptable

The R-99 rejoined the general loot pool while the Prowler submachine gun became a care package weapon. The Selectfire hop-up was removed, replaced by Quickdraw Holster. Apex Legends was also released for Steam, and to ensure that players across all platforms could more easily find others to squad-up with, in-game Clubs were implemented.

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Olympus Has Risen

The season added a brand-new map to Apex Legends, Olympus, where players could drive the game's first vehicles, Tridents. As the game's third map, Olympus feels like Respawn's best effort yet--the lack of too many open deserts or fields prevents snipers from being overpowered. Olympus is a packed map--only more so after January's Fight Night event, which added the Fight Night Ring.

Tridents have been an intriguing, albeit disappointing experiment. They are strictly a means of getting around and present no offensive threat; in fact, your squad is at a disadvantage by riding in one as you all take damage from enemy attacks if the Trident is hit. They're also incredibly noisy. Very few people ride in Tridents now, which makes the vehicles feel essentially moot.

A Frustrating Start

At the start of Season 7, Respawn also completely reworked the point system and structure for challenges and battle pass levels. The new system rewarded long-term investment. So instead of progressing through the battle pass at a fairly consistent rate, the new system rewarded very little up front, only unlocking a flurry of battle pass levels after investing many hours of play.

Additionally, challenges were much more specific, requiring players to complete some of them with a certain legend as opposed to having the option of three or four different characters. This made it unfair for anyone who hadn't bought all of Apex Legends nine extra characters, which now vastly outnumbered the six free characters. Fans were very vocal about their displeasure with these changes. But to Respawn's credit, the developer quickly implemented hotfixes that ultimately changed Season 7's battle pass and challenges so that progression matched that seen in Season 6.

"I'm going to give you a very candid answer," Grenier said, when I asked him about the reasoning behind changing the battle pass format at the start of Season 7. "It was mostly an accident. So what we wanted to do was simplify some of the nuances of how the battle pass works. We had challenges that some would give you stars, and some would give you XP. And we had a challenge that you'd fill with XP, and it would give you a challenge. It was a little bit confusing. We were completely happy with the challenges and the rate of progression to the levels and the difficulty of them. I think we were very happy. We weren't trying to change that, but what we were trying to change is just simplify and remove some of the lines connecting the various pieces and just make it more streamlined with the same progression, the same feel, the same challenges."

He continued: "What happened during that change is, some of the challenge values got modified and tweaked along the way, trying to satisfy that goal. But unfortunately, with all of the other things going out that season and working from home and not being able to go stand in someone's office and chit-chat very easily, it's just something that's slipped through the cracks. And so, obviously, players didn't like that change, and we quickly did two updates, one that we could do very easily without a game update, followed up by an actual patch that further pushed it. So yeah, the honest answer is that it was a bit unintentional. We were trying to do something really good. I think that players would have not minded as much, that it would have been better for new players coming into the game. Just a simpler understanding of how it works. And unfortunately, we made some unintended side effects in doing that, and we were happy to roll it back."

The Community Gets Involved

Like Season 6 before it, Season 7's Quest was a fully colored comic. However, Respawn went a step further, hiring additional artists from the community to draw illustrations for animated, fully-voiced comics that were posted to Twitter to complement the in-game Quest. Whereas Season 6 didn't move much of the plot forward, Season 7 did, answering many of the lingering questions left by Season 5's cliffhanger.

While Season 7's Quest moved the main plot of Apex Legends forward, the animated comics focused on the more intimate stories, influencing how certain characters spoke to one another in-game. Shaira's (@noxlotl) drawing of Crypto and Wattson having a frank conversation with one another after their heartbreaking falling out changed how Crypto, Wattson, Caustic, and Gibraltar spoke to one another, while FrAgMenT's (@IFrAgMenTIx) depiction of Loba and Revenant confronting each other after the former agreed to help the latter kill himself affected the in-game dialogue between Revenant, Loba, and Bangalore.

The End Of Year 2

Year 2 definitely feels a bit more like a milestone than Year 1 did--the game's not ending, but this is a good transition point for newcomers to jump in. And Respawn seems to know that; at the start of Season 7, the developer released Apex Legends Champion Edition, a bundle that nets you all of Year 1 and Year 2's characters for less than their full retail cost, plus enough Apex Coins to either buy into Season 8's battle pass or purchase its new character. Additionally, on February 2, Respawn is releasing Apex Legends: Pathfinder's Quest, a book full of lore that promises to answer many of the lingering questions that fans have in regards to the battle royale's story from its first two years. And with that, Apex Legends will be momentarily wrapped up, before jumping into brand-new storylines and directions in Year 3.

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