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Apex Legends' New Upgrade System Makes Balancing Heroes Easier

Now that each legend has a skill tree of abilities, Respawn has more avenues in which to tinker with each hero's kit.


Apex Legends Season 21 is the first new season we're getting after the implementation of the legend upgrade system, a feature that allows playable characters to choose options from a skill tree to upgrade their passive, tactical, and ultimate abilities mid-match. Apparently, this feature makes it easier for the devs to adjust each playable legend too, offering more opportunities to finely tweak each character beyond simply buffing and nerfing their abilities.

"It's made it a lot easier," Apex Legends balance game designer John Larson told me. "It's just been easier to approach a certain element or vector of power in any given character's kit without disrupting a core pattern--that can carry more risk or it can be a little trickier to nail down a healthy change. And so I think both in the [Season 20] mid-season update and with the update in [Season] 21, we're trying to shift as much as we can that we have the bandwidth for, whether it's just swapping one out or giving a character a different upgrade to see if it moves the needle anywhere or just makes it something fresh for players to experiment with. I think it's been a great way for us to balance more quickly and flexibly."

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Though the full rundown of every change is being saved for the Season 21 patch notes, Larson did detail some of the more notable adjustments. The changes being made to Newcastle feel most intriguing to me. For Season 21, the team took inspiration from how some pro players would pair Newcastle and Wattson's ultimate abilities together--the former creates a large wall to block bullets while the latter erects a pylon that zaps away grenades and explosives--and gifted Newcastle's Castle Wall ultimate the capacity to do both.

"Any sort of ability, projectile, or grenade that's not like an artillery strike," Johnson clarified. "So you could still get a [Gibraltar Defensive Bombardment] or a Bangalore [Rolling Thunder] strike in from above, and you could still get other abilities or grenades in from the sides or from above or from the back. It's just if you are facing the [Castle] Wall, you will not be able to sneak a [grenade] through or in.

Newcastle should be able to more easily protect his allies (and himself) in Season 21.
Newcastle should be able to more easily protect his allies (and himself) in Season 21.

Larson continued: "It's something we had been wanting to do to help the [Castle] Wall succeed more--even before watching scrims--but I coincidentally had been watching scrims and [Northeption] has a team that had been experimenting [and] they're still running Newcastle/Wattson. It's like, 'Oh, that'd be nice if they could free up a whole legend pick so they can do the thing that Newcastle should just be able to do."

Crypto and Catalyst are also getting big changes that will undoubtedly improve their ability kit in Season 21, and adjustments are being made to Fuse, Octane, and Bloodhound as well. The one legend I wanted an update for, however, is not getting love this season: Horizon.

And, to be fair, Horizon is a powerful legend with a tactical ability that has incredible utility in both navigating the map and getting better positioning in a firefight. She doesn't need a buff. Frankly, a buff is not what I'm looking for. I'm more irked with the first choice on her upgrade tree--when reaching Tier 2, Horizon can pick between Big Bang (see nearby ordnance through walls and on deathboxes) or Ammuvision (see ammo in deathboxes). Neither choice feels thematically appropriate for a legend who wields gravity as a weapon, leaving Horizon's upgrades feeling a little tacked on in comparison to the other playable characters.

Catalyst is also getting some love in Season 21, which should help her lockdown areas.
Catalyst is also getting some love in Season 21, which should help her lockdown areas.

"Now that Crypto's gotten some love with the upgrades, I think Horizon's probably the last one on the roster that still has some underwhelming or undercooked ones," Larson agreed. "And part of that in Horizon's case was just fear when upgrades were shipping about making an already oppressive and popular legend even better. But I think the deathbox vision-related upgrades in general are ones that we've been trying to deprecate. So she's not getting anything this time around. We don't want to be too disruptive, especially just not knowing where she'll sit at and land [in the meta]. She's definitely a candidate for some changes to those deathbox ones coming up."

Even if she's not getting love on the upgrade front, Horizon's getting a fan in Season 21's new playable legend, Alter. Alter will come to the game alongside map changes to Broken Moon and a new battle pass. Solos mode is also returning, despite Respawn saying it would never come back.

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