The curious thing about the battle royale genre is that its landscape looks like its subject: a centripetal whirl of clamouring contenders, each trying to carve out an advantage with any tools they can find. To topple Fortnite, at this point, seems an impossible feat, but if Apex Legends has a chance, it’s down to the little things – the signature touches that give it an edge.
The ping system – which communicates to one’s teammates without voice chat, simply marking places by pointing and exclaiming (look, ammo! look, a fellow coming to kill us) – is one such thing. Then there are the finisher moves, which remind us what a battle royale is: a Roman theatre of death and gladiatorial gloating whose modern remnant is surely the WWE. But the one that's endeared me to Apex Legends early on is the Jumpmaster system.
At the outset of a match, your squad – comprised of three people – screams through the sky. Each warrior isn't so much falling as flaming, with jetpacks at full blast. Absent is the calm before the storm of PUBG and Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, where you can reflect in peace for a time before the match begins. The way you drop also allows for fairly drastic changes of plan if you angle yourself sharply away at the last minute.
One of you is elected Jumpmaster, which means that it’s by their hand that you’ll be guided to a landing spot. It has to be one of the best coward-friendly game mechanics I’ve come across. When I first started playing, the feeling of safety in having an accomplished player deposit me in a good spot was a marvellous bit of cartography – an instant way in to a new, alien map.
But then, of course, there is the option to launch solo. There have been moments where I have sensed a Kurtzian madness descend, like purple haze, over my Jumpmaster. They’ve steered us into the scalding heat of a skirmish – all sense of strategy cast to the wind – and we’ve began the match kicking and screaming in a bare-handed brawl. Or else we’ve been caught in crossfire before we had a chance to get our bearings. I’m getting better at sensing when I’ve got a Rambo-type on my hands and bailing out early, hoping the poor soul under the other wing will follow me instead.
Of course, when the tables turn, the Jumpmaster mechanic ingeniously holds up the mirror. Do I succumb to the same fiery urge, plunging two teammates and I into the middle of a warzone? Or will I shoulder the burden of bearing us to a tactical spot? Maybe it’s best to whisk us to the quiet edges. The other option is to relinquish the responsibility entirely, which appeals to the shirker in me – granting the power to shrug off the murk of a doomed start.
There is a middle-ground between the cowardly, the mad, and the masterful: the democratic. Leaning on the aforementioned ping system, the option to call out potential landing spots is a thrill. Not only for the frequency with which I’m ignored and shown a better way but for the times where I’m listened to. It feels like a great way to encourage the learning of tactics and the contours of the map. More than that, it eases the times when I’m in the hot seat, enabling me to take advice from (hopefully more learned) allies.
It’s a subtle thing, the Jumpmaster mechanic, but it's indicative of Respawn's approach to design: not the reinvention of a genre but the careful tailoring and tweaking of a formula until it feels fresh. The sensation of dropping in is the most fun of any battle royale game I've played, the arc and momentum of your fall inherently pleasing. That satisfaction is everywhere in Apex Legends, too – the weight and snap of the guns, the slimey speed at which you can slide down muddy hills, and the slow heft of healing yourself in the thick of firefight. It will be intriguing to see where Apex Legends takes us.