If you've been paying any attention to the trajectory of Apex Legends over the last two years, you'll know that Respawn has long expressed dreams to take its free-to-play shooter beyond the realms of battle royale, and can you blame it?
With first-rate, Titanfall-inspired gunplay, an ever-growing cast of playable heroes, and a deep universe brimming with lore and intrigue, the foundations for Apex Legends have been outgrowing the parameters of its battle royale roots for some time now. To borrow from its own parlance, this is a live service that has earned itself the right to step outside of the ring.
And with Apex Legends season 9, Respawn is finally making good on those dreams, introducing a new Arena mode that it hopes players will latch onto with as much passion and fervour as the game's core experience. As the new season's latest trailer explains: "The Apex Games are where the champions are crowned, but The Arena is where Legends are made."
The best way I can describe Apex Legends' Arena is like a cross between Counter-Strike: Global Offensive and Overwatch's Elimination mode. Pitting two squads of three against each other on one of five smaller maps (two of which have been custom made for the mode, the other three taken from Apex's existing battle royale maps), the competition is a focused deathmatch that puts patience, precision, and teamwork to the ultimate test.
"The first prototype of Arenas was actually playtested back in September 2019," explains senior designer Robert West. "But it played quite a bit different than it does today. It originally took place on Kings Canyon with 24 players, and four 3v3 fights happening at once. That prototype was far from perfect, but it gave us one point of clarity; intense 3v3 matchups with no third parties felt amazing. So, over the course of a year, the team worked tirelessly to hash out every part of the design, always keeping to our key guiding principles: make it different from battle royale, highlight the characters, and offer competitive depth."
Those principles helped Respawn double down on the intensity and intimacy of Arenas which, after playing a few rounds of the mode in a preview build of season 9, I can heartily attest to. Each team begins an Arena match in their own enclosed spawn room, and – at the start of each round – has time to spend resources on either purchasing and upgrading weapons, or investing in hero abilities.
None of these investments carry over to the next round, and every participant has the same amount of resources to spend regardless of whether they won or lost the previous round, ensuring a level playing field that never snowballs into a quick victory for either side. West says that these design features ensure that skill and strategy are the key variables in the competition, rather than Apex Legends' randomised loot system: "You're not going to be praying to the RNG Gods for better weapons."
"The store allows the player to effectively customise their loadout every round by deciding how to spend their resources based on factors like their team composition, the enemy team's comp, and their own playstyle and weapon preferences," West continues. "Arena is different from battle royale where the fights are random, and you usually only fight a specific squad once a match. You get to know who you're up against, as you face off with the same squad round after round, reacting to their plays and evolving your strategy."
Respawn has plans to support Arena with new maps and features well past its launch in season 9, demonstrating the studio's vision for it to be an evolving tournament that sits right up alongside the core battle royale mode as a permanent fixture of the Apex experience. Better yet, game director Chad Grenier teases that this is just the start of Respawn's efforts to evolve Apex Legends into something greater than its genre heritage: "You'll continue to see some innovations and [us] try a few things here and there. We do hope that Apex can be more than just a battle royale game."
Ascending new heights
Arena is just one of several new features touching down in Apex Legends season 9. In addition to the new mode, players can expect drastic changes to the Olympus map (brought about by a parasitic plant slowly suffocating the floating city in giant, twisting roots), a new weapon in the form of the Bocek bow, manifold quality-of-life changes and balance updates, and a new playable hero: Valkyrie.
The daughter of Viper, a mercenary killed by Titanfall 2 protagonist Jack Cooper during the events of that game's campaign, Valkyrie is a fierce fighter pilot equipped with a weaponised jetpack, changing the dynamics of Apex Legends' engagements as the first hero capable of flight. While that might sound overpowered on paper, Respawn has gone to great lengths to ensure Valkyrie's introduction to Apex Legends doesn't completely upend the studio's carefully balanced competitive meta, as lead game designer Daniel Klein explains.
"You have a limited amount of jet fuel, and you have to not be using your jetpack for quite a while for the fuel to start coming back. So you may find yourself out of fuel when you really need to get out of a sticky situation. Valkyrie's jetpacks are also very loud. So whenever you use it, you're revealing yourself to all enemies in a large area around you, and our sound guys have done an amazing job in making it clear where Valkyrie is based on what the jetpack sounds like. Finally, by flying up in the air, you are by definition not behind cover; your entire body is revealed to the enemy and you fly in a path that's easy to track. So if an enemy has a gun trained on you, and you take to the skies, it'll be a short flight!"
Despite all these limitations, Klein recently admitted on Reddit that Valkyrie could still be too overpowered at launch, which should give you an idea of how drastic a shake-up she is for the Apex Games. But a big update deserves a big hero, and make no mistake, Apex Legends season 9 is the biggest update to the game since it first launched. Grier goes further, describing the season as "a culmination of almost two years of experimentation and innovation".
"We keep getting bigger and bigger. It's crazy. We're embarking on an exciting new chapter in the Apex journey, and we couldn't be more excited."