This past week was crammed full of AAA game releases, with Friday alone having seen the simultaneous launches of Crackdown 3, Far Cry New Dawn, Metro Exodus, and, for a select few PC players, Anthem. Despite this incredibly hectic launch window, Apex Legends continues to reign over all its newly released competition in terms of both popularity and acclaim. When a free-to-play battle royale title so handily beats back an entire wave of full-priced games, developers and producers alike are left to scratch their heads and wonder what Respawn Entertainment's Apex Legends has that their titles don't.
On top of being initially perceived as a somewhat desperate attempt on EA's part to chase market trends, Apex Legends launched on February 4 with almost no fanfare leading up to its surprise arrival. Nevertheless, Apex Legends has ballooned into nothing short of an enigmatic triumph for EA and developer Respawn, shattering player count milestones at speeds that would have made Fortnite wince. On its surface, it would seem that Apex Legends does little to nothing that this week's major releases don't, lacking the graphical spectacle of Metro Exodus and Anthem, the open-ended sandboxes of Far Cry New Dawn and Crackdown 3, and the pop culture mélange that Jump Force provides. But it stands out from the throng, largely thanks to its simple-yet-enthralling gameplay loop, well-refined Titanfall gunplay and movement systems, and refreshing additions and improvements to the battle royale formula.
Why was Apex Legends able to rest on its laurels this week while Respawn works on future content? The simplest answer can actually be found in what was likely perceived by EA to be its greatest weakness: it's near-total lack of pre-release marketing. Leaked only a day prior to launch, Apex Legends set the internet abuzz with the immediate promise of an all-new and well-polished experience that players could get their hands on for the tantalizing price of "free." Meanwhile, Crackdown 3 has suffered from a grueling, years-long embarrassment for Xbox Games Studios that began when it was revealed all the way back at E3 2014, greatly reducing the impact of the exclusive's largely overlooked February 15 release date.
That situation is likely salvageable due to the otherwise full-priced game's instant addition to the subscription-based Xbox Game Pass service, but missteps taken by Metro Exodus publisher Deep Silver have all but overshadowed the launch of the fantastic post-apocalyptic experience when they made the boldly abrupt decision to snub Steam and limit the game's PC release to the Epic Games Store. It's unknown how deeply this last-minute choice made from the top-down has affected Metro Exodus' sales, but it generated enough online backlash among outraged PC players to drown out any positive news about the game.
Metro Exodus is a diamond in the rough here in terms of its gameplay and story, with the other releases this week falling agonizingly flat in one area or the other. While Apex Legends is being universally lauded for its impressive blend of frenzy and strategy, as well as for its revolutionary ping system that makes teamplay easier and more integral than in any shooter before it, February has brought little else in the way of gameplay innovation. Crackdown 3 is a fairly mindless power fantasy sandbox, which is great for players seeking that experience, but disappointing to others due to how few additions it brings to the table when compared with the 12-year-old initial entry into the series.
Similarly, Far Cry New Dawn feels like an over-familiar and over-priced expansion to last year's Far Cry 5, a series that has slowly settled into creative stagnation since Far Cry 3's retooling of the series formula. Jump Force, while not entirely fair to compare with a list of shooters, plays like a fairly straightforward 3D fighting game beneath its enticing facade of playing as Shonen Jump's most iconic characters and doesn't do anything radical that hasn't already been seen in the fighting game genre time and time before.
That leaves only Anthem, whose global February 22 launch will mark the only proper live-service competitor to Apex Legends. Though Anthem is unquestionably beautiful and has thrilling combat and movement that Crackdown developers ought to take note of, there is the unavoidable fact that it is EA's answer to Destiny, and the online loot-shooter genre Anthem's obvious source material spawned is marred by a series of hard-to-avoid caveats. It does more to ensure that players won't be locked out of certain time-limited content by providing matchmaking in areas that the Destiny franchise neglects, but (as EA has clearly done its homework) it's difficult to not fear that launch content will prove much more sparse than initially expected, much as it was in both Destiny entries.
Of course, that's impossible to truly ascertain from our experience so far with Anthem's early hours, meaning players will have to wait and see if they will be undergoing the gauntlet of tedium that constitutes for the genre's standard end-game. However, it will undoubtedly be nigh impossible for Anthem to be able to suitably compete with a free-to-play battle royale like Apex Legends when it comes to keeping players interested with a steady flow of content. For those in the industry seeking to recreate Apex Legends' sleeper success, or at least successfully leech away some of its massive player base, there are a couple of lessons to be learned from this week's cramped mix of launches. First, consider the option that prolonged marketing and over-exposure might actually serve to hurt games; while not all games can capture the attention of millions overnight, producer's should at the very least take steps to avoid Crackdown 3's five-year gap between announcement and release. Second, and most importantly, developers should innovate where others have not within their genre, even if it doesn't amount to reinventing the wheel.
Comparing Apex Legends to Call of Duty: Black Ops 4's Blackout reveals two fairly similar gameplay experiences, but what sets the former apart is its major quality-of-life improvements and marriage of the hero shooter and battle royale genres. If the game industry avoided pre-launch gaffes like Metro Exodus' and changed the answers on its copied homework a bit more than Anthem seems willing, perhaps a free-to-play title wouldn't have so easily trounced so many expensive AAA titles in the first place.