Things can change quickly in the world of online gaming. Nowhere is this more accurate than in the Battle Royale (BR) genre, which in less than two years has completely reshaped the gaming landscape.
PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG) kicked off the craze, and while it was, and still is, very successful, its thunder was quickly stolen by Fortnite, which became a cultural phenomenon in its own right.
It became obvious that BR games were here to stay, and even the grand old gentlemen of the shooter genre decided they had to get in on the action; the latest Call of Duty launched with a BR mode, and the newest Battlefield will get one next month.
Call of Duty's Blackout was well received, but never posed a challenge to Fortnite's dominance, and until the first week of this month, it seemed unlikely that anyone would be able to unseat Fortnite as the king of the genre.
But things change quickly, and on February 4, an unexpected challenger appeared. To call it unexpected is perhaps an understatement — until rumours started going around mere days before its release, no one knew that Apex Legends was even in development.
Developer Respawn Entertainment and publisher Electronic Arts did something almost unheard of in the industry: they released a Triple-A game with zero prior marketing or attempts to build hype through word of mouth, or through previews or betas or anything else that usually goes into preparing for a major release. Oh, and you also don't need to buy it - it's free.
At a time when publishers spend tens of millions of dirhams marketing big releases and offer expensive special editions for sometimes ridiculous prices, it's not really possible to go against the grain much more than this.
Apex Legends simply appeared out of the blue, a new challenger in the BR battlefield that no one expected but that everyone was willing to try. Being free helped, of course, but another reason was the pedigree of the developer.
Respawn was formed by the core members of Infinity Ward in 2010 after the studio had a falling out with publisher Activision. Infinity Ward had released the second instalment in the genre-defining Call of Duty: Modern Warfare series only months before.
Gamers were excited to see what the people who had twice revolutionised the first-person shooter genre — first with 2003's Call of Duty and then with 2007's Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare - would get up to next.
Their first release was an Xbox and Windows exclusive, Titanfall, which received good reviews but the success of which was hampered by its platform exclusivity and lack of a single-player campaign. Titanfall 2 was released in 2016, two years later, and received rave reviews.
It was without a doubt one of the best FPS games in recent years, but even though it was also available on PlayStation 4 this time round, the decision to launch the game at about the same time as the much-anticipated Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare understandably harmed sales.
Many were hoping the next Respawn game would be Titanfall 3, and for all the reasons mentioned already, the release of Apex Legends was a very risky move. But it seems to have paid off, at least so far. Less than a week after its release, Apex racked up more than 25 million downloads and had two million people playing at the same time in its first weekend.
Those numbers are as impressive as they sound — even outstripping the Fortnite's pace of growth, but of course still lagging behind that behemoth's total player count, which is somewhere north of 200 million.
Could Apex become the dominant BR game? It's a definite possibility. It is a much better game than Fortnite, with sublime gunplay that cannot be matched by PUBG or even Call of Duty's take on the format. The only other shooter out there that handles as well and makes shooting a weapon simply a joy is Destiny 2, and it lacks a BR mode. This is great news for those who are fans of BR but just can't live with the terrible gunplay in Fortnite.
Inventory management is also so much better than in any of Apex's competitors, and an innovative tagging system means that you don't need to use a microphone for proper co-ordinated play with your teammates.
Apex seems to simply get everything about the genre right, even correcting things that were not obviously wrong.
Matches are between 20 teams with three members each. Players get to choose from a list of eight characters, each with a unique set of passive and active special abilities and one potentially game-changing super ability.
Bringing elements from Overwatch-style hero shooters into the BR format was a stroke of genius, and all the different classes of hero are fun to play. There's something for everyone - if you don't like to run in all guns blazing, then one of the support characters, such as Lifeline, may be more to your liking. She focuses on healing her teammates and keeping them alive just a bit longer, something that can prove decisive in surviving an encounter with an enemy squad or in winning the game.
Your classic soldier, tank and scout classes are also present.
Games are not too long, finishing in under 20 minutes (and of course much faster if you’re not good or lucky enough to stay alive until close to the end).
The gameplay rewards tactical and strategic thinking and above all teamwork, meaning much of the toxicity that can creep into multiplayer games of this sort is surprisingly rare.
If Fortnite has just never seemed appealing and you thought the whole Battle Royale thing wasn't for you, it's probably still a good idea to give Apex Legends a try.
It takes everything good about BR games, jettisons the unnecessary extras, improves the core gameplay and brings in new elements that elevate the genre.
It’s the sort of unexpected surprise we can get behind: a good one. Being free doesn’t hurt either.