Though I’m remiss to say it out loud, I have to cop to the fact that I am, in fact, a really big fan of the battle royale genre. At first, I thought I only had a tangential interest in it – just kind of a passing, mild, “hey, this is a neat little thing to play a few games of.” As it turned out, a “few games” translated to 83 hours in PUBG. 24 hours in Ring of Elysium. 17 hours in the ill-fated Radical Heights. God knows how many in Fortnite, split between the PC and Switch versions. Oh, and a decent bit in that Call of Duty thing, although I primarily found myself more into that game’s TDM before dropping it like a hot potato because, hey, maybe I’m finally tired of that formula.
Point being, I guess I like battle royale games. Weird. Even weirder? EA, the gaming community’s favorite company to circlejerk their hate boners over, might have gone ahead and made the best one using an IP that they’d previously sent out to die. Alex, I’ll take “stuff I wouldn’t believe a year ago” for a thousand!
Apex Legends is the phoenix that’s risen from the ashes of Titanfall, and what a beautiful phoenix it is. On the most basic level, it’s a synthesis between the Call of Duty-influenced gunplay of its predecessors, and of the genre created by PUBG but undoubtedly made more relevant by Fortnite. And though it seemed for a while there that Epic Games’ cash cow would continue to dominate the market and squelch other competitors, EA’s now giving them a serious run for their money. Which is great, because I’m tired as hell of Fortnite, truth be told – they’re never going to put in shooting mechanics worth much of anything, after all. And despite Bluehole’s claims, PUBG isn’t fixed. And Ring of Elysium is really freaking cool, but also, its player count keeps on a-dropping. Eesh.
So now, I’ve played two days’ worth or so of Apex Legends, hitting level 22 just before I started writing this. Why have I thrown myself so hard at this game? Is it the mechanics? Well, for starters, yeah – they’re among the best I’ve ever touched in a shooter, but that’s not it. What about the visuals? Sure, they’re undeniably great, and the 21:9 support is impeccable, but there’s something more. And while I could sit here and talk about how smartly designed the map is, or how good all the guns (outside of the extremely cursed Mozambique) feel, or how the traversal tech is more interesting than its peers, it’s not necessarily the mechanics that have grabbed me as hard as one other major facet.
Because, to me, where Apex Legends truly succeeds is in its strength of character. That is to say, its diverse and robust cast of eclectic player-characters are unlike anything else in the genre. Fortnite‘s characters are colorful in the same way that 80’s cartoon characters are, but they lack personality or depth. Ring of Elysium‘s characters are fun in how much they seem cut out of a straight-to-cable Seagal film, but they’re not necessarily fleshed-out. And PUBG’s got some military gear and overpriced Suicide Squad costumes that look like they’re from Party City’s bargain bin. Against this limp competition, Apex has the edge by default.
However, Apex‘s cast isn’t just head-and-shoulders above its competitors. Instead, it goes for the jugular of a personal favorite: Overwatch. The comparisons are impossible to not see. Chatter that dumps lore, signature voice lines, a MOBA-lite class system, wildly differentiating character designs… the list goes on. But the thing is that Apex not only is clearly influenced by Overwatch, but hellbent on improving on it. I say this as somebody who’s spent hundreds of hours and dollars on Blizzard’s former mega-hit, but Respawn has pinpointed all the flaws present in that game and decided not to replicate them. Unlike paltry knockoffs like Paladins, which just copied Jeff Kaplan’s homework and decided to call it a day, every person on the design team of Apex went above and beyond the call of duty to deliver a game with characters that are, on both a conceptual and aesthetic level, more interesting than anything Blizzard could come up with. Sorry, D.Va.
How is this accomplished? For starters, it’s important to understand why I think Overwatch‘s roster is, by and large, not very well thought-out. And before you post this on some forum and find my Twitter and get all pissy because I hurt your feelings about a game you had no hand in creating, I should really repeat that I used to love Overwatch and have fanart and figures from it all over my home. However, Blizzard has proven over the course of three goddamn years that they’re firmly stuck in the lane of pandering to anime fans and horny teens – a Venn diagram that’s a perfect circle, I might add!
First, let’s talk about the female characters – practically all of them look the goddamn same. Outliers like Mei and Zarya notwithstanding, every single female character, regardless of nationality, ethnicity, or occupation, are identical in both facial characteristics and body type. A gruff military woman hailing from Egypt has the same ass and bust and weight of an introverted teenage hacker from Mexico, a socially awkward Indian mathematician, a dumb white cowgirl, a Swedish welder, a German doctor, a professional gamer from Korea, a French sniper, a white whatever-the-fuck Tracer is, et cetera. If you think I’m exagerrating, please, glance over this image for a moment. I’ll wait.
Done? Yeah, fucked-up, right? Their faces are all practically the same! That’s not how that works! It’s so weird! Okay, let’s keep going.
But even the outliers have their own problems. Ana, an elderly woman in a sick-ass headscarf, gets a skin that makes her younger and sexier. Mei seems kind of portly, until you put on literally anything other than her default outfit and realize, huh, she’s actually just got a pretty conventionally acceptable hourglass figure and enormous tits. The only one I can give any props to, really, is Zarya. Despite the silly boob armor, she genuinely bucks conventional design trends with it comes to female characters, both in terms of personality and physicality. She’s more in line with the wild diversity present in the male characters, and I really do wish that diversity was represented in the female characters.
Now, as a sidebar, I’d like to quash any arguments along the lines of, “uh, but being sexy isn’t bad, stop being so anti-sex, you crazy SJW [insert gendered slur here]!” You’re absolutely right! It totally isn’t! I’m shamelessly horny for anime and I love sexy female character designs – when they’re done right! For an example of this, look at Street Fighter‘s roster. Notice that most of the female characters have evolved into radically different-looking characters over the years, without ever sacrificing an ounce of their sex appeal. Sure, yes, practically all of them have enormous bust sizes, but their character models, costumes, facial characteristics, et cetera, are all super unique and differentiate them from each other. Going even further, most of them have believable musculature when it comes to their respective occupations. Of course Laura has massive biceps if she does jiu-jitsu, and of course Chun-Li’s legs are going to be jacked as hell if she’s always chasing criminals, and of course R. Mika’s going to be heavier than the other women if she’s a legit wrestler. It all just makes sense. It’s fetish-y without being fucking boring, and I’m all here for that.
However, the horny heteros behind Overwatch apparently have the most generic and dull as hell fetish in the world – skinny women who are either white or have super Caucasian facial characteristics. But what’s strange, then, is that nobody ever points out how horny and fetish-y and full of broken spines the female character designs are, because Blizzard’s busy picking up acclaim for how “woke” they are (more on that in a second) because Tracer has a girlfriend. Everybody seemingly turns a blind eye to just how egregiously uninspired almost every female character is because, wow, one of them’s gay! How unheard of! It’s a smokescreen for Blizzard to keep on doing the same ole’ bad designs they’ve been doing since StarCraft, and it’s crazy so many people continue to fall for it. It would be like if I liked a generic moeblob idol show just because a gay character is in it, which I would never do, because I’m a woman of integrity. Clearly.
Point being, Overwatch picks up accolades for its inclusiveness left and right, and that gets people to overlook some of the blatant flaws in its roster. Now, credit where credit is due, there’s definitely something to be said for its racial representation. However, while I’ll try not to dwell on this too much because I’m, y’know, white, it’s worth mentioning that its representation ranges from “hey, cool” to “yikes, isn’t that a stereotype?” Lucio is pretty great portrayal of positive masculinity, but then you have an Egyptian woman dressed up in a super stereotypical outfit based on indigenous American culture, meaning that there’s a weird conflation of brown-skinned women going on somewhere on the art team. You’ve got a maternal robot built by a twelve-year-old genius hailing from the fictitious African country, Numbani, but then both your Japanese characters are really dated stereotypes and one of them is a literal fucking ninja. Yeah, you’ve got a gay lady and gay dude, but not a single black woman in a cast of women that all basically look the same. It’s this never-ending process of taking two steps forward and one step back, and while the net gain is a game that made some headway in terms of representation, it’s headway made with a bunch of asterisks.
Plus, it’s worth noting that the LGBT inclusiveness is pretty fucking bad. They put out these characters, keep their finger to the pulse of the community, then retroactively pull out the character’s sexuality in their drip-fed lore as a surprise. People get mad, people say that Blizzard’s saved the gays, and then everyone argues and refuses to shut up for a week. It’s exhausting. Why not bake this into the lore from the beginning? Honestly, I’m not of the belief that it needs to be 100% represented in-game, because what are they going to do, have Soldier 76 say, “got you in my sights, also I’m gay,” in the middle of a firefight? No. It’s a multiplayer game. As long as I know a character is queer in the lore, I’m cool with that. What I’m not cool with are the surprise reveals every single time Overwatch‘s popularity starts waning. It feels like a calculated attempt to get people talking about the game again, and in turn, feels deeply exploitative of the community – from my perspective.
Sexuality is clickbait to Blizzard, and that’s straight-up not great.
What makes Apex Legends better to me in that department, then? From a very basic level, their starting roster of eight characters houses a type of diversity not present in Overwatch. Two of its three female characters are black, one of its characters is trans, it has a gay POC, and there’s a robot that isn’t given an explicitly masculine or feminine character design – contrasted to the highly gendered robots in Overwatch. Those are all pretty cool starting points, but let’s take a deeper dive.
For starters, let’s take a look at the female characters – Wraith, Bangalore, and Lifeline. Only one of them is wearing a body suit, and considering her character (stealthy interdimensional assassin-y lady,) it fits. The other two women wear clothing that makes sense for both their respective roles on the battlefield and their lore, with Bangalore’s fatigues making sense considering her military upbringing and Lifeline’s breathable top and cargo pants fitting with her role as a combat medic, as well as being more casual than something somebody from her wealthy upbringing might wear. On top of their outfits, each woman looks different. Different body types and heights and faces help to give them differentiating factors beyond outfit colors and hairstyles. While I’d like more diversity in terms of female body types and eventually other ethnicities, it’s a pretty bang-up start. Plus, Wraith is super hot in that creepy way I dig, so that’s a plus. Anyway.
And then you have Bloodhound, a masked espionage expert who’s non-binary and uses “they/them” pronouns. It’s a cool way to put a non-binary character in a AAA game, I feel, because whatever perceived “gendered” physical characteristics they might have are obscured by a gas mask and bulky clothing. Their appearance is calculated very deliberately to be genderless and ambiguous, which is a great artistic choice. Oh, and let’s talk for a second about Gibralter. First off, he’s played by prolific character actor Branscombe Richmond, and that’s just fucking awesome. But then, on a conceptual level, you have this hulking Polynesian dude who’s gay and doesn’t have some sort of sad backstory about it. He’s not cuckolded and sad like Soldier 76, whose story echoes literally every Hollywood movie ever written about gay men that’s not called Moonlight, or if he is, we don’t know about it. That’s rad as hell.
Plus, the character designs across the board are very good. There are no weird racial stereotypes, no titty armor, no bootleg anime nonsense – every character’s outfit and physical appearance fits their role, has good glance value, follows the classic silhouette test rule, and has a cohesiveness to it that fits in the context of the universe. It’s a game that draws you into its world based on the way the characters look, instead of yanking you out of it. That’s a hard thing to accomplish, especially when it comes to a PVP free-to-play game. It takes a lot of extra effort to not just try and appeal to the lowest common denominator like certain other games that are MOBAs made by Riot Games or shooters made by Hi-Res. Ahem.
Point being, I’m really digging all the hard work put into the characters of Apex Legends. They’re all memorable and charming in their own right, and there’s no weird homogenization when it comes to their appearances. Plus, it’s getting representation pretty right straight out of the gate, without feeling too much like they’re just fishing for good publicity – which is fairly shocking for EA, I’ve gotta say. While it’s a stellar first-person shooter in its own right, with stellar shooting mechanics and unique traversal systems, and a breath of fresh air for the battle royale genre, it’s the roster of characters that plays a large role in me coming back for more. Much like the way I love the characters of something like, say, Dead or Alive, there’s a comfort to being in the virtual presence of the cast. That comfort goes a long way, and I hope that Respawn is able to sustain it going forward.