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Posted: Apr 26, 2021 - 3:59 PM
Updated: Apr 26, 2021 - 3:59 PM

Arenas is a brand-new, permanent team deathmatch mode launching in Apex Legends Season 9: Legacy (which is strangely just called Legacy, no number like past seasons). Much like Titanfall 2’s Live Fire mode, Arenas is heavily focused on gunplay, with only two teams facing off in matches that play out over several fast-paced rounds. After getting hands-on with it, I really enjoyed Arenas. There’s no wall-running in Arenas, but it reminded me of my favorite aspects of Titanfall 2’s Pilot-focused multiplayer modes.

Following my hands-on, I got to sit down with several members of Respawn’s team to talk about Arenas. During our conversation, I was surprised to hear that the team deathmatch mode initially took inspiration from a completely different genre of game: auto chess.

“The funny story is that the inspiration for Arenas actually comes from auto chess,” Respawn lead game designer Carlos Pineda told me in an interview following my hands-on. “Auto chess has different people fighting on a grid–and that was our original idea. We thought, ‘We should do that–we should do a bunch of teams fighting each other on different parts of the map.’ But eventually we talked about it and it became different teams fighting each other on the same map but different instances. It was like a little tournament–3v3 over here, 3v3 over there, and as you win you move up until there’s only one left.”

According to Arenas designer Robert West, the first prototype for Arenas was playtested in September 2019–for those keeping track at home, yes, that’s back during Season 2: Battle Charge. Respawn has been working on Arenas for a long time. “It took place on Artillery in Kings Canyon; it was 24 players in eight squads in four 3v3 matches all at once,” West said. “The matches were at the same time and on the same map but separate instances so you were only ever fighting only one other squad at a time each round.”

This early version of Arenas played similarly to Apex Legends: Battle Royale. After both teams spawned on opposite sides of Artillery, it was a mad dash to find the best loot you could and then fight it out. It was like dropping hot with one other squad.

“The prototype was far from perfect but it gave us one point of clarity: Intense 3v3 match-ups with no third-partying felt amazing,” West said.

“And we just kept chasing it until suddenly we’re like, ‘Actually, this is really good. Maybe it should live forever,'” Respawn design director Jason McCord told me. “So then we started putting new game polish on it–like LTMs get enough to go out ’cause they only have to be out for a little while and then they’re done. But when you start saying, ‘This thing needs to live forever,’ you put a lot more work into it: All the special UI, everyone on the team is looking at it, the writing team is getting super involved and suddenly its existence lives in the lore. Arenas now has that level of polish on it and we hope it lives forever. We plan for it to live forever. We’ll be watching the queues, using every trick that we have to ensure it stays healthy.”

Arenas plays like Respawn’s take on the formula used for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Valorant. Unlike those games, however, there’s no objective to pursue like defusing a bomb. But much like those games, Arenas is heavily focused on two teams engaging in high-intensity gunfights on small maps that are divided into a few points of interest and clear-cut lanes.

“It’s super different from [Battle Royale],” Pineda said. “There’s always a desire for us to make games that are deep and have lots of mastery so we said, ‘We’ve got this new mode, it’s super fun to play–how do we make something that’s deep and masterful out of this?’ Strip away the multiple teams and now just focus on the head-to-head fights. Strip away the RNG and put loot into a store.”

Each Arenas match is divided into rounds. At the start of a round, you have a brief amount of time to spend a select amount of Materials to craft an assortment of weapons, healing, or ability uses. You can spend more Materials upfront if you want to be somewhat well outfitted from the start or choose to save your cash in the early rounds in order to make a big purchase in the latter half of the match–like buying a legend’s ultimate ability or fully-upgrading a gun. You’ll also earn more Materials by being a team player and getting assists or kills, or taking the time during a round to track down Material caches for your squad. Everything you buy will be lost at the end of the round.

Unlike Battle Royale, there are no respawns in Arenas, so when you’re dead, you’re dead. And save for a care package that lands midway through each round, there are no weapons to loot. Arenas is designed for speed–you pick your gear, your team comes up with a strategy, you fight the other team, and then you regroup for the next round and try to figure out what went wrong and what went right. Each round typically only lasts a few minutes.

The first team to win at least three rounds and be ahead by at least two rounds wins the match. So, as an example, if the opposing team wins the first round but then your team wins the next three, you’ll win the match. But if the opposing team wins the first two rounds and then you win the next three, you have to win one more match in order to have that two-round lead. The one exception to this rule is if both teams manage to win four rounds; then the ninth round will be a tiebreaker to decide the victor.

I found my three hours hands-on with Apex Legends: Arenas to be incredibly satisfying–I came away thinking that it could easily exist as its own game. It’s built on the core of what makes Apex Legends: Battle Royale so good: an informative ping system, smooth movement controls, solid first-person shooter mechanics, well-structured map design, compelling lore, and likeable characters. In Arenas, all of that is just now funnelled through the gameplay loop of a team deathmatch instead of a battle royale. It feels a lot like what Epic Games managed to achieve with Fortnite, where the core mechanics of Save The World were used to create the very different Battle Royale.

“And so what does Apex Legends turn into? It’s really open to how people perceive it,” McCord said. “Right now, Battle Royale is still going to be where you go to get the full experience. You get pacing in Battle Royale, you get 20 minutes of adventure when you play a good battle royale match. Arenas is like going into a sparring ring and smacking some fools and figuring out who’s better. We want both of those experiences to live but if, say, we release Arenas and 100% of players go play Arenas, we will change our strategy.”

He added: “And you better believe that we’re doing similar things right now that we’re not talking about. We’re playtesting some stuff that’s different and it’s cool, and we’re asking, ‘Should it be limited-time or should it be permanent?'”

When Apex Legends: Legacy starts, you’ll be able to hop into Battle Royale or Arenas. Battle Royale will obviously be the more substantial of the two, with Trios, Duos, and Ranked playlists. Arenas will only have its one playlist, but it will launch with five maps. Three of those maps are repurposed points of interest from Battle Royale–Kings Canyon’s Artillery, World’s Edge’s Thermal Station, and Olympus’ Gardens–while the other two are brand new. For now, Respawn’s plan for the future of Arenas is to add a ranked playlist and more maps, but that could change depending on how the community takes to the new mode.

“It’s a lot of intense planning and producing but we are going to keep doing map updates for [Battle Royale] maps like we always have, and also try to get Arenas to feel just as important,” Respawn lead level designer Dave Osei told me. “So new maps will be something to look forward to. The team is definitely very busy but we’re aware of what we can and can’t do with the time we have.”

Additionally, Apex Legends’ story will occasionally be told through Arenas–so, from now on, we’ll have to scour Arenas’ maps for new content teasers in the same way we look through the Battle Royale’s maps and Apex Legends’ firing range. The introduction of Arenas actually marks one of Apex Legends’ strongest ties to Titanfall, as the person who runs it is Ash, an Apex Predator you face in Titanfall 2.

“We’re definitely going to utilize Arenas the same way we utilize Battle Royale,” Respawn senior writer Ashley Reed told me. “Ash is back in the picture–she showed up in Season 5, made a brief appearance in Season 6, and then disappeared. And now that she’s back, what does that mean for all the people that were involved with her in some way, especially sweet, sweet Pathfinder? That’s something we’re definitely interested in: Utilizing every aspect of Apex to push forward our story.”

Apex Legends: Legacy begins on May 4. Alongside Arenas, the season adds new playable character Valkyrie, a new point of interest to Olympus (a crashed ship full of infected crewmembers and a monstrous plant), and the Bocek Compound Bow. Additionally, Legacy will see several character and weapon balancing changes (such as the Peacekeeper returning to ground loot while the Triple Take goes into care packages) and the return of World’s Edge to the Battle Royale playlists.

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