Apex Legends is growing up. The hit battle royale celebrates its fifth anniversary this month, but instead of basking in the past with an Apex OG party, Respawn is squarely focused on the future. Season 20 is nigh, and it’s bringing a handful of major changes that aim to reduce complexity and eliminate some of the randomness of battle royale.
The biggest target for Season 20 is shields. Shields in Apex Legends will no longer spawn as ground loot. Everyone begins the match with the same gray shield, and the only ways to upgrade a shield is by dealing damage, finding EVO harvesters on the map, or performing “class actions” that benefit your squad.
In an interview with PC Gamer at an Apex Legends media summit in Los Angeles, lead battle royale designer Josh Mohan said the idea is to “smooth out” the progression of an Apex match and make matchups more predictable.
“Part of the battle royale core is the randomness of it. It’s kind of like a roguelike game. You play with the hand you’re dealt and see what you get,” he said. “Which is a tricky balance in a competitive environment that can sometimes make you feel like, ‘Well they picked up a purple shield and I didn’t get anything, so that was just a waste of my time there.’
“It can feel like a bit of a non-game.”
By flattening the shield curve, Mohan says Apex now has “a really distinct early, middle, and late game period” where can roughly know what power level enemies are at before engaging. If it’s early on, you can comfortably engage a squad knowing nobody’s packing a fully-upgraded red shield.
Along with the removal of ground shields is the introduction of new ways to upgrade a shield. Dealing lots of damage remains the quickest avenue to upgrades, but new EVO harvesters marked on the map can also get the job done if you’re up for the jog. Two or three harvesters give enough EVO to upgrade a whole squad’s shields, and lead game designer Devan McGuire said harvesters are intentionally placed between compounds so squads can easily grab them on the way to loot. The other way to get ahead in shields is role-specific actions like opening a support loot bin or revealing the next circle.
Shield swapping—the practice of quickly replacing your depleted shield with a dead enemy’s shield that Mohan called “a core part of our combat”—is still possible, but works differently. You can still loot shields off dead players, but any upgrade you get from their shield isn’t permanent. If you have a blue shield and loot an enemy’s purple shield core, for example, you’d absorb their extra pip of shield as temporary HP. Essentially, your shield is always your shield, but you can charge (or overcharge) its battery.
Mohan told PC Gamer that the team didn’t come to this change lightly.
“It changes the whole mathematics of the game, which took us internally a while to get our heads around,” Mohan said. “Believe me, there were grumblings all over the place about whether this was the right change or not. But the proof is in the pudding. As we started to play it more and more, it just felt like the right move.”
“My hesitation or where I stay up late at night is wondering how long it will take for folks to see the armor progression system as a healthy thing,” said McGuire in a separate group interview with press.
In the same group interview, Mohan expanded on the loss of armor as ground loot.
“I think [players] will miss that feeling of grabbing a purple shield off the rip and feeling like you just got dealt pocket aces, but I think in the long run, people will see that it’s healthy change to the armor system specifically.”
Apex’s new shield dynamic goes hand-in-hand with another major Season 20 addition: legend upgrades. Every legend now has a mini skill-tree they can level up throughout each match with the same EVO progression tied to shields. It’s a big deal, so much that it needs its own article to cover.
While Respawn has taken luck out of the equation when it comes to your health pool, don’t expect the same to happen for weapons.
“[Season 20] is an evolution in the right direction, toward where we need to be with our health pool items like shields. With weapons, I think it’s a bit different,” Mohan said.”You can still have that randomness with weapons, because it’s a fun challenge to feel like the more of the weapon roster you know, the more successful you’re going to be.
“And sometimes you get that feeling of ‘Oh I got the best attachment for this weapon. I’m going to switch to it even though it’s not my favorite.’ That dynamic is still really interesting. We might hone it a bit, but I don’t see us fully getting rid of that level of randomness in the game.”
While Mohan said the team will “probably look at” other instances of randomness in Apex, leveling out health pools was the priority. In the spirit of a level playing field, I asked Mohan if Respawn would ever revisit the idea of every player spawning equipped with a gun. In short: probably not.
“The thing about putting a weapon directly into the players’ hands is it creates this ‘uber hot dropping’ behavior. Like, I’m gonna drop right on top of you and just delete you from the game instantly.”
Apex Legends Season 20 begins this month with the shields overhaul, legend upgrades, and a new limited-time version of battle royale called Straight Shot that cuts match times in half.