Apex Legends' upcoming ninth season is set to be a big'un. And I thought Season 7 was huge, with a new map and vehicles and all that, but that all seems so old now. Season 9 is bringing a new character with a jetpack as well as a new permanent mode for players who want a break from all the battle royalling - and it's so much fun. Arenas is a new 3v3 mode with quick and tense teamfights in purpose-built maps. I played a few matches during a preview event, and I have to say, it's the most excited I think I've been about an Apex update yet.
Before I can tell you exactly how fun Arenas is, it's worth explaining exactly how it works, because it's pretty different from anything Apex has done before. It's a 3v3 team deathmatch where the first team to win three rounds or lead by a two-win margin takes the game. If teams are tired with four wins each, the ninth round is a sudden death tiebreaker. You pick your Legend as you would jumping into a battle royale (without seeing what the other team has chosen), and there's no switching Legends between rounds so you can't metagame by swapping out to characters that counter others. Matches are more like elimination deathmatches too: you can revive your pals if they get downed, but there's no respawning if they get fully murdered.
Each round starts with a buy phase when you can purchase weapons, weapon upgrades, abilities, and items like grenades and health packs, like in Valorant or CS:GO. These cost crafting materials. You receive some materials each round (an amount which increases across a match), then can earn extra by killing enemies, winning rounds and such, and can find even more in containers throughout the Arena. So if you wanna beef yourself up next round, you can prioritise scavenging before engaging your enemies. At the start of each round you get access to a shop. It's a buy phase, just like you'd see in games like Valorant or CS:GO, and you'll be given a certain amount of crafting materials with which to buy weapons, weapon upgrades, abilities and items (like grenades and health packs). You'll get an increased amount of crafting materials as rounds progress, and you'll earn more based on your performance too (getting kills, winning rounds). On top of that, crafting material containers will be placed around the Arena as well, so if you wanna beef yourself up next round, you can prioritise grabbing those before engaging the enemy squad.
In the shop you'll find popular (and very good) weapons like the R-99 SMG and Flatline assault rifle are pretty costly, while small sidearms like the Mozambique shotgun and P2020 pistol are free. In the first round you only get enough crafting materials to buy one good gun, though you can play it a little riskier and get something rubbish to save your materials for better things later on. Legend abilities vary massively in cost too, with Mirage's decoys being fairly cheap, for example, and Gibraltar's dome shield being a bit pricier. You do get a few charges of these for free though, the devs still want you to be able to use your Legends' unique powers without being punished for it. You can also buy a charge of your Legend's ultimate ability, but from what I played, I honestly didn't think it was worth it. Arenas matches are quick and I didn't see many opportunities to use an ultimate. They're pretty costly too, and it seemed much more worth it to buy a decent weapon with a few upgrades, as well as make sure I had some extra shield cells in my inventory.
It might sound weird to have to buy abilities in a game mode like this, but it's to make sure things stay balanced. Design director Jason McCord says the whole buy phase thing was actually one of the breakthroughs in creating Arenas that made them realise this could be a permanent mode.
"Before, in internal testing when we didn't have characters buying their abilities yet, every match was playing out with a Bloodhound scanning the whole map constantly, and Crypto drones coming in and nuking everybody," he tells me. "I remember when someone broached the idea of, 'what if you buy them?' And I remember feeling like, 'no! what are you talking about, this is the identity of the character you can't make me pay for it!'"
Despite that, it works well, and Respawn only altered a couple of abilities to make sure they fit in Arenas. Valkyrie's ultimate is adjusted so that she flies faster but lower, to make sure she doesn't zoom out of the map, while Lifeline's ult will guarantee you some useful items rather than being completely random.
But what happens during a match? Well, once you've finished buying what you think you need, you're released from a spawn room on the opposite side of the map from the enemy squad. Arenas keeps some things from the battle royale mode. You'll still have a ring closing in on you, gradually forcing you and the enemy squad to get closer. Things pick up fairly quickly; you'll want to stay with your squad as you travel to either the ring zone, or to a supply bin to grab some more consumables. Arenas aren't huge though, and often the enemies will run straight to the same areas you have. Skirmishing will ensue, and it's great having these fast-paced gunfights without the fear of other teams watching and waiting to third-party when you're all weakened.
The five Arenas maps offer some nice varied terrain to play across too. I found Phaserunner, one of the new custom-built arenas, to be great for snipers. There are plenty of spots to set up a nice little defensive zone, and take a few long-range battles before charging in. My favourite so far is the Party Crasher map though. Mirage has crashed his lovely party barge right into a city center, leaving a couple of small buildings, as well as the barge, to fight in. It makes for great close-quarters combat, and has a lovely neon-nightlife backdrop.
With a mode like this that's so different from a battle royale, I asked Respawn about the challenges of balancing characters, and if, going forward, they'd see balance changes depending on the performance in the new mode. Lead game designer Daniel Klein says the whole buying part is mainly how they'll adjust this for Arenas, and they don't have plans to balance Legends differently in each mode (at least not beyond the Valk and Lifeline tweaks mentioned previously).
Oh, and for the competitive players amongst you: Arenas will have a ranked mode in the future, but the devs say it's a little ways off yet.
I'm excited for Arenas, and I can't wait to see how it develops. The devs tell me one of the big reasons they've created it is so people who're interested in Apex but don't fancy the battle royale can have something to try out. From my perspective, I think it'll help players from getting burned out on the battle royale formula too. Apex is one of my go to games, but sometimes you just don't wanna be pitted against 60 other players, you know?
Arenas is heading to Apex Legends in Season 9 Legacy next week on May 4th. It'll arrive alongside new Legend Valkyrie, who has an excellent jetpack and a slightly concerning number of abilities.