Something strange has been happening in Apex Legends. Browse YouTube and you'll quickly stumble across fully automatic sniper rifles, Caustic traps the size of buildings, airstrikes that extend for miles and full-on Titanfall-style wallrunning (opens in new tab).
The good news is that Apex does not have a remarkably out-of-control hacking problem. These bizarre sights are the work ofR5Reloaded, a fan-created custom Apex client that has been used to create increasingly cursed (opens in new tab) variations on Respawn's battle royale over the past few months.
Of course, modding multiplayer shooters is nothing new—but modding a live, free-to-play blockbuster FPS? That's a whole different story, and after my previous post on those chaotic private servers, R5R project maintainer IcePixel reached out to get me in touch with Amos, the reverse engineer who kicked off the attempt to make Apex moddable.
Amos tells me that the project started around March 2020, when he was rooting around in a few saved builds of the game he'd stored between launch and Season 2, and had poked around with the possibility of getting them running offline.
"I found the first version of Kings Canyon a pretty awesome map and thought it would be cool to be able to play on it offline or at least do something with it given its scale."
Much of what Amos tells me is rather technical, but the key discovery he made was in finding that at 42mb, the executable for the launch version of Apex was significantly larger than the 32mb exe for the then-live build of the game. It turns out, early versions of Apex contained local server code, allowing the game to be run without connecting to EA's own servers.
"This is where the project started as I saw the potential of actually running this compiled in local server code. At the time my focus was still a relatively simple firing range in the Kings Canyon map without multiplayer."
It took Amos roughly a year to get the game to a point where he could load into the map for even a few moments before getting booted out. Nonetheless, it was at this point that he released his work into the wild, and soon an army of collaborators jumped in to rebuild not only battle royale from the ground up, but also team deathmatch and control point modes.
Playing a match on a custom map in Apex Legends!#R5Reloaded #ApexLegends pic.twitter.com/nqlJVGZGOfSeptember 30, 2021
Mod here, level three
Given its haphazard reconstruction, R5R comes with a fair few restrictions. Given that later seasons stopped shipping with server code, no maps or legends newer than Season 3 are available (though Amos is currently working on making later builds play nice with Season 3 servers). An FAQ also notes that there are a "shit-ton" of bugs, that crashes are to be expected, and that some things generally might not work quite as expected.
The official Discord also has strict limitations on how the client can be used to avoid stepping on EA's toes. In-game cosmetics are completely off the table, and all users are warned against trying to use current-season files with the server (Easy AntiCheat will immediately ban you if you try).
That said, what's there is extremely impressive. Alongside opening up every map up to Season 3 (including seasonal reworks and Halloween "after dark" variations), R5R also features a clunky, if fully serviceable server browser for playing all kinds of community modes. Character abilities can be remixed or remade from scratch, weapons given all kinds of new properties, and Amos even managed to create a new night version of World's Edge by tweaking fog and light properties.
There's currently no way to add entirely new assets, like new weapon/character models or entirely new map geometry. But enterprising modders have found ways to remix assets to create new arenas and modes, with new in-game building tools letting people create everything from rudimentary capture point maps to Counter-Strike-style Surf courses.
"The project was initially meant to be a simple solo Kings Canyon firing range but it turned out to be much larger and more popular then I had expected, which kind of makes me still unaware of the possible future potentials this mod has," Amos explains. "But the potential I do know is that the game will continue to work even when the official servers of the live game have been permanently shut down."
It's that last part, really, that excites me the most about R5Reloaded. I truly adore Apex, and it's shown no signs of slowing down—but one day, even if it's many years from now, the servers will shut down. We've seen long-dead MMOs like Warhammer Online find new life, and even new content, thanks to fan-run projects. But for the current lineup of F2P battle royale games, there's no sense of what happens when the servers go dark.
"Titles running on similar closed structures to Titanfall and Apex don't last very long after the title has been discontinued. However, if mods and custom servers are introduced for a title, either officially or by the community, they will still be playable even after the official servers have been shut down permanently."
Stepping in, IcePixel adds that it wouldn't even be that unprecedented a move. He cites Counter-Strike: Global Offensive as a game that, while only making the transition to F2P in 2018, gets plenty of value out of an active modding scene—bringing new, fan-made maps into competitive play. Being built on a heavily modified version of Source, IcePixel reckons Apex holds plenty of potential for modding/mapping.
Of course, it's currently unknown where EA or Respawn really stand on projects like R5Reloaded. EA itself has a history of shutting down projects like Battlefield 2142's Revive server (opens in new tab) (though fans have told me a new project, Reclamation (opens in new tab), aims to avoid the pitfalls its predecessor ran into). Amos says that, while individual developers may be aware of R5R, he has neither reached out to nor been contacted by either Respawn or EA.
Reverse-engineering projects like R5R will always sit in a kind of legal limbo, particularly when it comes to live games that are still making money for their developers. Maybe an unobtrusive silence is the best the R5R team can hope for.
But when I pore through the R5R Discord, I'm continuously in awe at what people are able to do with this game, even unsupported and underground. I'm reminded that yes, Apex is still on the Source engine, a foundation with a modding legacy that spans decades. And when the worst comes to worst and Apex does one day shut down, it's reassuring to know the knowledge exists to keep one of the last decade's best shooters up and running for years to come.