GDC Impressions: APB

Last week, Realtime Worlds MMO APB featured prominently during an in-booth press conference held at GDC. The game was playable (though, sadly, not by me), and the audience was treated to a live demo lead by the developer's founder, ex-DMA and Grand Theft Auto co-creator, David Jones.

Using two separate PCs hooked up to their own projection setups, Jones and another Realtime Worlds staffer hopped onto one of the game's servers and began by giving a tour of one of three main areas, the Social District. As its name implies, this area -- which reminded me more than a little of PlayStation Home -- is where players can meet up, trade or sell their items, build custom music in the game's built-in sequencer and buy a new set of wheels (or upgrade their current rides). When talking about the latter, Jones showed the vehicle customization tool, which featured not only cosmetic mods (custom designs can be sold to other players) but performance and aerodynamic tinkering, as well.

Before heading out onto the mean streets, Jones pointed out a couple other unique features of the Social District: Statues and display points. The former are generated by the game as effigies of its top players on an ongoing basis, while the latter are spots that can be "rented" in order to publicly display players' cars that are up for sale or auction.
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The calm of the Social District left behind, my demoers dropped into the Financial District -- Jones on foot as his female criminal and his sidekick controlling an enforcer, complete with a gorgeous, tricked-out police pursuit car. As Jones' character stood at an intersection, other players on the server could be seen speeding down the city's streets, engaged in car-to-car shootouts. I'll say, though, that while this was cool, the city was otherwise pretty empty. There were some NPC pedestrians (they can be mugged, even killed, and their belongings sold by particularly unscrupulous players) and minimal non-player traffic. The most likely reason for this is that the developers expect plenty to be going on once the game's servers are fully populated post-launch.

Jones commandeered a nearby car and tooled around a bit. The handling looked pretty much like ... GTA. Clearly wanting to move onto more impressive aspects of the game, he rammed the car into a storefront, hopped out and mentioned that, in a situation like this, players can actually loot items -- but should know that any enforcer players in the area will be alerted to the crime and get a chance to take them down.

When players reach a notoriety level of five, they are "unlocked" as an open target for all players on the server.

All players will have a rank, threat level and notoriety level. While these weren't fully explained, the rank sounded like the equivalent of a character level, and Jones said that when players reach a notoriety level of five, they are "unlocked" as an open target for all players on the server; who can attempt to take them down for a bounty. Players can also focus on select activities and turn them into a profession; for example, one could choose to steal more cars than anyone else in the game, making them the top-ranked car thief on the leaderboards.

Contacts were briefly shown and explained on the "criminal side" of the demo. It's these NPCs that will give players (and their clans) missions, weapons and other goods. A simple mission was offered up and accepted: Spray paint graffiti onto a particular building in the district. Jones called in some members of his clan, who, elsewhere in the level, grabbed an SUV and swung by to pick him up. En route to the target location, he made his character climb out of the car's window and took some practice shots.

Once at their destination, the crew got out and went inside the building (no mention was made of how many of the game's structures will feature interiors) and the tagging began. Almost immediately, the enforcer's screen was emblazoned with an "APB" notice -- basically alerting him (and others in the area) to a crime in progress and highlighting the taggers on the world map. Once the enforcers arrived on the scene it was shootout time. At this point, the game had seamlessly transitioned into PvP (player-versus-player mode). The action reminded me a lot of Grand Theft Auto IV multiplayer. Jones noted that both sides can call in backup during PvP instances, resulting in 20-on-20 firefights covering multiple city blocks.

Both sides can call in backup during PvP instances, resulting in 20-on-20 firefights covering multiple city blocks.

Criminals can be killed, arrested or both in PvP -- there's a respawn penalty of about 15 seconds upon death, and cuffed characters spend about that much time down on their knees before they can return to action. We saw one enforcer cuff a crook and then shoot him. Jones said this was only for "really naughty players." Characters who are wounded but not killed are left stunned for several seconds before control is returned to the player. Friendly fire also factors into combat.

The demoing duo concluded the session with some car-to-car shootouts while speeding down a long stretch of road in the Financial District. When asked what sort of objectives to expect apart from the tagging I'd seen, Jones said that missions will often combine various elements, including VIP escorts (and ambushes); bomb defusing (and planting); and the capturing (or protecting) of various assets.

One thing I didn't see in the demo was hand-to-hand fighting. Someone else asked about its absence, to which Jones replied that melee combat is definitely in the works, but won't be in place for the game's launch. The developer wants to "do it right," he said, and Realtime Worlds will wait until it's satisfied before rolling out the alternate combat option.

I have to admit that the concept of a "GTA MMO" was never one that seemed like it would "work." After seeing APB in action, though, with its multitude of customization options and spectacular shootouts, my feeling has definitely changed. It really could work.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.