Any time a developer decides to charge a fee to let players access their game's online offerings, they're electing to enter into one of the most competitive fields in the video game industry. Subscription fees are a limited resource among consumers, much more so than basic retail expenses. In order to pull down a significant portion of this resource, their games have to evolve in new and interesting ways.
APB is full of little, awesome things that aren't present in any other offering in the industry -- online or otherwise. Many of these are small features which only serve to add more social functionality to the core game. However, the relationship between the Criminal and Enforcer factions which the online multiplayer is built around is one of the most clever innovations visited on the online action genre in quite some time.
A Realtime Worlds representative broke down this relationship in the simplest way I've heard so far: Criminals wreak havoc on the city, while Enforcers wreak havoc on the Criminals. While the bad guys drive around the city, either completing missions or going on crime sprees of their own design, the good guys are tasked with witnessing their illicit activities, and putting them down before they accomplish their goals.
This system puts a heavy preponderance on people playing along, which caused us some hesitation when we first learned of it. Fortunately, Realtime has set a number of systems in place which helps move the action along. Players can be automatically matched into four-player groups who can communicate over built-in voice chat. The HUD is frequently updated with notifications when a Criminal player reaches a level of notoriety that makes them an open target for other players, or when a group of Criminals set off a titular APB alert, which lets the other faction track them down and attempt to impede their progress.
Griefing isn't as big an issue as you might imagine under this format. Players can't just murder other players without following the aforementioned rules. The game walks a balance of ensuring you're not constantly being killed around every turn, while still giving ample opportunities to enter combat encounters.
I played as a Criminal during my demo, which saw me performing a number of relatively petty crimes, like breaking into cars, or smashing up storefronts. In one mission, I managed to keep things under the radar, and completed the whole thing without running into any lawmen. In another, I absent-mindedly stole a van in front of a wary Enforcer, who immediately tagged me and began to give chase. Maybe with enough in-game experience, I'd learn how to avoid getting busted -- but the first time it happened, it really put a startling corkscrew into my otherwise straightforward mission.
In one mission, me and my four-player posse managed to rack up enough attention that we were on the receiving end of an APB. Almost instantly, another team of Enforcers (who obviously had earned a ton of improved gear during the beta) set out to prevent us from completing our goal. We pulled it out by the skin of our teeth, and entered into the mission's last phase: A basic deathmatch, where we had to kill the Enforcers 10 times before they did the same to us.
More Criminals and Enforcers began to pour into the warzone to lend their hand in the fray. Thanks to our superior strategic skills, and the fact that I had the actual developers of the game on my team, I managed to emerge victorious. Despite the certainty of our victory, this impromptu shootout was awfully intense -- but most importantly, it came together quickly, and without disrupting the overall flow of my play session.
Though Realtime shies away from categorizing APB as an MMO, presumably because that's too many acronyms for any one person to possibly keep straight in their minds, there's plenty of ways you can modify your persistent persona. Players earn respect from their mission distributors, which they can use to increase their rank and acquire new weapons. There's also the art editor, which lets you create your own custom clothing, spray tags and vehicular paint jobs.
However, my heart was stolen by the in-game music editor, which lets you create your own tunes using a basic MIDI sequencer which you can blare while driving through the city in your designated automobile (or, you know, your stolen automobile). I also got to witness the creation of a "death song," a five-second clip you subject your enemies to every time you kill them.
All of these artistic and musical assets can be exchanged between players, either at no cost or for "Realtime Points," a currency players purchase with real-world money, and can spend to earn additional hours of playtime under the game's unique subscription model. You can advertise your creations in the game's social hub, sell them to other players, and use the Realtime Points you earn to pay for your own subscription to the game.
Or, you could just create a really annoying death song, a really obnoxious outfit and a really ridiculous car, and distribute them among all the members of your clan. Imagine: An army of criminals dressed like babies, who drive around in Sedans covered in Hello Kitty emblems, who force you to listen to five seconds from the Seinfeld theme song every time they kill you. The possibilities here are endless, guys.