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To Live and Die in San Paro: APB first impressions

Jef Reahard

Welcome, criminals and enforcers alike, to Massively's first impressions of All Points Bulletin. We've been spending a bit of time in the beta, as well as the recent Key to the City event, and we're here to bring you the skinny on what it's like to live (and die) on the streets of San Paro. Realtime Worlds has created a unique title, one that certainly won't appeal to everyone and is somewhat rough around the edges, but one that also has a mountain of potential.

Yes, I know, the dreaded P-word, often thrown about during an MMO's launch window as a way of deflecting criticisms. In APB's case though, it fits. Perhaps the first thing that needs addressing when looking at a game like APB is something many of our commenters have opined about as we've covered the game these past few months, namely, is it in fact an MMO. The answer is... kinda. To elaborate, we'll take a quick look at how the game works before diving head first into our opinions, both good and bad.

Hit the jump for more.

Crackdo... er, I mean Breakdown

If you didn't know, APB is the brainchild of Dave Jones, better known to some as the mastermind behind the original Grand Theft Auto and Crackdown games, the former of which needs no introduction and the latter of which was a slightly obscure open-world actioner on the Xbox 360. Crackdown broke a fair amount of new ground while allowing your law enforcement character to roam about a huge futuristic cityscape running missions and busting criminals, and clearly served as a bit of inspiration for APB (minus the whole cyberpunk mech-ninja thing).

APB allows the player to choose from two factions, criminals or enforcers (who are basically the "good" guys). Once you've chosen, you're ported to a tutorial lobby that runs you through a few basic mission types and introduces you to an NPC contact. After your tutorial duties are through, you can choose to enter one of three game districts: the PvP-focused Waterfront or Financial districts, or the Social district.

Gameplay in the PvP zones (or action districts, as they're called by Realtime Worlds), is a riff on multiplayer shooters the world over, with a couple wrinkles thrown into the mix in the form of a third-person view and the ability to drive vehicles. There are no classes and no levels, your character's skill is your skill, and there's also not a whole heck of a lot to do aside from blowing up other players, so if it is an MMO, it's a very unconventional one thus far. Aside from random firefights, your character can also accept missions from various contacts, which will ultimately pit you against opposing-faction players in a never-ending struggle for supremacy throughout the city. Curiously, there are no factional objectives per se, just missions, matchmaking, and a whole lot of virtual sidewalk to explore.

The social district is almost a different game entirely, and, as much has been written about APB's peerless character creation tools, we'll avoid repeating a lot of that here. In a nutshell, you're able to engage in a crazy amount of customization in the form of clothing and apparel, all of which can be designed by players and sold via the in-game marketplace. The social district is free from the threat of PvP, and many players will no doubt spend the majority of their APB time here, as opposed to the frenetic mayhem of the shooting gallery districts. After spending a bit of time fooling around with the clothing editor and chatting with a few folks, my read on the social district is that Second Life and Entropia Universe had a baby.

If Realtime Worlds takes a page out of Hi-Rez's book and adds a bit of RPG into their FPS, it may very well turn out to be a terrific MMO.

So with a bird's-eye view of how it works, is APB an MMO? Again... kinda. It really depends on your definition. Is it massive? Well, not really, as districts are limited to 100 players, 50 per faction. It is of course multiplayer and online, so the only thing left to do is determine whether its an RPG or an FPS.

The Good

For all its simplicity, APB's combat is a lot of fun, particularly in groups. Sure, you can run around solo and take missions from various contacts, but that pales in comparison to grabbing a couple of buddies and hopping in a vehicle to go put down a criminal uprising. I've played a lot of MMOs over the years, and one thing that relatively few games have been able to do well is multiplayer mounts. APB knocks this particular mechanic out of the park, and the first time you careen around a corner behind the wheel of an SUV with two of your mates hanging out the windows and unloading streams of lead at whatever happens to cross your path, you'll likely be hooked.

APB's combat is strangely addictive, and to be perfectly honest, I can't put my finger on the cause. I found myself logging in time and again just to grab a random mission and go shoot at stuff, which is a bit of a departure for a story-focused roleplayer/crafter like me. The combat mechanics aren't particularly deep, as there is no real stat progression at all, just more powerful weapons for you to collect. If you're into shooters, however, this doesn't really matter, as the game does a fine job of matchmaking and provides some real eye-candy environments for you to roam around, stake out, and strategize your way through.

The city of San Paro itself is a visual revelation. The locales are beautifully rendered and there is a real sense of scale as it takes several minutes to drive from one end of a district to the other. That said, and despite all the high production values, the city is also responsible for some of the game's shortcomings.

The Bad

A lot of people have dismissed APB as Grand Theft Auto online, though why that's used as an insult is beyond your humble reviewer, given GTA's status as a landmark (and more importantly, an awesomely fun series of games). While the similarities are indeed there, APB has quite a ways to go before it matches the Rockstar franchise's storytelling chops and diverse gameplay options.

Aside from the Social district (which as I said earlier, might as well be a different game), gameplay in APB can be broken down into two things: shooting at someone, or running up to an inanimate object and pressing "F." Want to take a bomb-defusing mission? Run up to it and press "F." How about planting a wireless surveillance bug in a known criminal hideout? Run up to the door and press "F." Want to jimmy the lock on a car or spray some graffiti on a building a la Saints Row? You guessed it, run up to it and press "F." While most of the animations are fun to watch, the repetitive gameplay gets to you fairly quickly, which is a shame given the huge world and obvious care and detail that went into creating it.

Speaking of the game world, it's also pretty restricted. Most doors are for show, you can't actually enter the majority of the buildings like you could in The Matrix Online. There is also no friendly-fire in the game's action districts, which is rather annoying given the fact that many players are anti-social, at best, and downright mean at worst. As an example, my first few moments in the Financial District consisted of me rotating my camera around to admire my character and promptly being pancaked by a player behind the wheel of a luxury sedan. Naturally my first instinct was to open fire, and I did so quite ineffectually as my bullets bounced harmlessly off her Beemer look-alike. She subsequently careened into a wall (not from anything I did, mind you), and I ran over to try and carjack her as a small measure of revenge. Instead, I was greeted with a system message along the lines of "you are not part of this player's team and cannot enter the car."


I have a few smaller gripes as well, things like no motorcycles, no dual wielding, ammo vending machines, and the goofy story explanation for enforcers instead of cops (legalized vigilantism, really?). These are small beefs, and a couple of them will probably even be addressed by Realtime Worlds at some point. The restrictiveness of the world is a bit of deal-breaker though, as it really limits your ability to feel immersed and engage in any sort of gameplay other than mass murder.


Finally, I have to take a moment to mention the game's community. While many of the folks I met in the social district were quite friendly and helpful, APB is at its heart a PvP-focused shooter. It's also got liberal amounts of mature language both from its myriad NPCs as well as random players whom you meet and hear courtesy of the voice-chat system. The game's production design celebrates the thug lifestyle, and really, the gameplay does as well, and while this can admittedly be a guilty pleasure on occasion, it can also be a haven for anti-social behavior. It's early, but it will be interesting to see if APB's community rallies around the game's extensive social features or goes the way of Barrens Chat and Halo 3 multiplayer matches.

So is APB an MMO? Yes, it is an MMOFPS that sets a new standard for avatar creation and visual customizability. It is most certainly not an RPG by any stretch of the definition, and as such, I probably won't be subscribing immediately post-launch. That said, I'll keep an interested eye on the game's development over the long haul. If Realtime Worlds takes a page out of Hi-Rez's book and adds a bit of RPG into their FPS, it may very well turn out to be a terrific MMO.

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