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GDC 2011: GamersFirst on resurrecting San Paro with APB Reloaded

Jef Reahard

It's not often that interesting game concepts are given a second chance after an ugly crash and burn, so naturally we jumped at the opportunity to talk to GamersFirst about its APB Reloaded reclamation project. If you're new to the MMO scene, or simply haven't been paying attention over the past year: Realtime Worlds' All Points Bulletin looked poised to bring a gritty, ultra-customizable cops-and-robbers shooter to MMO players everywhere.

To say that a lot of people were looking forward to APB is something of an understatement (Massively even heralded it as our most anticipated title of 2010). The reality of the game was something of a downer, though, and while our own first impressions were disappointedly optimistic, other reviewers weren't as kind as the game went belly up along with its parent studio.

Enter GamersFirst, a free-to-play outfit bent on salvaging the considerable potential of San Paro and transforming it from a buggy mess into a playable AAA MMO. Join us after the cut as we talk with producer Jon-Enee Merriex at GDC 2011 regarding the challenges inherent in the resurrection as well as some of the new (and newly functional) features APB fans can expect.

"It is reloaded; it's a whole new product in terms of how it's been approached," says Merriex as we settle in to look at a demo build and chat up a few of the revamped title's new trappings.

GamersFirst hasn't simply purchased a dead game and turned the servers back on but rather is engaged in wholesale rewrites of game code, systems, and in some cases, the very design tenets of the original title. While former APB players will no doubt recognize much of the surroundings, many core gameplay changes have been made and continue to be iterated upon, including a totally revamped progression system, extensive changes to vehicles and weapons, and a bevy of new gameplay additions in the current beta as well as a few more scheduled to take a bow after the projected summer launch date.

In terms of progression, GamersFirst made no bones about the fact that it basically blew everything up and started over. "Progression used to be convoluted, rating increase was confusing, there was something to do with achievements, roles, contacts and organizations; we changed all that," Merriex told us.

The often-confusing role mechanic from the original game has been reworked to function more like a traditional MMORPG class system, and APB Reloaded now features clearly delineated vehicle and weapon contact NPCs, which offer missions and subsequent standing increases (which are labeled on the UI for an easy progression gauge). Each time players rank up with a contact, new vehicle and equipment purchasing options become available, which ties in to the new progression curve as well as GamersFirst's "fun to pay" mantra.

"Fun to pay" is basically a way of acknowledging that if gamers aren't having fun almost immediately after logging in to the city of San Paro, they're extremely unlikely to upgrade and pay for various portions of the premium experience. Merriex pointed out that GamersFirst recently published nine pages of release notes for the first closed beta period, which was a pretty good indicator as to the level of tedium and exasperation experienced by APB's early adopters.

"Original reviewers basically got slaughtered instantly; they would've had to play for another 15 to 20 hours to even have access to the guns needed to be competitive," Merriex says. This type of unbalanced gameplay is out the window in APB Reloaded, and the devs have spent a considerable amount of time fixing "all the annoying crap" that made the game less than fun for many players.

As an example, damage has been increased across the board, and all of the game's guns are now lethal. Additionally, recoil has been adjusted, the reticle-blocking camera angle has been adjusted, and a boatload of bugs (such as the inability to fire through a chain-link fence) have been squashed.

APB Reloaded also features major changes to the original game's driving system, not the least of which is a complete reworking of handling characteristics (turning is now much faster across the board) and a brand-new starter vehicle.

GamersFirst is also expanding APB's content, focusing specifically on revamping the "boring" mission system from the original title, adding new mechanics like racing (which currently features 11 distinct tracks on each map along with time trials and head-to-head competition), and adding a meta-game element that involves sustained criminal activities and escalating rewards. The new system necessitates the collection of loot, the delivery of said loot to a fence NPC, and the potential for arrest or death at the hands of any enforcer players who happen to cross paths with a criminal player whose hand is in the proverbial cookie jar.

There's also a new heist mechanic that allows for criminal players to attack enforcer precincts (or enforcers to attack fence hideouts) in a district-wide attack/defend event that spills onto the streets and affects the availability of precincts and fences depending on which faction is victorious. Furthermore, APB Reloaded's launch will see a new turf wars mechanic which will open up PvP by allowing players to be attackable by the opposing faction at any time rather than limiting the danger to mission runs like the original game.

Finally, GamersFirst is making updates to the game's music studio functionality, and players will soon be able to throw down custom DJ sets and mix on the fly for their friends in the immediate vicinity. A DJ battle mechanic is also in the works, as is a revamp to the game's social district functionality.

In summary, yes, APB is coming back, but no, it's clearly not the same game. While the basic shooting and driving focus remains, GamersFirst is in the midst of an extreme makeover that could push APB Reloaded closer to the potential that many gamers recognized so many months ago. Stay tuned to Massively for more details about the game as the closed beta rolls toward a summer 2011 release.

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