APB gameplay preview
18th Jun 2010 | 10:19
This MMO is a lot of things, but right now it's a remake of Heat, as performed by The Muppets. It all began five minutes ago as I casually hung around outside a multi-storey car park as my colleagues stole a van up on the third floor. When they drove off a conveniently placed ramp and tilted delightfully downwards into the midriff of a passing pedestrian, an APB was called out on us.
I sprinted over the prostrate, spreadeag-led body of the deceased innocent and leapt into the back of the van, then hung out of its sliding door as the A-Team were once wont to do. Within 30 seconds I was spraying machine gun fire at the four pursuers that the matchmaking system had judged were foes of equal ability to my own quadlet of lawbreaking scum.
We tumbled off the highway and smashed into the side of a skyscraper, and then fought a running battle through a street of exploding cars while giggling like maniacs.
In short, when it hits its own sweet spot of insanity, APB is the game I've been dreaming of since 1997: the first day my two little feet hit the top-down sidewalk of Liberty City and I gunned my very first civilian in what I imagined to be his face.
CRIME IS FUN
The first decision you'll make in APB is a binary one: will you play as a Criminal or as an Enforcer? Crims can get up to hijinks within the sandbox districts of San Paro, while Enforcers are out to stop them. Both factions run amok on servers containing up to 100 players, whether amidst the high-rises of the Financial District or gunning their vehicles over the rooftops of the Waterfront. Criminals mug people, steal cars and drive them to dodgy dealers, ram-raid stores and run away with pilfered items, or simply murder members of the AI population, and as they do so their notoriety will climb through five levels of wanted-ness.
Depending on civilian reports and the heat associated with a crim's name, the game's mainframe will call out an Enforcer player judged to be of a similar skill level (or perhaps two or three who each account for a fraction of the greatness of the villain's whole) and the chase shall begin. What's more, to ensure the highest level of funness is suckled from APB's almighty teats, both factions will be roaming in groups, each hollering at a bound gang of chums over VOIP - the Enforcers out to inflict their own brand of justice, and the Criminals watching the filth gradually amass in their wing mirrors.
Let's not run away with ourselves though, as once the character creation Enforcer/Criminal divide has been crossed there's still a way to go. Simply put, APB has the most powerful tools yet seen in an MMO to sculpt the persona you want to carry through your travails within San Paro. Fiddling with your appearance is a slider bar orgy of muscles, visible veins, age, chest hair and ear orientation - after which you'll appear in nothing but a pair of boxers in APB's social district.
This is the one area in which Enforcers and Criminals can hang out together, trying to maintain conversation while nearly-naked faction members with wonky half-done faces are continually born into thin air over by the customisation terminals. At these terminals APB's wondrous self-improvement systems go far beyond simple pointing and clicking at garments: they allow you to design your own symbols and fonts to use as graffiti, tattoos or car decals in-game, to buy and customise vehicles in which anything can be fiddled with from the noise the siren makes to the symbols on the bonnet, and finally to create your own audio in APB's very own sound suite.
All this is explored in more detail in the Augmenting Realities boxout, but the message needs to pepper this preview like a spent Uzi rounds: APB's avatar customisation tools are mind-blowing. It boggles the mind that so much information can fit down a crap BT Broadband connection.
Not everyone is good with colours though, and design might not be your thing, in which case the in-game economy spreads to auction houses where designs, clothing, weaponry and triumphant sound files for your victims to endure upon the moment of their death can be purchased. It's easy to forget sometimes, but this is an MMO - mailboxes abound, and elsewhere in the Social District you'll find nightclubs where you and your brethren can /dance the night away. In keeping with APB's desire to create a feeling of in-game celebrity, statues of successful players who have won daily, weekly and monthly leagues will take centre stage. You'll no doubt be gazing at their plinths wistfully as you corral your troops, or prepare to leap into the fray with a buddy who's already out in the districts ridding the streets of crime, or doing their best to riddle them with it.
As you enter a 100-player server there'll predictably be a fair degree of activity on the streets: hoodlums tossing pedestrian bodies in their wake, Enforcers leaping off ramps with their red and blue lights ablaze, and all that jazz. An important thing to note is that until a crime-fighter has been match-made against you (or until you've had an APB call if you're the
filth) then you won't be able to kill any human players with weaponry. You can run people over just dandy, mainly because it's hilarious, but a bullet free-for-all would rob the game of that vital commit crime-chasey chase dynamic. As an Enforcer it's down to you to wander over to a terminal that will conjure up your personal car and patrol the streets or react to match-making call-outs from the APB mainframe. For the opposing side petty crime might be
the order of the day, or perhaps a sequence of tasks from an NPC contact - mission givers that instantly bring the contact system of City of Heroes to mind. Each contact represents a different organisation, and the further you level through each underworld outfit the better cars and weapons that are made available to you.
The controls of the game will be familiar to anyone who's ever fired a gun in simulated anger: left-click to fire, WASD to move, right-click to bring the camera down over the gun, C to crouch... it's simplicity in itself. For the criminals a typical string of tasks would begin with clear crimes - burning a certain number of doorways for example, stealing a collection of scattered items or half-inching a car and taking it to a local dealer. You're armed with your main weapon, a handgun and however many grenades you've brought into the fray - although the power of a car crushing a rival player in a side-on skid off a rooftop can never be underestimated.
In terms of providing targets to use these on though, it all depends on your gang's kill/death ratios, how far up the game's unlock ladders you've all gone and the notoriety you've all built up over the past few minutes in the game. This will then match-make Enforcers that are the closest fit (balancing both numbers and skill levels) and send them after you. Despite the veneer of Cops and Robbers, most of the challenges are instantly familiar: assaults on specific areas, king of the hill, protect the VIP, team deathmatch - essentially short bursts of those same modes that've made online gaming simultaneously great and samey over the past decade.
Here, however, each burst is intermingled with hectic chases from location to location - and if one faction arrives before another then they can do their best to set up shop for the battle ahead barricading areas with stolen cars, and taking up the best sniper positions. After this burning vehicles unexpectedly plough through tunnels full of cops with hilarious results, Enforcers dazzle their prey with stun grenades and arrest them (forcing them out of the game for longer than the usual respawn time) and bullets fill the air.
Once the mission chain is over, due to a faction victory or the time limit being hit, plaudits and cash are doled out to the worthy and battle ceases. Everyone stands, once more unable to shoot each other, and share a happily awkward post-action breather before going their separate ways. Some choose to /dance.
My personal highlight during my playtest as a criminal came when I tormented a defeated Enforcer with an exploratory /wave amidst the burning wreckage of our previous dealings. There was a pause of a few seconds as my foe worked out how to return a friendly salutation, as I watched a friend steal a sports car 50 metres behind him and accelerate towards his back.
I estimate the Enforcer got through around four frames of his happy waving animation before his broken ragdoll somersaulted skywards. I could honestly have died laughing.
It's these moments of unscripted hilarity that APB frequently delights with. Your first hours within its districts will be happy ones indeed, but as to whether the game will retain you for the hundreds of hours that a successful MMO expects of its players is still an unknown quantity. An opening problem is an unfair, yet important, consideration: APB is not Grand Theft Auto IV.
GHOST OF NICO
This is pernickety, but almost everyone who goes into APB will have experienced Niko Bellic's adventures - and when you first play the game there's a mental barrier in that the Grand Theft Auto mechanics you expect either aren't present or aren't (in APB's beta at least) as honed. It seems strange that you can't shoot a driver through a windscreen, it niggles that the car-exit animations are laborious in comparison to Rockstar's, the lack of motorbikes is evident, and the grungy character of Liberty City is absent in the wipe-clean exteriors of San Paro.
Most of these issues could be cleared up as the game develops over the months and years post-release, of course, but I can't sit here and pretend that I didn't feel sad when APB's burning cars didn't blow up in the fashion to which I am accustomed. Crimes such as ramraiding and mugging too seem somewhat mechanical and, I dare say, MMO-ey. Shallow and unthinking criticisms I know, but I can't deny what my brain told me it was thinking.
A larger issue is simply whether APB's combat is too simplistic, and whether over time familiarity will dim the pleasures of the relatively basic multiplayer conceits that adorn the top layer of a frankly remarkable player-matching system. The back-end of APB is so clever, so complex and so ingenious that the actual top-end gameplay does seem a little facile in comparison - it doesn't feel that there's much room for hugely tactical play, for example, and you frequently find yourself standing stock-still as you hose an enemy with bullets rather than frantically dashing around the place to seek cover.
Then again, as with all MMOs, the release of APB is widely seen as the beginning of its ongoing development rather than Dave Jones whipping his scarf over his shoulder and saying "And that's the end of that chapter!" There's a three-year plan in place, and the game will evolve according to player demand: new areas will be made available, new game modes will emerge and existing mechanics will be tweaked.
As you wander around Real Time Worlds' studios it's clear that there are plans to somehow incorporate what are potentially more scripted engagements from enigmatic scribbles on whiteboards - events like bank jobs, heists and raids on supermarkets. You genuinely begin to feel that the Financial and Waterfront districts are something of the tip of the iceberg, and that a mass of potential content is waiting beneath the waterline.
FUN WITH GUNS
Right now, as the game enters its final beta stages, APB is a remarkable framework for unscripted frivolity. The dream is that upon release, with the expert guidance of us the in-game gun-toting madmen, Realtime Worlds can build ever higher on the remarkable back-end they've constructed. I can safely vouch that upon release APB will be good, but a year later I'm fairly confident it will be remarkable. Or at least, that's the dream.
We are entering a world bereft of nightly police-based entertainment what with those bastards at ITV thoughtlessly cancelling The Bill after 27 years of high-quality programming. APB genuinely looks like it could fill the gaping void that's due to open up at 9pm on a Thursday - and on other days in-between. It's even got a character customisation suite that will let us recreate DCI Frank Burnside, DS Jim Carver, PC Reg Hollis, and perhaps even the one with the moustache that had all those drink problems. For this, most of all, we should be grateful.