Realtime Worlds, creators of the Xbox 360 title Crackdown, have entered the Massively Multiplayer Online space with APB: All Points Bulletin. David Jones, the founder of the company, is known for developing the original Grand Theft Auto (GTA). Because of this, many people were excited to see what would come from Realtime Worlds with APB. Would this be the MMO GTA everyone had been waiting for?
A Different Style of Game
APB is not your typical MMO. Sure there are areas where there are lots of other people gathered around completing tasks, gaining points for their characters, and advancing through the game. Where this game is different is in how those missions are performed.
Character choices in APB come down to two: Enforcer or Criminal. From those, there are two sub-factions to take missions from. For the Enforcers, it’s the Prentiss Tigers and the Praetorians. The Criminal sub factions are the Blood Roses and the G-Kings. All of the sub-factions and contacts you come across have their own back stories, but they are arbitrary and really don’t matter in the context of playing the game.
There are three ‘districts’ available to players. The Social district is where players can hang out, customize their avatar and vehicles, or create music to play when they kill another player. This can be compared to a graphical chat room, as no missions or combat take place in the Social district. It’s purely for, as the name implies, social interaction.
The remaining two districts available are considered ‘action districts’. These sections are where, again as implied, the action takes place. Each district is broken up into instances with a maximum population of 100. From there, players take missions for NPC contacts to gain rank and engage in PvP against the other faction.
As you perform tasks for your contacts, you gain rating points. These points determine what weapons and items your character can use. On top of that, you will gain (or lose) notoriety if you’re a Criminal or Prestige if you’re an Enforcer. Think of these as threat levels. If you commit bad acts as a Criminal, your notoriety goes up. Good acts committed as an Enforcer raise your Prestige. Lay low as a Criminal or run over people on the sidewalk as an Enforcer and these figures go down. There are six levels total – zero through six. It is from these numbers that PvP is initiated. The higher these levels, the more likely members of the opposite faction will get offered a mission to come and kill you. When this happens, you’re put into a sort of mini deathmatch, complete with a leaderboard detailing kills and deaths. Either you have to kill the opposite faction a certain number of times, or run out a timer without them stopping you from a task. This is where the concentration of game play for APB is; killing as many people as possible while staying alive and raising your rating.
Stand Out From Everyone Else
The other focus of the game is avatar, vehicle, and clothing customization. APB probably has the most detailed character creation system I’ve seen. Besides the standard selections of how wide your nose is, how tall you are, or how big your bust line is, you can also determine muscle density, freckle and mole frequency, or vein visuals below the skin. If you can come up with a person you want to look like, chances are the character customization will let you make them.
Vehicle and clothing customization is just as complex. Aside from standard selections for colors on a pair of pants or the spoiler and rim selection on your car, talented artists can use a series of shapes available to design almost any decals imaginable. I have seen a picture perfect Che Guevara t-shirt and a vehicle with an Autobot symbol on the door. Those with artistic ability will love the customization available.
Sights and Sounds
Graphically, if you have a dual core system and a medium range video card, APB’s Unreal Engine3 will look great. There is noticeable pop-in when driving around the action districts, but not any more than other games with such a large map. PhysX is used for vehicles, avatars, and small items like trash cans and mailboxes. It’s all handled well and helps to create the feeling of a living cityscape.
APB uses a unique system for handling in-game music. Realtime Worlds partnered with Last.FM to use their music identification system. You can select your own mp3s to play through the car stereos in the game. If Last.FM is able to detect your mp3 through its ID, it will use that to determine what other players hear as you drive by. If another player has the same identified mp3, they will hear that song playing. If not, they will hear a song they have that is in a similar genre. It’s another step to personalizing the game, but could have been better if they were able to use Last.FM’s library of music instead of only relying on music identification from personal mp3s.
But How Does It Play?
Now that I’ve given an overview of character creation and game mechanics, let’s take a look at how it all works in practice.
The one place a company does not want any type of slow-down or delay is in the account verification process. I created my account by entering my information and account key at 12:30pm and it said I needed to respond to an email to verify. I waited 5 minutes for the email, and then tried to log in to see if I could force a re-send of the email. The site said I wasn’t verified and “Click here” to re-send my verification email. After selecting that, it prompted me to enter my account key again. At 12:45pm I received both emails which went directly to my Gmail spam folder.
After installation from a retail CD, I downloaded a series of patches. The download speed from their servers was great, reaching well above 5megabits per second. The largest patch was only 74 megabytes.
This is where the problems began.
I recently built my new computer system. It has the latest drivers, a quad core processor, and a middle-range video card. I’m running 64 bit windows and have 6 gigs of triple channel ram. I pushed the “Start” button, and was prompted with an APB.exe system error – “The program can’t start because cudart32_30_9.dll is missing from your computer. Try reinstalling the program to fix this problem.” This is a Phys-X file, which APB had said it was installing after it downloaded the patches. I decided to run a “Repair”, and after it ran through a scan of all the files, the installer gave no indication of a problem. Clicking ‘Start’ again ran the game without an issue, so the repair seemed to work. These issues are what I would expect from an MMO which just launched, but at the time I installed, the game had been out for a month. None of this should have happened on a new system.
PvP and You
After creating my character, taking some contact missions and engaging in PvP, I began to feel the problem how this game is structured. I felt like I was getting matched up with others who were way more skilled than I was, and who had much stronger firepower. As I raised my rank and received better weapons, I never felt like I was closing the gap. If I had a sub-machine gun, my opponent had a rocket launcher. If I had a mini-van, my opponent had a fast sports car. The gap between player ranks was evident and made for a frustrating experience.
On top of this, the driving mechanics are terrible. Attempting to steer either results in over-correction or under steering, brakes feel like they’re worn down to the cylinder, and general handling of vehicles feels like they’re skating across ice. For a game relying heavily on vehicles, this is a major problem.
Even if weapons, cars, and skills were equal, it doesn’t take away that the entire game is nothing more than a series of PvP death matches connected by an NPC mission or two. Once I had seen the mission text for the several types of tasks available, there was nothing more to see. The same mission types continued to come up and the same PvP options always appeared. When I had done twenty PvP sessions, it just wasn’t fun anymore.
Is It All Worth It?
APB attempts to combine the feel of an MMO with the PvP of a first person shooter. By themselves, each concept works well. But here, each feels like it only received partial effort. Those looking for a combination of these genres should probably continue looking. If all you want is PvP with an open world set design, other titles like Grand Theft Auto IV have already accomplished this. Add all of this to the recent announcement of more than sixty employees laid off at Realtime Worlds, and I’m not sure what the fate of APB will be.