With open world city-games like Grand Theft Auto, I inevitably find myself becoming bored of the storyline missions – and missions in general – and the prospect of driving through narrow alleys, jumping off ramps and generally causing mayhem becomes the focus of my efforts. The exploration is its own reward, and narrowly weaving between traffic or causing an enormous pileup its own challenge.
APB, developed by Realtime Worlds (Crackdown) is an open world urban MMO, where each of the two action areas are isolated segments of a city, and each is capable of housing up to 80 players at any one time. It’s a third person shooter based on the age-old game of cops and robbers, where you’re either a reckless criminal or an enforcer trying to put a stop to them. It’s one of the few MMOs released that is almost entirely player-versus-player centric, in that it relies on players on both sides of the law to be active for any real conflict to ever occur.
APB has many strong points. The customization options available to players are some of the most flexible we’ve ever encountered – from facial structure to age, makeup, weight, height, muscularity, freckles, wrinkles, and even tattoos (which, with some very careful shaping, you can create from scratch), the character customization suite alone is extremely impressive. Then there’s a car customization suite with almost as many options, including the style and tone of paint, decals and car attachments. Then you can create your own little tune that will play for any opponent you kill, design your own logo, and even your own clothing. Each individual customization suite is complex and can be difficult to use, but in a talented hand can produce some stunning results. In a less talented hand, it can produce a backwards person in pink underwear. All that flexibility is totally cosmetic, though. A tall, muscular character will move at the same pace as a short chubby one.
The first time you create a character, you will be asked if you want to go through the tutorial. The tutorial consists of a video that quickly summarizes what you’ll be doing and totally skips past rather important gameplay aspects like equipping upgrades, and only briefly mentions that you have to equip new weapons to use them, but never really tells you how. Then it puts you into a tutorial map, which is the same as a normal map, but won’t force you into PvP for the first few missions. This too skips a lot, and only teaches you the absolute basics of movement on foot and in a car. Grenades are mentioned in neither tutorial, but end up being an integral part of combat. APB would certainly benefit from a more structured, linear and in-depth tutorial than the one currently built into the game.
Once you’re into the game proper, if you’re playing on your lonesome (which both the game, and I, highly advise against), then missions will be streamed to you every thirty-or-so seconds. In a group, they’re streamed to the group leader, and it is up to them to determine whether or not they want to accept a given mission. Missions generally start with a player being told to go to a certain location and pick something up. After that, they’re told to drop it off somewhere, or pick up another thing. When you haven’t been assigned any opposition (more on this shortly) then the mission length seems to be somewhat randomly determined. Sometimes you’ll do six steps (rarely more), and one time, for the first step, I went to a location to “investigate” and my mission was suddenly over. If you are unopposed, the game is boring beyond belief
If everything is working right, however, you should usually be assigned opposition within the first few steps of a mission. Suddenly, you’ll hear sirens and “APB” will appear onscreen, with flashing red and blue lights behind it. This is where things pick up. Now there is an opposing team headed towards your destination, and they are told to prevent you from doing whatever it is you’ve been told to do, or to do it before you. Suddenly, your team of four is facing another team of four, and the match is usually pretty tight, thanks to APB’s excellent matchmaking system. You can’t, by the way, just shoot anyone. Unless someone is in your team or matched up to directly oppose to you, bullets will simply pass right through.
Matchmaking works like this: every time you complete a mission, the game looks at how effective you were during it – how many people you killed, how many times you were killed, how many objectives you completed etc… and will try to figure out how much of a threat you are compared to other players. It’ll assign a threat level to you that serves to figure out who to match against you. In a mission where it’s you and one other player, and you’re both very high threat, the game may assign three or four players to fight against you. Likewise, if you’re both very low threat, it may only assign one medium-threat (or higher) player against you. Otherwise, it’ll do its absolute best to match you threat-for-threat. If it’s still not an even match, the lacking team can call for backup, which sends a message to all eligible idle players in the area with an option to join the fray. The end result is ideally a contest between equals, where it’s a challenge for both sides, and no one feels like a sore loser by the end. To Realtime World’s credit, it often works out that way.