I have very little faith in MMOs today, mostly because of the horrific design that seems to be plaguing this genre for some reason. I have wrote about this at length and even have several posts waiting to be finished – a seemingly impossible feat, as the more I go down the rabbit hole of MMOs, the harder it is to finish writing about them. Just one of my forthcoming blogs has gone from one post and split into three.
Anyway, it becomes hard to write about how the genre is dying because developers keep making horrible decisions and nothing is changing. Negativity sucks. So I want to write about this instead: APB is awesome.
APB, or All Points Bulletin, is being developed by Scotland based developer Realtime Worlds. New-comers to the MMO industry, working on a project that had been lost in limbo and rumored to be canceled in the past, it’s hard to think that anything good could come of this ill-fated title some years later. However, RTW has really pulled together and created something extremely impressive.
In the simplest of gamer translations, APB is more or less an online version of Grand Theft Auto. Players choose to play as either a criminal or an enforcer and proceed to partake in cops & robbers shenanigans as the game pits them against one another in small packs amidst a large section of city. The way in which the game pushes either faction of players towards one another is two-fold. For one, either faction can receive missions from their contacts. These missions are pretty basic: criminals go set buildings on fire, enforcers investigate crime scenes. Most missions in this game basically boil down to going to an objective location and either using an item, dropping an item off, or holding a point. When players enter missions, the other faction will randomly receive chances to try and stop whatever they’re doing, which pits the players in a mission against one another and lets them slaughter each other with a variety of ballistic and explosive weapons.
The second way of players engaging one another stems from what are called “open world crimes”: criminals can break into storefronts and grab loot, mug pedestrians or simply cause chaos, all of which can be done at any time, in any place. If an enforcer “witnesses” a criminal in the act, and neither player are part of an active mission, the enforcer will have the option to begin a mission involving himself and the criminal regardless of the criminals say so. And yes, this system really does lead to enforcers going out on patrol and looking for criminals, without the game forcibly telling you to do so.
This second system is really interesting to me not only because it literally turns into a game of cops and robbers – which is awesome in it’s own right, but it also shows that APB isn’t afraid to disregard the players consent. If I were to hear about a system like this without first playing the game, I would have been completely unsurprised if I had seen the enforcer having to ask the criminal if it’s OK for him, as a cop, to engage in combat with the criminal. The criminal could then tweak his mustache, adjust his monocle and with a gentlemanly bow be on his merry way. Fortunately, APB is not so gentle, and I was pleasantly surprised with what I did see. Being tagged for an open world crime will toss you in a mission instantly, with no warning, and most of the time with the enforcer behind you ready and waiting with a pair of handcuffs. Or a shotgun.
This isn’t the only way in which the game tears down the foam padding that newer MMOs have spoiled people with, betraying a players sense of safety while they’re in what are aptly named the action districts. At any time there can be numerous players roaming the map with bounties on their head. After you get to a certain level of notoriety, the game announces to the entire area that a bounty has been placed on your head. Everyone, enforcer and criminal alike, is now free to kill you. The best part? You are now free to kill everyone. Yes, the guy standing at a vending machine trying to decide what outfit he is going to wear today is cannon fodder. A group of people discussing Lady Gaga’s genitals on the sidewalk via the games area-based VoIP can freely be run over by a bountied player in a garbage truck, honking his horn and screaming like a lunatic the entire time. Even better, the game rewards players for going on long kill streaks by again announcing your manly feats to the zone and awarding you extra money per kill. If you manage to get the best kill streak and top the daily leaderboard, you even get a prize sent to you in the in-game mail. And of course, since you do have a bounty on your head, after all – the player who finally ends your rampage will get a nice chunk of change.
With all this mayhem going on, it might sound a little too chaotic. However, the districts are designed with the 100 player limit per instance in mind and – while disconcerting to think about in comparison to the massive numbers a traditional MMO server holds – this is perfect much a perfect fit. A small enough amount to generate a sort of whimsical “single serving community” of common friends and foes within an instance for the duration of your play session, but also plenty of people to get a steady stream of missions and never have a dull moment.
The district level design is of particular interest, especially being a level designer myself. Like GTA games, APB is set in big city districts and basically lets the player roam free and do as they please. However, every last alleyway and parking garage is crafted with exquisite care as the game can choose nearly anything to be a location for a mission. With this in mind, APB appears more like a series of shooter game levels tied together by roads, and the missions reflect this. In an FPS game, you would play a round on a certain map, then the scoreboard would appear and everyone would load into a new map. In APB, it feels very much the same – only the “loading new map” process is simply getting in a vehicle and driving down the road to the next objective. The thoughtful placement of the mission locations ensures that each area usually has at least a handful of entryways and exits, and plenty of varying ground to get on and cover to get behind. Along with a clever effective range system, this allows for a ton of different play styles and ensures that shotgun users and snipers alike can generally feel useful regardless of where they are in the map; but there is certainly room for planning and strategy.
Perhaps the thing that has generated the most press regarding APB, and what will invariably continue to do so for a long time to come, is the customization system in the game. In what has been a fairly competitive title to claim in the MMO market – who has the better and more in-depth character customization, APB has just abruptly ended the contest for at least a couple of years. The extent that the detail of character customization APB goes into is simply ludicrous. When creating your character, you can only choose body measurements and colors. However, upon entering the social district, a whole new world opens up to you via clothing (which can be applied in realistic-feeling layers), tattoos, vehicle decals, and especially: the symbol designer.
The symbol designer is more or less a light vector editing program. You are given a certain number of shapes to work with out of a large list of basic and more complex unlockable shapes. You can apply various modifiers to these shapes, such as layer order, gradients, outlines, and even masks. Any veteran photoshopper knows the power of masks, and it certainly marks how intricate the APB symbol designer is. Even during my short time in beta I had already seen people create custom clothing and sell it for tons of cash, and turn around and buy a new car or weapon. People have created uncanny images of popular characters and memes. The editor is also very simple to use and I was creating detailed symbols using dozens of shapes in a matter of minutes.
And of course along with the symbols are plenty of places to put them. As well as tattoos on your skin, imagery on your clothing and decals on your cars, your symbols can also be used as your graffiti. Around the districts are various billboards. As mentioned previously, there are leaderboards in-game for players or clans who got the most kills, stole the most cars, or other various objectives. Being top ranked for one of these categories will display your graffiti symbol on the associated billboard for everyone to see. And with the, er, creativity of the denizens of the internet, this makes for an interesting feature. A particularly amusing thought what with the latest innovations of the gold selling community is that, at least in this game, they would have to work for their advertising!
APB is a refreshing breathe of air. While not truly an “MMO” in the traditional sense, I find that even the more basic elements of the game are designed and implemented extremely well and make for a really fun and engaging shooter. The fast-paced arcade feel combined with the terrific mission system pretty much ensures no dull moments are had, and racing around the huge districts from mission to mission guarantees a new change of scenery at every turn. I especially look forward to seeing what is in store for the future of this title, as there are so many ways it can be taken. More cars, more equipment, new leaderboards for stuff like car stunts, minigames in the social district, new action districts with special rulesets like FFA – the possibilities are really endless with where APB can go, and it already has a rock solid gameplay foundation. I look forward to seeing where Realtime takes it, and being there for the ride.