Everything you need to know about APB
The City of San Paro is not host to a traditional MMO, though you could be forgiven for the confusion. Realtime Worlds has created a game with more similarities to the Free Roam of Grand Theft Auto than World Of Warcraft, and this differentiation is to the games credit. The gameplay is fast, brutal and lacks the intimidating grinds and level caps that would normally be associated with any game asking for a monthly subscription.
I know that reviewing an MMO at launch is normally frowned upon so I should probably begin by explaining my credibility as a reviewer. I Joined the APB beta at an early stage several months ago and have continued playing throughout the beta testing period. After that I was one of several hundred players who got invited to the Public Test World server (a reward for my extensive feedback on the beta forums, apparently), where new patches are tested before being deployed into the full game. I also pre-ordered APB which gave me access to the Key To The City preview demo. I am now playing the full released game. Overall I have clocked over 250 hours with this game, playing as both Criminal and Enforcer characters. I'm not trying to boast here, but as an MMO needs to be evaluated over a period of time I want you to know that I have not simply reviewed the game after a single day of playing. I appreciate that the game will continue to evolve over time but at the time of launch I am fully familiar with the games current features. So lets get started...
I'm going to begin by addressing the question I get most commonly asked when I discuss APB. "It looks like Crimecraft" people inform me. I feel, considering how terrible crimecraft is, that some contrast is required to prevent the immediate dismissal of APB. Crimecraft is essentially a convoluted matchmaking lobby where you get sent to arenas to battle. APB is more spontaneous, dispatching players against opponents as and when they are reported. This means you will be offered missions to fight players in the immediate vicinity, without having to travel to another instance to battle. This makes APB a lot more dynamic as a peaceful street can turn into an explosive battleground in a matter of seconds. Parallels to the Free Roam of GTA4are appropriate, as players will often converge on a specific position with explosive results.
SubscriptionsI wouldn't normally include the price of a game when reviewing it's quality but as subscriptions are often the first hurdle that needs to be cleared when purchasing an MMO I feel this discussion appropriate. Realtime Worlds have developed a fairly convoluted system that looks inappropriately terrifying to new players; There is the standard monthly fee which gets you unlimited playtime, or you can opt for a pay-and-play system where you buy hours that only tick away whilst you are signed into one of the games two action districts. The way of purchasing these subscriptions is handled by RTW points, similar to MS points except they can also be used ingame. This is where the pricing plan starts to get a bit wacky. The game contains 2 systems of buying and selling gear in the game. You can either use the ingame APB money which you collect from doing missions and killing enemies (or stealing shit, if you are a filthy criminal) and the Marketplace acts very similar to any other. With customization being such a high selling point of APB, creating awesome designs and them slapping them on cars and clothing is very easy, and you can then duplicate or "manufacture" each item for the same cost as the initial item. This means if you buy a car for $2000 and cover it with artwork, each duplicate will cost you another $2000 but will come already painted with your designs - meaning you can slap it on Marketplace for a hefty profit. The crazyness begins when you are told that there is not one marketplace but two. You can either buy and sell with APB money or with RTW money. That means you could hypothetically make enough RTW money to buy more playtime, if you were awesome. The reasons for this is so that new players don't have to do a load of missions before they can start buying cool gear, whilst the more committed of the playerbase can wheel and deal in a more traditional fashion. It's also worth noting that the social district, home of all the customization and shops, does not take up your paid game time. This is pretty handy when you are committed to designing that perfect bombcast decal.
CustomizationDesigning and creating unique cars, clothes, and music is perhaps the most awesome aspect of APB. Applying and creating decals is very simple, and once a design has been made you can print it on anything you own - so if you have a logo you make you can paint it on your car, print it on your clothes, tattoo it on your face, even set it as a tag which you can then spray on one of the many graffiti spots that litter the city. There is also a quite sophisticated sound designer which lets you churn out little 8-bit compositions that will play for your enemies whenever they are killed. There is nothing more frustrating than being killed by a punk criminal and then being forced to listen to his goofy 8-bit rendition of Keyboard Cat. All of these customizations can be sold on the marketplace, and this is what makes up a large part of the games economy. As someone who has a bit of experience with Photoshop the symbol designer could use some work. It's fairly easy to string stuff together and make some pretty neat designs, but the interface still lacks some pretty basic functions such as the ability to merge layers together - even when you import an existing symbol, each element will be imported individually, leaving you with a huge list of basic shapes to navigate. Having said that, people are still managing to come up with some completely mind-blowing designs. There is a healthy selection of basic shapes to choose from and it's a very simple and efficient drag and drop interface. I would say the customization editor is probably on par with that of Forza 2 and there is a lot of potential for some epic designs.
MissionsThe missions in the game are not the usual standard of "kill 20 rats" that you were probably expecting. The city will be saturated with contacts, both Cops and Enforcers have 2 factions to whom they can pledge. Each faction will have specific cars, clothes and weapons which you will unlock as you progress up levels by completing missions. You can swap contacts at any time, each contact has their own loyalty level that caps at 6. It takes only 2 or 3 hours to max out a contact, so you can progress pretty quick if you are committed. Once you have picked a contact, they will phone you up and offer you missions whenever you are free. These missions are a mix of contact specific "Complete these objectives" missions, or they might be a call for backup or bounty if someone from the opposing side has been witnessed and reported by another player. All the missions are pretty straightforward, usually of the "Go here, pickup this, take it there, destroy this, kill these guys" variety. However there is absolutely no NPC combat in the entire game. Every mission, dispatch and APB will be pitched against other players.
The best way to describe this is probably with a narrative.Lets say you are driving along and your contact offers you a mission. You accept, and are sent to pick up a briefcase from an apartment block across town. As you are on your way there an APB from the opposing team goes out and suddenly you have opponents, a group of two players. You arrive at your destination and try to get to the case, but you are completely outgunned. You die, respawn, call for backup. A group of 3 accepts the call for backup and joins your side as you rush the objective. As you now have the advantage you successfully dispatch the opponents, collecting the case. You contact updates your objective, telling your group to take the case to a warehouse across the other side of the city. Your group of 4 all climbs into the nearest car and zooms away. As you dash towards the dropoff you are ambushed by two cars, each full of enemy players trying to obstruct you. You continue to fight your way across the city, and finally reach the objective. After a heavy firefight you manage to deliver the case. Now you need to escape the enemy players, their team of 5 is given the task of hunting down your team of 4 before the timer runs out.
That mission began with one player and quickly escalated to a full 9-man shoot out that took both groups across the entire city. When you remember that each player is fully customized with his own weapons and custom vehicles, the whole event is quite a spectacle. This is the combat of APB at it's best.
Unfortunately, the reality of APB is slightly sobering. Whilst it is possible for epic battles to occur, most will remain much smaller scale. The largest group you can join and accept missions with is of 4 players, so usually you end up in a 4 vs 4 match. In fact the largest match it's possible to get into will hold 16 players, though this is very, very rare. In all my hundreds of hours of playing I have never actually got into a full 8 vs 8 match. Additional players can join your team during the mission but only if the matchmaking pairs you together. Sometimes there are no enemy players available, or at least no enemy players willing to accept the APB that would set them against you - so you are left to complete the mission alone. Similarly sometimes you will be outnumbered and call for backup and nobody will accept the APB, leaving you to soldier on by yourself. Occasionally you aren't even offered the option of calling for backup - supposedly because the game thinks you are good enough to tackle the current situation by yourself. In the missions without opposition the game becomes completely dull both because the objectives are boring and repetitive and because the rewards you receive for unchallenged missions are minimal. It's like playing capture the flag by yourself.
The worst aspect of the game is it's lack of mission variety. The missions will change slightly each time but the general structure is continued throughout your entire time with APB and there isn't really much option to switch up up. As a result it's hard to really play APB for long bursts of time, especially as you will probably end up using the same gun, going to the same places and fighting the same enemies for hours on end. I can't see any reason for creating more than one character either, as there is no classes or skill allocation. If you want to swap weapons all you need to do is buy a new weapon.
Just like in real life.
Similarly the matchmaking is slightly bizarre.Each player has a threat level which moves up and down depending on their current skill level. The max is 15 but most players end up sitting on about 9 or 10. Players are supposed to be matched against oppositions of a similar threat level, though as there are only 80 players in each instance, sometimes there simply aren't any available. As a compromise the game with throw a mix of alternatives at you - maybe a big group of low threat players or a smaller number of higher threat players to balance it out. The problem with this is 4 new players will completely destroy 1 advanced player because the weapon upgrades you can unlock are mostly superficial. The district chat is currently full of outnumbered players complaining that they have been unevenly matched. Accepting the PVP nature of the game - that you simply cannot win every mission - takes some getting used to.
Another issue with the mission structure is that your success or failure is entirely pivotal on the final objective. This means if you are on a mission and you win the first 5 PVP based objectives but lose the last you lose overall, losing all the bonus XP you would have gained if you had won. So you might have killed 20 criminals and they might have killed only 3 or 4 enforcers, but if they complete the last objective before you then they still win the match. Some of these final objectives are stupidly easy to complete, meaning all the hard work you put in beforehand is occasionally for nothing.
Both Enforcers and Criminals are offered the same missions, though Criminals can commit crimes simply by killing pedestrians or robbing shops. If they are witnessed doing so then Enforcers are dispatched against them.
The most awkward thing about the game is the bubble you enter upon accepting a mission.Though there might be dozens of criminals looting the street upon which you currently stand, you cannot engage any of them in combat until the game has officially dispatched you against them. Similarly if you are on a mission and fighting a group of 4 enemies, other members of their faction may run through the battleground completely unaffected by your grenades and bullets. This is fine normally and prevents enemies from getting caught up in someone else's mission, though it's slightly unnerving when you hit an un-matched player with your car and watch him harmlessly slide out the way.
Players also have a prestige rating of 5 stars - players gain stars by committing crimes as criminals or by killing criminals as enforcers. Once a player reaches prestige 5 he is declared a target to the entire instance and whichever player kills him is rewarded a hefty bounty.
Unfortunatly it is still possible for other vehicles to interfere and whilst they can't kill you that doesn't mean some idiot with a grudge can't follow you round and ram you off the road whilst you are trying to complete your new objective. Un-matched players can't kill you but they can be a real pain if they want to be, obstructing objectives and smashing up your cars. Apparently RTW is working on some Chaos Servers where there are no such limitations, but these have not yet been released at launch.
The last real beef with the missions is that because each instance has a player cap of only 80 (40 per faction) the pool from which enemies can be drawn is fairly limited. As most players end up patrolling in groups of 3 or 4 there are only about 10 possible groups which you can be matched against if you yourself are in a group of 4. This means you can sometimes end up being repeatedly dispatched against the same group of enemies regardless of skill difference.
ProgressionThe rewards you unlock will be mostly material, new clothes or items. When you begin the game you will have access to a very basic wardrobe and will need to unlock new clothes to buy by levelling up with each of the 2 factions available to you. Levelling up specific contacts for each faction will earn you single rewards - for example get your level with the contact Ty Durrant to 6 and he rewards you with a larger Assault Rifle. You must also level up to get access to new car parts and basic shapes for use in the symbol designer. This gives high-level players the opportunity to flaunt their skill with the best car parts and clothes and makes character progression meaningful without unbalancing the combat of the game. As there is no direct loot from completing missions players must use the money they earn to buy new gear.
There is no official endgame - the closest you can come to "completion" is simply to unlock all available weapons and items. There are clan based PVP competitions though, which can add an extra element of competitiveness for advanced players.
CombatThe combat of APB is to it's credit. There is almost no lag when firing weapons, and the variety of guns and upgrades accommodates a wide range of playing styles. The majority of players seem to opt for the medium range Ntec (AK47) or OCA Submachineguns, but Sniper Rifles and Shotguns are also popular. Advancing levels with a contact or faction will reward you with upgraded weapons that have slots into which you can put upgrades which are basically perks. Examples include things like faster firing speed or additional magazines. These perks are also available for your vehicles, adding extra armour or ramming damage. Vehicles play quite a big part in the combat of APB as you will often use them for cover or, if you are like me, as bombs. Jumping out a car then blowing it up is a great way to rack up kills. The combat is entirely 3rd person (even for snipers. The cross-hair is just made very, very small) and the hit collision feels pretty accurate. Players can lean out of windows to fire when they are passengers in a car and, though there is no cover mechanic, it's possible to crouch and lean around corners. The only issue I would have with combat is the inability to fire whilst driving - making 1 vs 1 chases fairly dull as you have little way of stopping your opposition apart from ramming him off the road and hoping his car gets stuck.
The only real difference between Enforcers and Crimsis that Enforcers have access to Less Than Lethal weapons which stun instead of kill. Once a criminal has been stunned an Enforcer has 5 seconds to arrest them by standing behind them and pressing the 'interact' button. An arrested criminal remains stationary for 30 seconds instead of respawing after only 5. If you are tasked to defend an objective for 2 minutes, arresting your opposition makes your life a lot easier as it reduces the amount of attacks they can make. However the actual arresting of each criminal is time consuming and leaves your character completely exposed. It is therefore fairly useless amongst groups of enemy players as by the time you have arrested one criminal the others will have recovered from the stun. As a result most players so far don't bother with LTL weapons, especially as they do almost no damage to vehicles and, as I mentioned earlier, exploding vehicles are amongst the best tools at your disposal. Criminals will constantly bitch and moan about being arrested (go figure), but it's a fun mechanic that can make gunfights a lot more interesting and makes choosing a faction at the beginning of the game slightly more meaningful. The rewards for arresting crims instead of killing them are also a lot higher.
Bear in mind that as this is an MMO with ongoing developer support, weapons are subjective to patching - expect a lot of balancing in the near future.
DrivingConsidering driving is such an important aspect of APB one would have hoped it would have been a lot tighter than it currently is. APB has consistently had issues with driving throughout the beta period and although they have mostly fixed the issues there is still a slight delay on the handling of vehicles. Normally this is fine and hardly noticeable, but it's something you have to be aware of especially when you are on a specific driving mission. The cars look great and there is a nice mix of 2 and 4 door automobiles. Players each have one active vehicle which they can spawn at any car-park in the city, so there's no need to cry if your pretty wheels get shot off. Car's have perks the same as the weapons, and the depth of customization extends far further beyond what I was expecting - letting you choose your own speakers and engine noise for example. If your car does get destroyed however (these things happen) you can either steal a car GTA style if you are a criminal, or commandeer one as a Enforcer.
LocationsSan Para is a lot more complex that its streetmap would suggest. There are multiple ladders and suspiciously convenient air vents and scaffolding that will give you access to the rooftops of the city. Amongst the rooftops are billboards and blank walls where you can spray your designs up as graffiti for the world to see - adding a lot of colour and personality to the city. Unfortunately you can only tag one spot at a time, so there is no way to completely fill the instance with your Marxist propaganda - and your graffiti is removed when you log off. It's still pretty cool though. There are two action districts, Financial and Waterfront, and players can swap between instances of each at any time. Financial is a lot more compact with taller buildings, Waterfront more expansive and spacious. Each area is an open sandbox about the same size as each island in a typical GTA game.
Clans and groupsThe entirety of APB has been designed with groups, gangs and clans in mind. Clans can share logos and designs meaning you will occasionally see a fleet of cars all sporting the same symbols. The top clans can also hire out billboards and display points where they can display their artwork and recruit new players. Such clans in the beta quickly gained notoriety amongst the playerbase.
Other stuffAPB has a lot of awesome features that make it stand out from other games on the market. For example it's possible to import music from Last.fm into the game which will blare out of your car as you drive around the city - and other players on the street will be able to hear it as you drive past.
There are no pets allowed in San Paro. Sorry, kids.
The BeefThe problems with APB lie in it's overall lack of polish. Conceptually there is a lot of neat ideas going on but individually each aspect of the game is far from perfect. The driving won't handle as well as any respectable racing game and the shooting remains secondary to pretty much any other 3rd person shooter on the market. It's hard to criticize as there are lots of small issues that could easily be fixed, and no doubt will be assessed by RTW as they continue to patch the game. Small annoyances like the game pushing you into the back seat of an empty car when you are trying to get into the driving seat are trivial errors that nevertheless lower the tone of the whole game. APB has also been made using the Unreal Engine which carries it's own baggage, both good and bad. You get some sweet rag-doll effects as you scream down the pavement in your shiny new van, but every time you enter an instance you are going to suffer a pretty savage hit as all the textures pop into focus. Once you get going things are fine but it's still very noticeable. The aesthetic of the game has also meant the streets of the city are huge, wide enough to fit down 3 or 4 cars at any one time. However sometimes there are just no NPC cars driving around, leaving the city looking completely barren and deserted.
The lag in the game really isn't bad, though this is down to some smart asset allocation by the games matchmaking - sending groups of players to different areas of the city for each mission. At the end of the beta event every player in my current instance ran to the park in the middle of the city and, though there were only 80 of us, the framerate clearly couldn't handle such a large group of players all at once.
The VerdictAPB is a lot of fun to play, though it remains janky and awkward when compared to other action games. There are a lot of neat features tied loosely together under the pretence of an MMO and as a result the game often feels rough around the edges. Whilst the spectacle of watching an entire city full of fighting criminals and enforcers buzzing around you is amazing to behold, It's hard to justify a monthly subscription for gameplay that has frequently been trumped by existing games that don't require you to continually keep handing over cash. However when the action picks up momentum APB is a real joy to play and experience.
If you have any questions feel free to ask in the comment section below, or send me a PM. If you like what you see then maybe you should check out my blog here on giantbomb which I update frequently.
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