Years from now, APB will be used in classes around the globe as text book material. Educators will point out how even the greatest ideas in the world can burn and die at the pyre of poor implementation. The real tragedy is that once I understood what Realtime Worlds was attempting to do I found myself rooting for APB. This is the kind of game we dreamed about the first time we stepped foot into Liberty City; an open world game with no rules blocking our most nefarious tendencies. But for every dream we may have, APB finds ways to realize our worst nightmares.
APB takes place in the fictional world of San Paro City, a bizarre city that takes both vigilantism and crime to excessive levels. We can get this out of the way; the story is ridiculous fodder and serves as nothing more than an excuse to explain why the two factions, Enforcers and Criminals, exist. The faction system is unique, and stands strongly as an example of a good idea with horrible implementation. Each faction has several NPC characters that will act as contacts for your various deeds. If you are a criminal the contact will find jobs for you, while an enforcer contact will send you on missions to prevent criminal activity. As you complete jobs you will attain the experience that will raise your ranking with the contact. Raising your ranking allows you purchase better weapons, upgrades, and define your class. It is your responsibility to choose and balance your contacts to achieve your desired results. Like I said, this is unique and has the potential for greatness, but it is severely hampered by the fact that different classes are superficial at best and the upgrade tree is shallow.
The city itself finds a way to be both immense and barren, and both populated and isolated. I’m not trying to be cryptic; it will take you hours to fully explore each district, but accomplishing that task yields nothing as there is nothing of interest to discover in San Paro. The city is populated with NPCs, but their existence seems to have limited purpose; having something to run over while driving, or to have someone occasionally cuss at you. An unforgivable oversight is the fact that murdering NPC citizens as a criminal, and, even more shockingly, as an enforcer, carries negligible consequences. The city is also split into three districts, two for the standard multiplayer game, and one is called the Social District and is strictly designed to socialize and customize your wares (clothes, etc). Each district has unique architecture and level design, but it is never completely utilized to vary the gameplay.
APB uses the Unreal Engine 3, which means technically it is a mixed bag. The city is huge and the game completely loads a district when you enter a game. This causes a very long load when entering the game, but once in you will not see any other loading. The graphics are pretty bland, but are nothing to complain about. They serve their purpose well. The issues are classic Unreal Engine 3 issues, ranging from constant pop-in to geometry completely disappearing below your feet. The physics are tuned kind of funky also, but this may be an ill-advised attempt to make running people over fun.
The best part of the presentation is the soundtrack. There is plenty of licensed music, and the selection is decent. If you don’t like the selected tracks, then you can play your own music off your hard drive. The voice acting is also good, even though there are times when the dialog can be pretty cheesy.
Where APB really falls apart is in the gameplay. A GTA-inspired MMO should have limitless possibilities. Realtime Worlds decided to provide just a few bare-bone possibilities. There are two kinds of missions. One is simply running from waypoint to waypoint and completing a tedious task. These tasks can range from running to a waypoint and spraying graffiti to running to a waypoint and smashing open a door; sometimes things are shaken up and you have to run to a waypoint and then drive to another waypoint. The second type of game is to defend territory, which ends up being a dash to a waypoint followed by several minutes of camping. The nature of the missions is needlessly bland.
Some missions create instances. An instance is a multiplayer match set up by the server. It supposedly creates the parties of players based on levels, skills, and equipment. This is an amazing idea, but, like the others, it’s just not done well. The matchmaking is not up to par, and often times your parties will be uneven. This can be frustrating to new and low-level characters. Even more annoying are the mission types that encourage incessant camping. If camping is your thing, you will love these missions, but for most players sitting around waiting to shoot a player that happens to wander across your crosshairs does not make for a good time.
To complement these missions, the game treats us to gameplay mechanics that are ancient. The third person shooting is not refined like Gears of War, which uses the same Unreal Engine 3. The aiming mechanics are monotonous across all types of guns and offer no accurate feedback. The driving mechanics are even older and are reminiscent of the first 3D racing games. They can be frustrating during missions that require you to race to different waypoints. To add to the driving problems is the lag on slower internet connections.
Despite all the disappointing features, APB does have several good points, and some revolutionary ideas that deserve praise. The Social District is a nice addition and helps forge a community. In the Social District you have the ability to purchase new clothes and customize everything to your style. This results in unlimited possibilities for your avatars. You can also customize the paint jobs on any cars you own, complete with decal work and custom parts. Hands down, the best feature is the ability to create your own sound bite to tantalize your opponents when you kill them.
APB also follows a revolutionary business plan. Instead of paying a monthly subscription, APB charges a nominal fee for play time on the server. Also, in-game items can be purchased with real money. This can give you the upper hand in battle if you are struggling and also make it possible to obtain certain items. These are ideas that we as gamers can hope all current and future MMOs explore.
APB is a flawed game. There is fun to be had in the city of San Paro, but it’s repetitive and admittedly shallow. For a title that has been touted as the MMO GTA, it is rather disappointing. But there are interesting ideas, and the pay-as-you-go plan is a must have for future MMOs. Right now, there is little incentive to purchase another 50 hrs, because it feels like an unfinished product. A fact that is baffling considering it has been in development since 2005.