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Mean girls

Here's a little insight into the mind of Lewis Denby: when I play anything with decent character creation tools, I'm always the same person. Specifically, a girl. More specifically, a redhead. She's a fresh and unassuming youngster, modestly pretty, seemingly meek but with a real attitude brewing beneath the surface. As I write this, I'm listening to Paramore, and suddenly realise my plans to somehow woo and eventually marry vocalist Hayley Williams might well be intrinsically linked.

But anyway.

This is my girl. I was her in Mass Effect and its sequel. I tried my best to craft her in Fallout 3, but never quite got the proportions right. Dragon Age was easy. She's been through the wars, this girl: from one side of outer space to the other, through stark nuclear winter, and to the end of the world and back. Now, she's somewhere in the city of San Paro, but her role has changed. The years of attempted heroism have left her jaded and cynical. And so it is that she's joined forces with the Bloodrose clan, ready to cause chaos and disorder on the streets of this upcoming sorta-MMO, sorta-shooter from Realtime Worlds.

If there's any game around in which it makes sense to so meticulously craft a character, it's the hyper-stylish APB. We've known about its versatile creation tools since last summer, when the first video footage emerged. But this is my first time putting them to use. And how marvellous they are to use, too: an enormous series of sliders is all it takes to manipulate almost every act of your character's physical appearance. It's intuitive, and magnificent.

Of course, when you're creating a game like APB, they have to be. One of its core pillars is the notion of celebrity, whereby every player on a server can craft for themselves a unique identity that develops over time, and which can be recognised by others populating the game world. Within the Social District, a non-combat region of San Paro, you can visit a number of terminals scattered around different shops, via which different aspects of your character can be tweaked. Want a new wardrobe? Head to the clothes shop and spend your coins on a snazzy new jacket. Want some inky skin? The tattoo parlour seems like the sensible place.

My girl got her first tattoo after a just a couple of days. She's been an unassuming kid before, kitted out in just the default T-shirt-and-jeans combo. These streets changed her quickly. The tension between criminals and Enforcers is as widespread as ever, with entire city blocks falling into frenetic gunfights on a regular basis.

A bit of story, then. San Paro is a city in which vigilantism has been legalised. On the one side of the law are the criminal organisations, groups who raid shops, steal cars, and assassinate key Enforcers. The Enforcers are the guys who've appointed themselves to keep everything under control. Predictably - and because it would make a pretty imbalanced game were they not - they're struggling to manage.

Missions come in a few forms - and, as you'd expect, vary from team to team. (Incidentally, you can't switch sides, so once you've created your character you're stuck with either breaking or enforcing the rules unless you start again from scratch.) There's assassination missions. There's tasks to blow up this or kick in such-and-such. As an Enforcer, your job will be to prevent the criminals from carrying out their treacherous shenanigans, but regardless of which side you play on, it's mainly all an excuse to get trigger-happy in everyone's face.

Which is why it's something of a shame that - in this beta phase, at least - the combat is a little shaky. While tactical play is ostensibly encouraged, with groups working together to achieve their goal, there's rarely any great opportunity to apply your brain. To balance the game between its third-person shooter fundamental mechanics and MMO-esque open world, Realtime Worlds have opted to exclude specific damage models for different parts of the body. That means no headshots, which feels especially primitive on the PC, and it's difficult to understand how it would have been to the detriment of APB to include them.

Equally, driving - which will take up much of the rest of your time in San Paro - can be somewhat hit and miss. While vehicles all handle differently depending on their specs, as you'd expect, the basic controls still have a habit of feeling cumbersome and a little loose. The camera's a problem too: it cinematically swings and wavers as you dart around corners, which looks nice, but can be tremendously off-putting when you're hurtling foot-down at 90 miles per hour.

Still, my girl can manage. She's tough like that on the inside, remember? In fact, she's tough like that on the outside, now. Not only does she have a tattoo poking from her left sleeve, that sleeve also now belongs to a smart yet sassy blazer. She's had a haircut, too - a cropped, messy look replacing her innocent, flowing, strawberry locks.

And it's this constantly evolving feel to ABP and its persistent world that is likely to impress the most. While San Paro feels sparsely detailed when positioned next to the likes of Grand Theft Auto IV, the idea that those who populate the city have a way to change the experience - both cosmetically and meaningfully, minute-by-minute - remains an exciting one.

And it's not that there's a spectacularly low level of detail to San Paro, either. While it feels distinctly like a game space when compared to other recent open-world environments, there are some nice little touches. Ducking down behind a building to wait for my health to recharge, I heard a muffled argument taking place. It took me a minute to work out that I was in the alley behind a restaurant, and the head chef wasn't best pleased with one of his cooks, who'd clumsily smashed a plate.

This is the sort of detail built in by the developers, but more impressive is the way player characters automatically generate incidentals on the fly. Music - in cars and bars - can be synchronised with Last.fm profiles, and it's a real delight to just stand by the road, listening to those few seconds of a tune as a vehicle whizzes by. Music says a lot about a person.

So my girl's been listening to a lot of Phoenix, whose single 1901 has featured a lot during her stay in San Paro. And it was to this track that my most marvellous experience in APB thus far took place.

We're on a mission. We've f*cked up. The Enforcers have grabbed an important dodgy data disc we're supposed to be transporting safely. They're getting away, quickly. There's two of us left alive, and there's a car nearby. A comrade hops in the driver's seat, and I climb in the back.

We're in hot pursuit. The driver is wild, cutting in between other vehicles, skidding dramatically around bends. There's a group of Enforcers camped out behind a van up ahead, all armed with automatic weapons. There's only one thing to do.

As 1901's synth bass kicks in, I pull open the car door and lean out, one hand clinging for dear life onto the frame. My driver begins to circle the Enforcers, who jump between the left and right side of their cover, trying desperately to stay out of reach of my bullets. But they won't manage. My girl's tough now. She's a mean motherf*cker, SMG in hand, finger on the trigger. "Folded, folded, folded, folded," sings the radio, as one by one the team of Enforcers falls to the ground.

It's in moments like these that APB springs into life, delivering the sort of emergent experience that only open-world videogames can. That this was a scenario that came to be through the cooperation of real people, separated only by distance, made it all the more enchanting and memorable. APB might still have some way to go before it's sufficiently polished to achieve greatness, and with only just over a month until full release, that might be a big ask. Still, it's already capable of being marvellously surprising - and it's a game that can only grow as more and more people hit the untamed streets of the big city.

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