I imagine - and I don't think I'm making too wild an assumption here - that a lot of people are going to really aggressively hate APB. When the beta's NDA lifted, and players could begin legitimately discussing their experiences, word was mixed at best. And when news broke that developer Realtime Worlds had asked the press to hold reviews for a full week after the game's release, even those who'd not been party to the beta responded with fierce vitriol.
That embargo's since been retracted - although I did note with a smirk that the review code arrived with a suggestion that we might possibly want to wait until we'd seen APB in all its player-customised glory before finalising our verdict. Still, it doesn't bode well. It's true that one of APB's pillars has always been its impressive level of player customisation. But when a developer doesn't seem to trust in its product enough to allow people to voice an opinion on the finished version until - if we were to be really cynical about it - a week of sales is in the bag? Hmm, hmm and more hmm.
Not that I'm suggesting that's what the plan was. You'd have to be pretty insane to think you could pull that one off. And it's true: APB, this expansive multiplayer shooter that's absolutely-not-an-MMO-honest, really does spring to life the most magically when a whole bunch of people are playing together, progressing together, and becoming a part of San Paro together.
That was my first take on it, anyway. Across a combination of the final beta version and, now, the finished game (the differences between which I found to be minimal), I imagine I've put somewhere between 15 and 20 hours into APB. Realtime Worlds were eager to ensure reviewers gave their baby as much time as possible, and I think that might be what's going to backfire most of all.
Let's backtrack a bit. APB's been in development forever. It's an open-world, persistent-world multiplayer shooter which purports to allow players to carve their own identities into the surface of the game. It takes place across three separate regions of a fictional city named San Paro - two action districts and a social district. San Paro, we're told by a slick cinematic at the start, is a city in disarray. It's mob rule, but vigilantism is legal: groups of player-controlled Enforcers roam the streets, in hot pursuit of the equally player-controlled criminals.
For a city in which it's rare to go five minutes without seeing an enormous shootout or a terrible hit-and-run crime, its civilians seem curiously happy to go about their business in San Paro. If I lived in a place where I was very likely to get shot or run over every time I walked out of the house, I'd probably barricade my door shut from the outside so that no amount of temptation could lead me through it. That San Paro's residents haven't done this breaks the fiction insurmountably. The lack of thought is prophetic, and it's one of the many problems which plague what should have been - and, to an extent, initially appears to be - a hugely impressive game.
There is absolutely no denying that APB is capable of producing some blistering moments. These are the moments that had me so giddy before release, and which continue to surprise and delight for the first couple of hours of play. It's extraordinarily good fun to be driven along by a friend, hanging out of the back window of the car, firing out at enemies with a submachine gun while your favourite songs - uploaded from your own hard drive - blare out of the speakers. It really is a rare joy. To begin with.
It stays fresh and exciting for about the length of time it takes for everyone to work out how much fun it is. Then it starts to happen in every mission. Quite sensibly, in a game so driven by player contributions, people begin to create their own entertainment. The problem is that despite the ludicrously complex level of character customisation on display, the game itself is about as inflexible and repetitive as it could possibly be.
So people invariably drive around shooting out of car windows because that's the only thing you can do to see APB at its full potential. At this stage, at least: it's worth remembering that the nature of the game means it could improve in months to come. Missions come in just a few varieties, and again, all are fun the first time then quickly enormously joyless. I don't think I've ever played a game I liked so much to begin with, only to be exponentially less entertained the more I played.
In each mission - and between missions, if the game arbitrarily decides to afford you such freedom - you'll inevitably drive to a location, perform one of a handful of tasks once you're there, then drive to the next location and repeat. Generally, you'll be attacking or defending something in some way, which means shooting the opposition as soon as they turn up. Unfortunately, the driving is notable only for its plodding competence (it's fine sounds too enthusiastic), and the shooting is marred by its being both dramatically simplistic and hysterically imbalanced.
It works like this. You start at a low level, and with a basic firearm. As you progress up the ranks, you'll unlock new equipment and earn money with which to kit yourself out. Until you get to this stage, you die, over and over and over again.
There was a lot of talk a while ago about APB's matchmaking system, which was to be capable of teaming up players of equal ability and level. From what I can tell it does nothing of the sort. It throws together a four-strong team of radically different experience, and pits them against an opposing team of equally varied skill.
Not that skill has a lot to do with anything in APB, unless you consider the ability to aim a crosshair with a mouse to be skillful. In a multiplayer shooter on the PC, no matter how ambitious in scope and physical size, you'd be forgiven for expecting certain prerequisites from combat. Headshots aren't always a necessary inclusion, but you'd probably not complain if they were present in APB. They're not, for reasons which aren't relevant here. Movement is clumsy and slow, and there's rarely decent cover to utilise. What this means is that the people with the best weapons kill the people with the worst weapons, time after enormously frustrating time.
And what then? You reappear at the nearest spawn point, which - in typical APB fashion - is just far enough away from the action that it's an irritating slog every time. It's as if Realtime Worlds have conceptualised an enormous, exciting, forward-thinking game, but worked to make it as infuriating as possible at each and every turn.
Which leaves the customisation tools. They're what APB has been marketed so heavily on, and, to be fair, what Realtime Worlds seem to have focused on during development. They are admittedly stunning. It's hugely impressive to be able to craft a character of not just any height, race, gender or size (apart from, curiously, a fat woman), but of various exact facial features, hairstyles, piercings and fashion styles. The interface is powerful but intuitive. It would be great if any of it mattered.
But it doesn't. For starters, most clothes, jewelry and accessories are locked until you've played a considerable amount of the shoddy game in which they reside. More bizarrely, despite pouring so much meticulous detail into my character's image (which I'm sure most other players have done as well), I haven't been able to enjoy any of it in-game.
For absolutely no discernible reason, 32-bit operating systems automatically lock the graphical details to low. I only know this having spoken to other players, as the menu still quite happily lies that they're set to high. I say no discernible reason because my /brand new/ machine, while running Windows 7 32-bit, is capable of playing every single other PC game I've tried with all the sliders maxed out. And there's apparently a hack which unlocks the high quality visuals, supposedly making the game run no more slowly. I cannot get behind the idea that I have to tweak software files in order to properly experience the very feature that APB has been so strongly marketed upon. It feels indicative of the game's quality as a whole.
What's perhaps most crushing of all, though, is the wasted potential. That's the reason I always suspected people wouldn't warm to APB, although I hadn't bargained on the final product being quite so disappointing. This is a game that could have been important: pivotal, even. There is no hiding from the hype for what was to be.
I first saw APB in action almost exactly 12 months ago. It looked spectacular. The room, filled with developers and members of the press, was buzzing. When the demonstration finished, the conference was alive with applause.
The game I've been playing this week is a feeble shadow of that impressive first look. While it's conceptually the game we were told it would be, every component is so underdeveloped, the game world so patently artificial. Only the customisation tools stand tall, but even they're of so little consequence that they're almost instantly forgotten. Initially fun, initially somewhat impressive, APB ultimately remains a game that a lot of people are going to aggressively hate. They'll be quite justified in their position, and one suspects Realtime Worlds will have quite some explaining to do.
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