APB promises to do for virtual citizens what reality TV has done for washed-up celebrities and singers of questionable talent: make them famous. It's part open-world action game and part massively multiplayer online game, and you take on the role of a criminal mastermind or dedicated law enforcer and attempt to make a name for yourself in a virtual city populated with up to 99 other players. If you succeed, statues will be built in your image, your gang colours will be plastered over billboards, and the mere mention of your name will strike fear into the hearts of the police force and criminal underworld.
The world of APB is broken up into three districts: Social, Financial, and Waterfront. The Financial and Waterfront districts are action zones, where you can take on different missions and start wreaking havoc in the city. Each area has a distinct gameplay style, with Financial offering modern street-level action and Waterfront offering more rooftop-based action. However, before you jump into either action zone you need to create a character in the Social district. There are an insane number of options available, and everything from the size and weight of your character to custom tattoos can be changed. Once you've created a character, you can go on to customise clothing, vehicles, and even the kind of music that follows you around the city. A Photoshop-like drawing tool allows you to create decals, which can be applied to people, cars, or objects around the city, giving you and your gang a unique identifier. Anything that you create can be sold in the online marketplace to other players, giving you the chance to make some money to buy weapons and giving the less artistically inclined the opportunity to look good while roaming the city. You can check out more on the customisation tools in our preview from the Game Developers Conference.
Matchmaking in APB is different to most lobby-based action games. The character you create lives on a server populated with up to 100,000 players, with each of those players split across several cities of 100 players each. When you join a game, you're grouped with 99 others and placed in a random city. The attributes for your character remain constant no matter which city you're in. For example, if you've gained level-five notoriety, each of the 100,000 players will know about it. However, once you've chosen your character class, you can't change it on that server. Therefore, if you suddenly wish to switch to a criminal from an enforcer or vice versa, you need to start a new character on a different server.
Playing the game for the first time can be a daunting experience, as we found during our play test. As soon as we stepped out into the Financial district, we were almost run over by a horde of criminals racing past us with guns blazing, followed by a pursuing enforcer squad. You're guaranteed to run into other players completing missions or committing crimes, giving the impression that you're part of a living, breathing city. However, though you can see the other players, you can interact with others only if they're in a mission with you. Other players are identified by grey name tags, so you can't go around ruining everyone's fun by shooting them. There are plans to introduce chaos zones, which will allow hardcore players to do this, but they will not be in the game at launch.
Missions differ depending on your character class. As a criminal, you can choose not to take on missions directly and instead roam the city mugging people and blowing stuff up. This won't net you very much money, but it will increase your threat level. The higher your threat level, the more recognised you are around the city. Reaching a threat level of five makes you the APB equivalent of America's Most Wanted. A large reward is offered for your capture, and all enforcers in the city are alerted to your presence. This threat level remains until you are caught, so even if you leave the game, all the enforcers on the server know of your reputation.
If you choose not to free-roam, you can take on missions from one of the many AI-controlled characters scattered across the city. While you're able to take on some missions alone, most can be completed only in a group. You can join up with random players in the city or set up friends lists and clans if you prefer to team up with chums. The first mission we played had us defending a criminal safe house in the city. Our first task was to steal a car and transport it to the safe house. Hijacking cars works in a similar way to Grand Theft Auto: you walk up to the car you want to steal, hit a button, and your character yanks out the driver. Once you have a car, your teammates can ride with you and hang out of the windows to shoot pursuing enforcers or passers-by. Car handling is very forgiving, with an arcade-like feel that makes it easy to drive around the city. Our destination was a small building in the centre of the city that contained a coloured area we had to defend. Enforcers rapidly began to show up, raining down bullets on our team. We split up to defend the various entrances to the building, trying to pick off the opposition with some well-placed shots. The number of enforcers summoned to your position is dynamically chosen. If you are a highly rated criminal or have a high threat level, more officers will be sent to deal with you. Interestingly for a third-person shooter, there is no cover system, so we had to rely on crouching behind objects like dumpsters and walls in order to avoid fire. There is also no focused aim, though this doesn't affect headshots, as currently the game does not have location-specific damage.
The second mission we tried involved ram-raiding a building. We had to steal a car and repeatedly drive it headfirst into a building that was being defended by a group of enforcers. Once we picked up the package, we had to bring it to another location marked on the map. This was a frantic mission, and the pursuing enforcers made it incredibly difficult to transport the package. As well as shooting at us from their vehicle, they were constantly trying to ram us off the road. Other officers positioned themselves along the road and attempted to destroy us with grenades. The beauty of the game is that there are no right or wrong ways to play a mission, and they are made more interesting by the unpredictability of human players.
As an enforcer, many of the missions you undertake are simply the opposite of the criminal missions. For example, instead of defending a safe house, you will be asked to storm it and take out the criminals. If the criminals are ram-raiding a building, you will have to defend it. Though upholding the law may seem like the less interesting of the two classes, enforcers have the added ability to arrest people as well as simply shoot them. To arrest a criminal, we first had to purchase a nonlethal weapon. These were available from various contacts throughout the city and from Joker Ammunition vending machines. Not all weapons are available at the start of the game, and many of the beefier ones are available only once you've reached a certain rating. Others may be available only from contacts, though they will also withhold weapons unless you undertake a certain number of missions from them. Weapons can also be gifted to you from other players and can be collected from mail terminals. Terminals also allow you to receive messages from friends and contacts across the city.
The nonlethal weapon we chose was a beanbag gun, which had quite a long range and was great for taking down criminals at a distance. The gun allows you to put down criminals for a small period of time. You can use this time to shoot them and finish them off or to arrest them. If you don't do anything, they no longer remain stunned and can rejoin the fight. If you're quick enough to get behind the criminals while they're stunned, you can arrest them. This takes them out of the action for 15 seconds before they respawn at a different location. Though this may seem like a small amount of time, as a criminal it feels like much longer as you sit out and watch your teammates fight on their own. However, other criminals can free arrested teammates if they can get to them in time.
Completing missions rewards you with rating points, which unlock new items and weapons. Along with threat level, your rating ties directly in to the celebrity system in the game. You are awarded celebrity status for being the highest-rated player, for having the highest threat level, or based on gameplay-related achievements such as the most ram raids undertaken or the most arrests carried out. Reaching celebrity status allows you to build statues of your character across the city or have your face plastered across Most Wanted posters and billboards. Clans can also be featured on billboards, along with gang colours and decals.
APB is currently in private beta, though there are plans for an open beta in the near future. Beta players have been inventing their own "meta games," which are not officially part of the mission structure but have been set by the community. One example we were shown involved the enforcers attempting to take a screenshot of each of the high-level criminals in the game after arresting them, and then posting the screenshots on community forums. Real Time Worlds told us that many features will be added after the game's release, such as motorbikes and sniper rifles, along with additional districts. They also told us there is a narrative behind the action involving the city's mayor, but they did not reveal any other details. APB is due for release in late June on the PC, with an Xbox 360 version to follow at a later date.