I wouldn't want to live in the city of San Paro. Packs of pierced and tattooed criminals speed about the streets, chased by equally adrenaline-filled peacekeepers desperately trying to rid the city of its delinquents. Fortunately, this crime-filled metropolis is fictional, so my current tour of duty there isn't life threatening, though it can be a bit harrowing from time to time. Welcome to APB, developer Realtime Worlds' first foray into the (sort of) massively multiplayer market. The game was just released this week, and I've been cavorting about as a ginger-Mohawked enforcer, bringing criminals to justice while admiring my sweet leather jacket as I hang out car windows like a streetwise vigilante. It's too early to tell whether APB deserves the key to the city or whether it should suffer in skid row, but in advance of the review, I thought I would give you a quick look into my life as an enforcer.
Perhaps APB's greatest selling point is the amount of customization on offer. Initial character creation is robust, but it's after you get in the game that this aspect starts to boggle your mind. Here's one game in which you can make sure your character looks nothing like anyone else. Using a Forza-style editor, you can use basic geometric shapes and decals to modify not just the vehicles that you buy, but also your clothing. As you gain favor with your various contacts in the world, you unlock more decals (and of course, new weapons and clothing as well). But you aren't just personalizing your looks: You can also use a simple in-game sequencer to create tunes that your victims hear upon defeat. I haven't made any fancy clothing just yet, though I did purchase a sweet "Assassin's Jacket" some player made with a familiar logo on it. (If you know who Altair and Ezio are, you know what I'm talking about!) I've spent more time in the midi sequencer and created a fun, short, and slightly discordant version of a tune from Ms. Pac-Man for my kill tune.
As for the gameplay, many of APB's ups and downs are obvious within a few hours. You perform missions for your various contacts to gain favor with them and unlock new goodies, which generally involves grouping up with other players and performing mundane tasks while shooting up the rival players assigned to opposing tasks. The game makes it easy to hook up with others, assigning players to groups automatically unless you choose to turn that option off and run about with players of your own choosing. You might get about 10 players on opposing teams on some occasions, though more frequently, there may be four of you. Missions are easy to take: The group leader receives constant mission invitations no matter where he is in San Paro, and when he accepts one, the team rolls out. The game will (hopefully) then match your team up with a competing team--enforcers versus criminals.
The massively multiplayer aspect applies to the world at large but not to the action. There are firefights going on all around, but I can't shoot up criminals willy-nilly--only members of the assigned opposition, unless there's a bounty on someone's head. It's certainly an interesting dichotomy: large-scale environments with all small-scale shootouts. Some traditional online shooters like MAG, Modern Warfare 2, and Bad Company 2 feature action on a much larger scale, so don't go into APB expecting massive battles. Nevertheless, it's undeniably cool to hang out of a passenger's side window, shooting up the rival team's vehicle as it pursues my team's van, hoping to murder our VIP. It's less cool to be the driver, only because the vehicles, at least at this stage, aren't much fun to drive. They either feel like heavy boxes on wheels or like you're speeding around on streets made of banana peels. Luckily, as with weapons, you earn upgrades for your own vehicles, which you can spawn at designated points throughout San Paro. I'm interested to see how vehicles improve as I earn these upgrades.
I'm also interested to see how the action improves once I gain access to some awesome weapons. You may find yourself up against some pretty tough rivals, using your puny early weapons to shoot up guys with upgraded gear. It can be frustrating to unload a ton of bullets in someone, only to get taken down in a few shots. Things are a lot more fun when teams are on level footing, but there's no guarantee that you'll have a fair fight when you first start. At least the game keeps you moving from one mission to the next, so you won't lack things to do. They do seem to always be the same things, however, and I'm looking forward to seeing if APB develops a greater sense of forward momentum. There's not a lot of story or world/character development, so the game relies on the promise of better weapons and customization options to keep you invested.
I haven't run into a lot of lag, which is fortunate, but I have encountered some craziness in the launch week. Busted animations and texture pop-in haven't affected the gameplay, but they can still be distracting. On the other hand, certain bugs, like capture spots located inside level geometry, can keep you from finishing missions. Another glitch allows you to unlock countless stuff if you stay logged in to a clothing customization terminal. (Now you know why dozens of unresponsive players are all huddled around those machines in the social district!) However, I haven't had any logging difficulties, and lag spikes have been rare for me, so there is some sugar to sweeten the lemonade.
Look out for a review of APB in the next week or two. In the meanwhile, if you'd like to party it up in San Paro with me, send me a private message on GameSpot; I'm on the La Rocha server!