Dave Jones is the face behind Grand Theft Auto I, II, and Crackdown. He’s the man who spent his career in the Nineties churning out classic Lemmings titles before becoming the High Muckety Muck of street crime games. For the last five years he’s been working to take this self-styled gang warfare to an MMO platform, but don’t let the happy Scottish face fool you: Jones might have the smiling eyes of a kind uncle but he’s the guy who made a career pin-pointing exactly what makes crime so awesome. His games are so reliably destructive and fun that it only takes looking at his newest title All Points Bulletin to ponder “Gee, I wonder how many cars I’ll explode this game?”
The studio calls Counter-Strike one of its primary influences but the game really is a flipbook through Jones’ career. Like GTA you peel NPCs out of their cars. Like GTA you’re driving through a modern-day city and dodging bullets shot by the trigger happy. Like Crackdown's Pacific City, APB is infested with roving gangs and putter-putter noises from assault rifles. The place seems so familiar it's like boarding a bus from Compton and then getting off in the rough part of the Bronx. Sure it's a different state, but Christ, are you sure we haven't been shot here before?
It’s a shame that none of this is actually gratifying in APB. The game might dole out guns and free vehicles but it also takes away the most necessary attribute of any MMO: incentive to actually play the thing. San Paro is a PvP gangland with no levels, no talent trees, no story, no territory to claim or any legitimate war between Enforcers and Criminals beyond its shoot-and-drive missions.
It’s an awkward attempt to make changes to tired traditions. MMOs are often reviled for the grind, the perfunctory level system, and the players to name but a few reasons. And naturally APB tries to abandon some of the genre’s deadweight tropes. So the traditional XP leveling system is gone and replaced by a ranking system of Notoriety and Prestige; essentially it’s a morality rating that rewards you for playing your role accordingly. A rank will rise or fall depending on how successful a Baddy is at stealing stash out of a building, or how successful an Enforcer is at picking up packages.
Unfortunately even as opposing factions Enforcers are pretty much in the same moral gray area as the Criminals are. Baddies will drive down a local main street in a stolen ambulance like petulant teenagers in a Volvo. Enforcers, APB’s vigilante-justice force, drive down the same streets in a 2-door piece of tin stolen from a criminal during a previous mission. The clearest difference is that Enforcers are encouraged to swerve when pedestrians intermittently dive in front of their vehicle and Criminals, on the other hand, are meant to keep their feet planted firmly on the gas.
The carrot on the stick is money and weapons that you can accumulate through hours of play. APB is asking for your time, not your talent, so where most games encourage you to at least perform or hone a skill the work you put into APB’s missions doesn’t correspond to the reward they give you. In fact, with most objective points generated minutes away from where you are, a mission will have often already moved to its second stage while you’re still diddling about in an intersection, catching up to teammates who had been closer to the objective begin with. It’s a strange and unfair silver lining that you still get rewarded regardless, along with the rest of your team.
But when a mission actually goes to plan the game can be a beautiful thing. A player might sound for backup on a mission and you’ll receive a notification requiring your help. Accept the mission and you’ll sprint down to the objective point to help shred the opposing faction or complete staged objectives. It’s the most exhilarating aspect of the game when it goes smoothly: a strategic online game of cops and robbers that requires legitimate interaction between players. The social aspect of APB is quite literally built-in with VoIP integrated into the game from the moment you join a group, building lines of communication between the lot of you.
In fact, the game is full of impressive, player-centric ideas. The customization suite alone is incredible for how much license it gives players to design their own characters, right down to self-designed clothing and short musical themes that play to opponents you kill. It offers the possibility of recognizing individuals entirely by a personalized van or their clothing. “The one in corduroy,” you’ll say “that’s BaseballFury,” which is a brilliant concept in a 100-man district. Unfortunately, APB’s bright ideas are all stuck on to a sinking foundation of basic in-game issues that should have been dealt with before anyone sat down to innovate.
Realtime Worlds might have desperately been trying to market this as a Persistent Online Shooter, not an MMO, but it still offers the simple and methodical repetition of every standard quest in an MMO of the last decade. Get across town within five minutes to steal a car. Work your way across the street in five minutes to pick up a parcel. Follow your map to a building down the block to clean a wall. But worst of all is how APB continuously manages to cripple the play of its own PVP missions.
Enforcer-vs-Criminal missions inevitably boil down to which faction can get to Objective A the fastest and as an added kick in the teeth, running happens to be the easiest form of transportation. Even after hours of practice, driving handles like you’re steering a mattress down rapids, forcing you to plan your turns entire yards before you get to an intersection. It’s erratic and requires an exorbitant amount of effort just to use a basic aspect of the game.
Unfortunately San Paro is prime real estate for anyone that comes to an MMO to camp on a roof, which becomes the primary tactic for any faction that reaches the significant point first. With no cover system in place, group-work on these missions is more or less a matter of hiding behind an object or shooting downward. Sure there is some gem of PvP in there somewhere, but you have to work far too hard to get there.
Jul 13, 2010
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