APB – hands-on

Dave Jones’ initials are tattooed across our nipples. We have a mullet, a moustache, aviator shades and a belly that arrives in a room a few seconds before we do. “Players are going to have to think very carefully about who they want to be,” Jones tells us. “You can be a psycho, quiet, on-the-streets kind of killer. You can be a Clockwork Orange character, going around with classical musical playing. It’s cool that we can give people the power to be who they want to be.”

We don’t tell him we want to be the guy with the nipple tattoos. APB, or All Points Bulletin, is a towering thing. A persistent open world action game in a city of crime, vigilantes and haircuts. It’s almost an MMO: cops and robbers with 100 people. It’s the game Dave Jones has wanted to make since he left Rockstar North – developers of the GTA games – in 2002, to found his new company, Realtime Worlds.

Some players in APB will spend hundreds of hours with the character creator, even if they spend little with the game itself. That’s allowed. The city has three districts: the Waterfront and Commercial districts for combat, and a third social area where people go to talk, organise and customise.

“I played a lot of classic online games,” says Dave, “which at that point was really RPGs. I think you have to play those to understand what keeps people there for a long time... People love to be different from everyone else. I’m not into the stats-based thing... you spent the first 100 hours of the game just getting to the same level as everyone else. I wanted to remove the grind. I knew people want to be unique in looks and abilities, so let’s make it that people can customise themselves, but let’s not tie it to stats.”

This doesn’t mean everything is given to you for free. When you start the game, you’ll be able to fiddle with your physical appearance until you’re the burly female wrestler you’ve always wished you were. But when it comes to defining yourself further through fancy clothing or complicated tattoos, or by pimping your ride, you’ll need to unlock the items first.

“We’re about three core pillars: the celebrity, the creativity, the conflict,” says EJ Moreland, APB’s lead designer. APB turns out to be the city of Tyra Banks’ dreams. This is a place where people don’t care whether they’re good or bad, as long as they look cool doing it. Everyone has ridiculous haircuts, extravagant clothing and multiple tattoos. Everyone is on display. Your progress in this world is as much about making yourself look awesome as it is becoming more powerful.

Together, APB’s creative tools are enormously powerful in letting you shape your own experience. Almost worryingly so. We’re played a selection of clips taken from songs made from the built-in music creator. There’s the suspenseful piano of the soundtrack to the TV show Dexter. There’s the theme from Mario. All of the tracks they play are duplicates of copyrighted music.

Realtime Worlds aren’t worried. Dave Jones is quick to point out that when Marvel sued NCsoft for the ability to create their superheroes in City of Heroes, it was NCsoft who won. Players will be able to stage live performances in the social district, triggering the different elements of their created songs and broadcasting to other nearby players. APB is filled with fun little ideas like this.

In the game, we’re teamed up with three other players. Realtime Worlds have a 50-strong QA team, and they’ve been playing together in company-wide playtests for months. If we’re to survive, we’re going to need help. Our team leader approaches a contact to get our first mission. Contacts are NPCs who offer jobs to Enforcers and Criminals, the game’s two sides. Each has two subfactions with their own motivations and backstories, but the overall justification for the fighting is the city having put out a call for vigilantes to help maintain order. The Enforcers are far from traditional police officers.