APB – hands-on

But what of Johnny No Friends, playing all on his own? “I’m in the mood to play by myself, my friends aren’t on,” says Dave, phrasing it more kindly. “As a criminal, I might decide that there’s a weapon I don’t have. It’s going to cost me $5,000 to get it from my contacts, so I need to earn some cash. That’s very like an RPG – I just need cash to get the next item. So you might say, ‘I’ll steal a few cars, I’ll give them to the contact who’ll give me money.’ So you steal a car. But at some point the system might send an Enforcer out after you.

"If you’ve been playing the game a lot, you might know the guy. ‘He’s damned good. This is a guy who has a really fast car, so what I’m going to do is I’m going to stick to the backstreets, because I know this guy, I know what he drives...’ Because of the other players and the customisation, there’s suspense. Who is it going to match me with, when is the alarm going to go off?” The hope is that, even when playing on your own simply to attain a desired item, it won’t feel like a grind. It’ll simply be you playing a fun action game.

For Enforcers, the jobs will be different, but there’s still plenty of room for solo play. If there’s a single criminal out there in the world, stealing cars, then of course there’s going to be a single Enforcer out there, willing to track him down and take him out. The matchmaking system will bring those people together.

“We’re going to expand APB horizontally,” says Dave. “We’re not going to say what, but it’s going to be things you’re not expecting. There are many different types of games we can do that would be pretty interesting with 100 players.” Whenwe ask EJ later, he’s more forthcoming. “We all want to do Turf War - that was something that we’ve all been pushing. Doing a much more capture/conquest based set of districts where you persistently control territory. But we want to do it justice.”

If territorial control is done well enough, APB could become a small-scale, first-person EVE Online. It’s dangerous to be excited about a game based on what it might one day become, but it’s impossible not to think of the possibilities. The APB team certainly have.

“We could do districts that don’t have vehicles, so maybe it’s all on foot, with smaller groups, but for those people it’s higher fidelity physics,” says EJ. “Maybe we want to do a zombie thing, or put some PvE in where you have AI controlled opponents.” Even Dave couldn’t help talk about the possibilities a little, although this time with a variation that should be available on launch. Remember the mention of how anarchic a server becomes when you can kill those who aren’t on your mission? Those servers will exist.

“We have the chaos ruleset. To be honest, some of the best of the best groups of four will go in there specifically. They will say, ‘We want to survive.’ I don’t care if 50 people come after them. If 50 uncoordinated people come after those four, they’ll demolish those 50, they’re so damned good.”

EJ has even more ideas. “To us it’s a big construction kit. We know we can do this cool urban combat, but what else can we do with it? Could we make a racing game using the same vehicles, with players able to earn new custom content that you can bring back and use in the original APB?” Sure, sounds good. “We have a pretty good idea what we’re going to start with, but we’re not going set that until we see what people react to.”

Whether APB ends up being good, or being fantastic, is going to be determined by the feedback Realtime Worlds get from the beta, and their ability to react to it before release. Thankfully, Realtime seem to realise this, and the beta should run from now until the game’s launch in spring 2010.

“There’s an awful lot of tuning we’ve got to do,” says Jones. “Even just play patterns. We’re not an MMORPG where it’s very casual – you sit back, you can have a cup of tea and watch some TV while you’re fighting. People tend to play those games an awful lot because it’s pretty relaxing.” APB is definitely not the type of game you can play sitting back in your chair. Its pace has more in common with Counter-Strike than any RPG.

“So we’re not sure,” continues Dave. “Are people going to play for just a couple hours a night? Call of Duty for a couple hours is pretty tiring, so we don’t know what play patterns are going to be. Or are people going to be so into it, because we have progression and items to earn? ‘I want to earn this vehicle, so I’m going to play 4-5 hours.’ There’s a lot we just don’t know.”

This is why there’s no word on the payment model for the game yet, other than that it’s definitely not going to be a monthly subscription fee. EJ explains it like this: “I think we’re learning as we go, and I think that’s healthy because we’re not just assuming we know the right answer. That’s the thing that this company has defined for me, is that it doesn’t think it knows the right answer off the bat. It’s willing to try things and figure it out.”

Playing the game, it becomes clear that APB’s success is entirely dependent on its matchmaking being right. When fighting the QA testers, everyone was a higher level than us and our team. Our rating, measuring player skill and experience, had us at 12, where everyone else on the server was rated around 70. This meant that, while there were four of us, we’d frequently be pitted against just two enemies. The system figured that since they were higher level, just a couple of Enforcers might be able to take out the four of us.

This resulted in combat that at times wasn’t hard enough or fast enough or exciting enough. Again, Dave knows this is an issue. “Is one really good player really the equivalent of two new players? Two new players playing well can actually be quite a force. Two new players playing badly are just really easy.” APB feels like a game that’s teetering on the edge of greatness. If they can get it right, it’s going to be spectacular.

Nov 20, 2009