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.