Hands-on with APB

Note: While APB has been confirmed as still coming out on 360, a release date and game details are unknown. This preview focuses on the PC version.

This MMO is a lot of things, but right now it’s a remake of Heat, as performed by The Muppets. It all began five minutes ago as we casually hung around outside a parking garage as our colleagues stole a van up on the third floor. When they drove off a conveniently placed ramp and tilted delightfully downward into the midriff of a passing pedestrian, an APB was called out on us.

We sprinted over the prostrate, spread-eagled body of the deceased innocent and leapt into the back of the van, then hung out of its sliding door as the A-Team were once wont to do. Within 30 seconds we were spraying machine gun fire at the four pursuers that the match-making system had judged were foes of equal ability to our quartet of lawbreaking scum.

We tumbled off the highway and smashed into the side of a skyscraper, and then fought a running battle through a street of exploding cars while giggling like maniacs. In short, when it hits its own sweet spot of insanity, APB is the game we’ve been dreaming of since 1997: the first day our two little feet hit the top-down sidewalk of Liberty City and we gunned our very first civilian in what we imagined to be his face.

The first decision you’ll make in APB is a binary one: will you play as a Criminal or as an Enforcer? Crims can get up to hijinks within the sandbox districts of San Paro, while Enforcers are out to stop them. Both factions run amok on servers containing up to 100 players, whether amidst the high-rises of the Financial District or gunning their vehicles over the rooftops of the Waterfront. Criminals mug people, steal cars and drive them to dodgy dealers,or simply murder members of the AI population, and as they do so their notoriety will climb through five levels of wanted-ness.

Depending on civilian reports and the heat associated with a crim’s name, the game’s mainframe will call out an Enforcer player judged to be of a similar skill level (or perhaps two or three who each account for a fraction of the greatness of the villain’s whole) and the chase shall begin. What’s more, to ensure the highest level of fun-ness is suckled from APB’s almighty teats, both factions will be roaming in groups, each hollering at a bound gang of chums over VOIP – the Enforcers out to inflict their own brand of justice, and the Criminals watching thecops gradually amass in theirside-view mirrors.

Let’s not run away with ourselves though, as once the character creation Enforcer/Criminal divide has been crossed there’s still a way to go. Simply put, APB has the most powerful tools yet seen in an MMO to sculpt the persona you want to carry through your travails within San Paro. Fiddling with your appearance is a slider bar orgy of muscles, visible veins, age, chest hair and ear orientation – after which you’ll appear in nothing but a pair of boxers in APB’s social district.

This is the one area in which Enforcers and Criminals can hang out together, trying to maintain conversation while nearly-naked faction members with wonky half-done faces are continually born into thin air over by the customisation terminals. At these terminals APB’s wondrous self-improvement systems go far beyond simple pointing and clicking at garments: they allow you to design your own symbols and fonts to use as graffiti, tattoos or car decals in-game, to buy and customise vehicles in which anything can be fiddled with from the noise the siren makes to the symbols on the hood, and finally to create your own audio in APB’s very own sound suite.

APB’s avatar customisation tools are mindblowing. Observe the four areas you can fiddle with:

The basic physical attributes of your character can be tweaked in every conceivable direction: from the colour of your nail polish, to the visibility of the veins running beneath your skin via the number of wrinkles, scars, moles and pockmarks that are scattered over your face. Big hair is also available.

You can either purchase clothes with ready designed symbols and colouration, or if you’re something of a fashionista you can do the design work yourself. Everything – from gloves and goggles to trousers and tops – can be tweaked or imprinted, and the catalogue of clothing rivals even major department stores'.

Designs made in APB can either be used to decorate yourself and your car, or shared with your clan so you can all hit the streets in the same nattily designed threads, or indeed, the same graffiti spray. This is where APB’s design tools start getting a bit more complex, so it’s likely good designers will make a killing at the auction house.

Here you’ll be able to deck your car out in the chosen colours of your particular crib, as well as fiddle with the fender and, if you’re an Enforcer, attach whatever brand of flashing lights you might fancy. How Realtime Worlds are going to stop players branding theirhoods with goatses is as yet unknown, though they probably won’t be pleased when someone does.