Realtime World’s much-touted APB arrives brandishing a concept so instantaneously appealing and uncomplicated that you’ll probably be wondering why nobody has attempted anything comparable before. Although the game’s development team (responsible for the peerless first Crackdown game and, lest we forget, the original Grand Theft Auto) have been keen to stress that APB’s much-publicised, high-concept conceit was something that they never proclaimed themselves; but that very shorthand is printed through the experience like a stick of rock. This is very much an MMO Grand Theft Auto.
The game’s plot is perfectly jubilant hogwash; the bureaucrats of the anarchic city of San Paro have passed a security act that basically gives a parade of mercenary factions carte blanche to fight crime. That’s it. You play either as a part of this lawless bloc (known as the Enforcers) or as a regulated criminal, and the game in its essence is merely an endlessly fluctuating (in both scope and difficulty) game of cops n’ robbers that takes place in an expertly-drawn and uncommonly fascinating MMO game-world.
When you join one of the game’s two action districts you pledge an immediate allegiance with a contact who is allied with your faction, and he or she will contact you with mission information throughout your time there. All of the missions are extremely straightforward, much in the same way as they were in Crackdown or even the vast majority of Grand Theft Auto IV – with primary interactions mapped to a single key. These missions merely present countless opportunities for the opposing contingents to face-off against one another, and the delight of co-ordinating a successful siege upon (or defence of) an objective is more akin to the pleasures offered by a refined sports game rather than a shooter.
Although the game feels superficially similar to the Team Mafiya Work or Team Car Jack City multiplayer missions from Grand Theft Auto IV, your actions here all have consequences that’ll come into play later, and a handful of very astute choices have been made to keep APB from deteriorating into instantly forgettable, slapdash tomfoolery. The most cunning is probably the vehicle handling, the intricacies of which have to be painstakingly discerned over a couple of hours at least. If you leap in and expect to be able to conduct a 100 mph getaway without having found your driving feet yet, you’ll be in for surprises that impatient players will find frustrating in the extreme.
The sense that APB gives you of being set in a fully-functioning, totally 24-hour world is also radiantly conveyed. Other players appear throughout the world almost constantly, and though you can’t interact with them directly (unless you’re a lawmen and get tasked with taking one down via an impromptu 911 call) the experience is imbued with a genuine sense of community. It’s even rather appealing on occasion (if it’s appropriate to do so) to just sit back and watch other teams in action, and also (if it’s appropriate to do so) gather some mission tips that may assist you in the future.
The game’s third zone is the Social District, and it’s arguably the area in which the game shines at its brightest. It’s basically a customisation lounge in which you can tinker with all aspects of your character and their vehicles, but the comprehensiveness of it, the daunting breadth of available options, means that not only will you spend your time in San Paro never encountering the same character more than once, you will also bear witness to the amazing (and often extremely funny) depth of user creativity. It’s one thing to get gunned down by an enemy in the middle of a dank city street in cold blood; quite another when that enemy is an unbelievably accurate personification of London’s dandelion-topped mayor Boris Johnson.
Despite the initially over-familiar nature of the visuals, several steps have been taken to ensure that APB’s appearance completely stands apart. One aspect that is destined to be completely ignored is the marvellous soundtrack, which is all John Carpenter-style synthesisers and foreboding waves of disorientating white noise. And the wonderful art style depicts a decidedly 1980’s vision of a crime-ridden society with such sharpness that you spend large portions of the game half-expecting Charles Bronson to wade into proceedings wielding his .475 Wildey Magnum.
APB is a product of some pretty momentous ambition, and while it does seem like a perfect console game shaped to fit a platform that it may not be best appreciated on, it does offer a singular and eventually compelling experience that may call too many other games to mind at first, but before long metamorphoses into very much its own thing. As with any MMO it feels disingenuous to judge it entirely at this early stage, but some completely stellar groundwork has been set, and the game, as is, is a pretty formidable prospect already.