A burning car drives past on two wheels. A tattooed, nipple-ring wearing thug leans out of the window, firing back at a wailing police car. It's strange to think that this is happening because Realtime Worlds' creative director Dave Jones got pissed off at Dark Age of Camelot.
When MMO servers die they merge players from one server into another. According to Dave, it changes the game for too many people: he was once in a DAoC server that merged English and French speakers, creating a language barrier that soured the experience. He had a vision of an MMO that didn't need large server populations to survive, that would allow people to play in the way they wanted without impacting on players who were hoping for a different environment.
But the server technology Jones envisioned wouldn't really work for mediaeval fantasy, and he had already worked on Grand Theft Auto and Crackdown. APB was always going to about getting in cars and tearing shit up.
You can be a Criminal or an Enforcer in the city of San Paro. 100 players are drawn from a server population of 100,000 to fill a district and go at it. (There are plenty of options to select where you fight – you can let the game choose, follow friends or bring up a server browser.) Missions are selected by the Crims, and the Enforcers try to stop them carrying them out.
When I got to playtest APB recently at Realtime World's Dundee HQ, my team of four Q&A testers and I were given a mission to tag the city with spray paint. I jumped in a jacked car with one of my team and we zipped off. All around, things were happening: another van of Criminals was rammed by pursuing Enforcers, both teams fighting out their own mission that I couldn't take part in. To pass the time I leaned out of the window and started firing randomly at pedestrians.
At the tag spot I hit 'F' and my character started spraying the wall: the rest of the team took up positions on each side of the alley when the Enforcers start pouring in. It was a smaller team than ours, which meant the game's matchmaking software thought they were better players. My noob Criminal had probably brought our team's rep down a touch.
APB's VOIP works fine, so we talked about tactics. Shoot the buggers and run to the next waypoint seemed the most obvious route.
I'm not a fan of APB's combat. There's no regional damage for players, which leaves the game feeling unsophisticated when headshot instincts take hold and produce no obvious benefit against Enforcers or cars. I died. Lots. I also respawned far from the action, so I had to make my own way back. I hijacked a van to get there a little faster.
APB is big on celebrity. Realtime Worlds want players to become notorious Criminals or respected Enforcers. Their character customisation tools enable the creation of astonishingly diverse player models. The 100,000-capacity server tracks players on daily, weekly and monthly leaderboards at every level. Wherever you are, you'll know who the best players are. Which is how I knew that the game had sent an Enforcer after our gang who had been owning teams all over the server.
Uh-oh. That's what APB does best. It dynamically judges what you're doing and throws a giant, highly customised, improbably mohawked nemesis into the works, possibly named 'Spanner'.
My team headed for the next marker and I followed, keeping an eye out for the telltale red HUD markers of the enemy. In the end, when the Enforcers caught up with my guys I was able to hit them from behind. I drove my van into one and jumped out, again instinctively firing at an Enforcer's head. He killed me easily.
However frustrating, the game's missing headshots could end up driving the game forwards. Changing the rules of a 100-player instance is nothing to Realtime Worlds: they already have an alternative 'Chaos' ruleset running on a small percentage of beta servers, which lifts the ban on players shooting those who aren't part of their own mission. It's possible, and likely, that the main game will remain regional damage free, while a small group of servers will have this switched on.
The MMO side of things produces very interesting results. In the 25,000-strong beta, the Enforcers are on a mission to arrest every Criminal in the game, detailing their captures in screenshots. There's also the San Paro PD, a group of Enforcers roleplaying the game to the letter of the law. They look like cops, patrol, stop at red lights and have developed their own radio codes.
For an action game, APB is new and exciting, like an instant, car-skiddy version of EVE Online. The potential for user creativity is even more promising than ramming a car full of Enforcers down an alleyway in a purloined truck.
Global Release: June 28th
UK Release: July 2nd