Review: Realtime Worlds' new MMO is from the streets, ya heard?
Realtime World's long awaited urban MMO, is finally here. APB (short for All Points Bulletin) takes the format to the urban sprawl of San Paro, a city wrought with crime where vigilantism is not just legal, but highly encouraged. The two warring factions are criminals and enforcers. Players make highly customizable avatars and obtain missions from NPCs (called ?contacts?). It's a unique blend of familiar concepts; think World of Warcraft meets GTA (or Crackdown, Realtime Worlds' previous hit). However, APB does go beyond the standard MMO trappings. In APB there are no low-level rat-stomping missions. Other than a brief tutorial, all missions assign other players as your allies and enemies. APB's effortless, dynamic matchmaking is its stand out feature, but not everything in the game is as well executed.
Some innovative design concepts aside, APB has been hobbled by its delayed release. Its combat just doesn't feel up to par. To be fair, there's stiff competition; the third person shooter has been experiencing a bit of a renaissance lately. Anyone who's played Gears of War 2 or Red Dead Redemption will find APB lacking genre standards, mainly a cover system, and the intense, realistic shootouts that come with it. The only thing compelling about APB's combat is the fun of playing with and against other players. Again the matchmaking, complemented by good built-in mic support, is the real star. Also, Realtime Worlds made a good choice in giving their MMO true twitch combat, choosing pixel precise aiming rather than RPG dice roll combat. The game is free of annoying, ?the computer says you missed, point blank with a shotgun? moments, but too many delays allowed them to get lapped by the competition. APB feels like a game from 2007.
That pinpoint aiming does get annoying when you lag, however, and it's likely you will lag. A Google search will find forums full of players searching for a solution to their latency woes. Nobody likes to get shot because they have a less than premium Internet connection. I can't fault Realtime Worlds for whatever monkey business is going on at my local Time-Warner branch, but other shooters such as Left 4 Dead 2 and Modern Warfare 2 do just fine on my home connection. Something even worse than aiming while lagging is driving while lagging. Turn the wheel and there's a good half-second or more before your car reacts. I don't know whether this is a client or server side issue, but the bottom line is it doesn't work, and needs to.
To my dismay, APB is also graphically outmoded. This is especially disappointing for two reasons; first off, APB is only on PC. Preparing a game for multiple platforms is a lot of work; sometimes features are dropped because they're too complex to translate. When a developer works with just one format there's an opportunity for real graphical depth (case in point Infamous, Uncharted, Gears of War, and Half-Life 2, to name a few). Sadly, this is not the case with APB. Again, its work that would have been passable in 2006, but now the many sharp online shooters available make APB look like a retro throwback, and not in a good way.
The second reason APB's graphics sadden me is the game's huge potential for style. It has a dauntingly in-depth character creator and customizable wardrobe, both of which look great when you're picking them out, but have shoddy in-game results. There's a reason your average APB avatar has neon clothes, tattoos, and an Afro. Only the brightest of color palettes, most cartoonish of facial features, and shamefully enlarged body parts ?pop? on the streets of San Paro, which are generally drab.
Not every avenue in San Paro is underwhelming. The social district, where users go to customize their characters, design new gear, show off their achievements, and, well, socialize, are impressive. They're a real step forward for the MMO concept. It's like Warcraft's auction house combined with PlayStation Home. There are clubs where players can DJ, places to spend hard earned cash, and monumental statues in the likenesses of the week's top scoring players. It's exactly what a ?persistent world? game needs, the only fault being that it must work in conjunction with the two action districts (read: combat zones. There's no fighting in the social districts.)
Yes, the standard MMO ?unlock the gear? rule is in effect. The nearly limitless customization available in the social district must be earned in APB's action districts. As I said before, there are no newbie missions in APB. You're playing the real deal from the get go, which is a double-edged sword. It means you'll be doing the same missions your whole APB career, the only variables being which of two action districts you choose and your teammates/enemies. The game's merciless PVP combat eventually becomes a grind from sheer repetition. Also, since there are only two action districts, you won't have many changes of scenery, at least until an expansion.
One place where APB does succeed is sound and music. The sound effects are on par, your typical cacophony of gunshots and car accidents, and and they are well executed for an MMO. It's the game's approach to a soundtrack that really stands out. From numerous in-game stereos (in your car or scattered about the social districts) you can blast any music of your choosing. A player within earshot will hear the music, if the song is on their hard drive. If not, Internet radio Last.fm will play a similar track. While I think most people would rather have others hear the song they're actually playing, I'm assuming that was some form of legal or programming nightmare. The Last.fm feature is a clever solution; you might just find your next favorite band through APB.