For a long time APB has been a mystery. Realtime Worlds was established in 2002 by David Jones of Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto fame. They set out to make a game for the PC and Xbox, with a release target of 2005, that would be the culmination of everything they had always wanted to do with GTA. At one stage there was even a rumour that the game would be a Rockstar-owned Grand Theft Auto MMO!
2005 came and went with no APB release or any hard info on what the game would be and Realtime Worlds instead put out Crackdown in 2007. Speaking in February 2008, Jones said that he expected APB to be released later that year as a 26 player online game and drew comparisons to MMOs like World Of Warcraft. Two months later it was announced that the release had slipped to 2009 but it wasn't until a fortnight ago that the game eventually went to stores, five years behind schedule. That's rarely a good sign.
So, what the devil did APB turn out to be, after all of the speculation and guesswork? Well it's certainly not an MMO, despite its subscription model. Instead think of APB as a multiplayer third person shooter with driving elements. It's as if someone took a chunk of the map from one of the recent GTA games and modded in cops and robbers multiplayer, only they managed to spill digital coffee all over the code for shooting and driving and had to try and figure out how to re-write it based on the soggy smudges it left behind.
APB does put its best foot forward with its character creator. It's a very powerful tool in the right hands and offers similar customisation options to the sort you'd find in the Forza games. Nicely tactile sliding scales determine general shape and height and through layering an assortment of symbols you can create just about any design your imagination can throw at it and apply your creation to clothing or tattoos. Unfortunately my hands might as well be on back to front and I instead created a chubby policeman in a shabby T-shirt and joggers with a facial expression that suggested he'd arrived at the doughnut shop just after it had closed. "Aww, damnit. Again?! :("
I was the saddest cop in San Paro but my first evening with APB was off to a hilarious start. Half an hour later there'd be tears in my eyes and I'd forget how to breathe.
The game begins with a tutorial and some "talk to this guy," "go here," "press this key" instructions. It runs through that routine a couple of times to introduce its almost identical mission types and then abruptly stops holding your hand. Very abruptly. It seemed like the perfect moment for the game to move on to telling me what the next step was after two minute fetch quests but, as it happens, that's just about it.
A basic round of APB will play out like this: You'll be running around the Financial District when a mission prompt pops up at the top of the screen with the option to hit Y to accept or N to ignore. You'll take the mission because there's bugger all else to do and a waypoint will appear on your HUD. The objective is miles away so you acquire the nearest car, flashing your badge to the foul-mouthed, Hispanic occupant (that's right, voice actor - me and my GCSE Spanish know exactly what you just said!), and you proceed to either swerve directly into a wall or roll your car on the first bend. Escaping from the burning wreckage, you decide this driving lark just isn't for you and set off on foot.
Meanwhile a group of people on the opposing faction have been given a mission to stop your mission. While they try to locate you, you arrive at the first waypoint. Your task is to raid a gang hideout. Awesome! You produce a personal battering ram. Awesome!!! A bar fills as your battering animation plays out. On completion the door doesn't fly open to reveal a room full of baddies for you to deal with. The door stays shut. Hold on, that's just a texture after all! A floating parcel appears and you pick it up. Your thrilling raid was successful. That'll be quite a story for the boys back at the station.
Your new objective is to deliver the package to the next waypoint, but what's that red icon on the minimap? Uh-oh, the criminals sent to disrupt the mission are getting closer! You wonder if another car might be necessary to out-pace your opponents, then remember that terrible shopping trolley with only three wheels that you had to use at the supermarket the other day and how it still handled better than the cars in APB. You continue on foot and see a bright yellow shape on the horizon. It's getting bigger! No, it's getting closer (lessons learned from Father Ted). It... it... is that Spongebob Squarepants on its bonnet?!
The car races towards you with mohawk-wearing Mad Max extras leaning out of the back windows, firing guns that make your starter pea shooter suffer severe performance anxiety. No matter, the way the back end of that Spongecar is sliding around there's no way they'll be able to hit you. The real danger is the car. It skids from one side of the road to the other and back again as you run from side to side, trying to guess where the safest spot will be. There's no escape. It's going to hit you. Your life flashes before your eyes. Remember that time you used a battering ram on a flat door texture? As you die an 8-bit version of the funeral march plays. You've never laughed so hard at a video game.
The game always has that feel of a slightly wonky mod where anything can happen, but when you're paying by the hour I suspect that you'd probably want a more well-made game. Let's address that unusual subscription system. When you buy APB from a shop or download it from a site like GamersGate it'll set you back about £35 - more or less the same as any AAA PC game. The difference is that instead of owning that game for life, with the ability to play for as long as you want, whenever you want, you only get 50 hours of APB game time. Once that 50 hours is used up you'll no longer be able to access the gameplay districts; limiting you to just the social district until you cough up another £5.59 for the next 20 hours of gameplay. It's a bit cheeky for a game that absolutely isn't an MMO and has questionable rights to demand on-going payment but, to be honest, I'd be willing to bet that most people who buy APB will never use up the first 50 hours. That's a lot of time to spend in a very repetitive game with limited depth, unsatisfying combat, and impractical driving.
The same thought may have occurred to Realtime Worlds as just yesterday they published a statement that based on the complaints, suggestions, and requests they've received during beta and since the game's retail release they've assembled a "copious" to do list. They've pledged to revisit core areas of the game that have left customers cold, including "almost every aspect of combat - how it looks, feels and sounds, as well as weapon characteristics and tactics" and they've promised "a major overhaul to vehicle handling." If continued development can deliver the improvements they've outlined then APB may yet warrant some subscription renewal money.
Until then the "free" social district gives you all of the areas of the game that really do work well out of the box. I'll admit that my cack-handedness left me unable to produce anything remarkable with APB's car paintjob customisation, clothing design, or music creation tools but I can certainly see the potential for fantastic results. I hope APB's lasting legacy will be in a move towards greater customisation in multiplayer games to avoid that tendency for high level players to all wear the same loot. When Realtime Worlds tell you that you can create a unique character with a unique look, they're not just blowing smoke. If, however, you're especially proud of something you've designed then you can sell it on the in-game marketplace and allow other players to look just like you. The downside is that you'll need to have a knack for design software before you even get to APB's tools because they are advanced and there's very little help text to get you started. You'll use trial and error to create your first cacophonous "I've just killed you!" melody or eyesore of a vehicle.
Speaking of which, the ugliest things in the game will be the weaker player-created stuff. The game as a whole looks pretty sharp and runs fairly well but the recommended specs do ask a lot of your rig. They suggest 4GB of RAM and a 2.4Ghz quad core processor with a Geforce 8800 or better, so this isn't one for Casual Carol to play on her work laptop. As an aside, the initial download is over seven gigs! If you get it as an impulse buy, you'll have got bored and moved onto another source of entertainment before that download's done.
APB has certainly made me laugh, and that's a great quality for a game, but unfortunately I was laughing at rather than laughing with. If and when Realtime Worlds deliver the changes they've promised, this one will be worth another look but, until then, I wouldn't recommend it.