Monday, June 14, 2010

APB "beta" Preview

I preordered All Points Bulletin, the new Grand Theft MMO from Realtime Worlds.  The preorder comes with 2 chances to play the game ahead of release: the "key to the city beta" (read: a taste of the finished game so you can hype it to your friends) and an early start a few days before its release on June 29th North America and July 1 in Europe.  I played the PC version that I ordered through Steam.

First of all, there were still some technical issues with the download and launch of the game.  I'd recommend a boxed copy, which is the opposite of my usual stance.  You download the APB Launcher through Steam, but starting the game through Steam fails to open the launcher, requiring that you hunt down the file in a different folder directory.  Once the launcher starts, you are in for a (at best) 8 hour download of a 7 gig game.  The APB and Steam forums were both overrun with threads complaining about the download speed.  Then, once I let it download overnight and finished the installation, I still couldn't run the game from Steam, and had to hunt down the new launcher in yet another different directory.

I forgot most of that once I started the game. 

More after the jump.

It is pretty, and reeks of high production values.  After bad experiences with similar games on my decent PC, I was pleasantly surprised at how well the game ran even at passable graphics settings, at least in the tutorial, which was the only part I had time to complete.  Loading screens were a little long, but even those were full of animation and colorful art.  The game kind of looks like an 80s fashion designer spilled paint on a 2000s comic book artist's work.

I had been led to believe by previews that the game had a lot of customization for the look of your character, and the concept art of awesome-looking avatars was one of the selling points of the game for me.  Unfortunately, you start in a standard outfit, depending on whether you decide to join the Enforcer or Criminal faction (and the criminals start in an UGLY neon-green baseball cap.  Ugh).  I presume further customization is all unlockable.  The backstory, explained in quality voice-acted cutscenes, is that crime got so bad in the fictional city of San Paro that the government essentially deputized the citizens.  So now anyone who isn't a criminal is either a cop or a hapless pedestrian waiting for me to "accidentally" run them over.

The character-creation can be done simply, with a few options for muscularity and a series of randomized face/hair/scar combos to flip through.  You can also enter advanced mode, which is not kidding about being advanced, including such options as "eye tilt" and separate sliders for "frown" and "smile".

You load into a tutorial zone and immediately get offered a mission over your cell phone.  The UI is quite streamlined, and you never have to physically go to the quest giver to get missions.  A message simply pops up at the top of the screen telling you a quest is on offer, and you hit Y or N to accept or reject it.  Then a waypoint will appear in the environment with a number over it representing its distance from your current location.  Just run/drive toward that waypoint, hit F, and you're done (unless another waypoint pops up - some quests include a few objectives in sequence).  The missions had variations in set dressings - erasing graffiti, defusing a bomb, breaking down a door to a criminal stronghold and collecting bomb materials - but all amounted to identical gameplay: drive to the waypoint, hit F, wait a few seconds, done.  Mind you, this was just the tutorial.

The game plays just like Grand Theft Auto.  It's a 3rd-person shooter, and there are no action bars or skills, just weapons and shooting.  Driving is very similar too.  It's intuitive, but it can be tough to avoid pedestrians until you get the hang of it (hint: learn to use the handbrake).  In a nice touch, some of them yell at you in Spanish.  There's even a brief tutorial cinematic of how to play the game, and when it shows you "commandeering" a car, you can actually hear the owner yell "What the fuck?" as you toss them bodily from the vehicle. 

The sound design is one of the standout features I've been exposed to so far, with great voicing of pedestrians and interesting music playing from the radios of cars.  There are some nice details, like being able to hear your own muffled car radio as you approach your car (helped me figure out which one was mine as new players spawned Enforcer vehicles and left them all over the map).

I didn't get time to delve into the game proper, so a lot of the systems remain a mystery to me.  The tutorial tried to explain how I can amass levels and cash to advance my character, and I could gain reputation with questgivers to unlock more options in their built-in shops to buy weapons and such.  One interesting mechanic I did get to try was "pledging" to a particular questgiver.  If you pledge, limit yourself to only taking quests from that NPC until you break the pledge, but in exchange you gain rep with that NPC more quickly.

So far, APB has left a good impression with me.  If it keeps it up, I'll be glad I bought it.  The pay-per-hour pricing model is interesting, to say the least, but it seems like a decent deal.  You get infinite time in the "social" district, which I get the impression includes no questing, but shops and customization tools as well as chat.  You also get 50 hours of gameplay proper just for purchasing the game, which for me is much more time than I spend on most full-priced games or even the other MMOs I've purchased (sorry Aion and Champions!)  As long as that gameplay turns out to be good, I'll consider it a bargain.

I got to play the game back at PAX East, and I enjoyed the more advanced district PvP gameplay I was exposed to.  Each sector of the city would essentially become a locked-in arena for a certain number of players, matched based on advancement and skill (for instance, for every high-level criminal, there might be 3 low-level enforcers in the zone).  When more players are needed for a zone, an "APB" goes out to certain active players whom the game thinks would make a good match-up for the battle.  Objectives would pop up on the map for every player, and you'd all be in competition to reach it first.  In the example I played, criminals were racing to "tag" a certain wall with graffiti, while enforcers were trying to get there in time to stop them.  This led to what seemed to be pretty standard gunfighting, though I didn't get enough time with the game to really form impressions.

We'll see what I think once I make my way into the game proper.  Hopefully I'll be able to get a cool outfit soon!