Calling all cars

June 30, 2010 by Tim

During this past E3, I started to feel like I was the only one who really didn’t give a shit about Milo. He was a neat tech demo at last year’s show, but was it really that big of a deal? Were people really that excited about the idea of this as a game?

I’m watching all the coverage, reading all the news, and while I’m thinking to myself “Where’s my fucking next-generation Road Rash?! Where’s my Power Stone reboot?!” all I see are journalists talking about how Milo was nowhere to be seen at the Kinect presentation, or how he was absent from Lionhead’s materials, etc.

Even weeks after E3 the concern of whether Milo is or isn’t going to be a real game is news, and I just can’t bring myself to care. Maybe I’m alone, or maybe it’s just a slow news day. But I’m not joking about a new Road Rash. Someone needs to get on that. There’s a big hole in my heart that can only be filled by swinging chains and crowbars at fellow motorcyclists.

Speaking of random vehicular violence, I’m playing All Points Bulletin (APB). While my little rant on Monday sparked some very interesting and enjoyable debate on the forums and my inbox, today just want to talk about the game itself, and not whether you agree with its subscription methods.

I’m having a blast with the game. I particularly enjoy that if I only have twenty minutes or so, I can still jump on, get a few matches in, and have a lot of fun. Conversely, I can easily spend a couple hours in the game with a great group or playing with the image editor.

APB is a giant game of cops and robbers, set in an open world city. One of the developers put it best: It’s the criminal’s job to wreak havoc on the city, it’s the enforcer’s job to wreak havoc on the criminals. Take an open city with NPC pedestrians like GTA, add in MMO elements like persistant, customized characters, and skill-based shooter gameplay, and you’re starting to get the idea.

APB is a fun game, but it’s not a perfect game. It doesn’t have a ton of maps to play in, it doesn’t have incredibly engaging storylines. I’ve seen some people complain about the balance of certain weapons, but I don’t tend to delve too deep into that stuff in a game like this, and people bitch so much on forums it’s hard to tell what gripes are legitimate.

What APB does best is set the stage for a fun time. There are no NPC opponents. Make no mistake, this is a one-hundred percent versus shooter game. You can accept tasks (which really amount to “go here, bring this here, defend this position,”). These tasks are straightforward, and boring when completed with no opposition. But they aren’t there to entertain you in and of themselves, like you’d think of quests in a standard MMO. No, these tasks are there for the sole purpose of giving you something to go to war with other players about.

If, as a criminal, you accept a mission to go pick up some drugs and bring them back to your hideout, somewhere else in the city an enforcer (or group of enforcers) are getting an all points bulletin dispatch to head out and stop you. And this is where the fun comes from. You may do the same “deliver the drugs” type quest a dozen times, but the battles are always different because all of the situational factors are always different. Like any other shooter, you may play the same maps over, and over, and over again, but no two matches are exactly the same. It’s the player vs player that makes it fun, and that’s what APB is about.

Not all combat is centered around a goal. Sometimes it’s just about taking down high profile criminals. Kill them X number of times before they kill you X number of times. But when it takes place in a big city, where you can hop in cars and tool around, or go into buildings and hole up, it makes for a lot of fun (and the occasional frustrating) matches.

Rather than traditional MMO levels, you work for contacts (like in City of Heroes). The more missions you win for these contacts, the higher your rank with them gets, and the more guns and cars you can purchase. However, as it’s a skill-based games, the equipment only effects the combat so much. There is a little gap, but I’ve never seen it cause a problem. In the beta test, a group I was in was dispatched against a criminal who had clearly been playing for a while. So much so that that game sent three of us against this one dude. And we had trouble taking him out, but with teamwork and coordination, we were able to, despite his better equipment.

So the combat is fun, but really, that’s only half of what APB has going for it. The other big draw to the game is the customization aspect. And while the character creator is fantastic, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.

A few years back, Forza 2 came out with a decal system that let people decorate their cars. I don’t even play technical racers, but after I saw what people were doing with this tool, I had to try it out. So I picked up the game, I made a few cars, and then never touched it again. Well, this tool has finally made it into a game I want to play.

In APB you can use a variety of basic shapes, in layers, to create custom logos and artwork. You can then apply this artwork to your character as tattoos, your clothing or your cars.

The game also has a great MIDI tool that allows you to create songs to play while driving (you can also import MP3s to listen to in your car) as well as five second theme music that will play for your opponents when you kill them. Just this morning I was killed by a dude who had the A-Team theme song.

So not only does APB really let you customize your in-game experience, you can also throw all this stuff up on the in-game auction house. And if your stuff is really good, you can put it on the auction house for Real Time Worlds points, which are the same points you use to buy in-game time. Theoretically, you could subsidize your play time by selling your in-game artwork, though I imagine it’d have to be pretty fancy to get people to spend RTW points on it.

Speaking of RTW points, APB takes a new approach to the MMO subscription by offering an hourly option. You can still pay for a flat monthly rate if you think you’re going to play enough for it to be worth it. Or, you can opt to only pay for the time you’re playing.

The game comes with fifty hours of Action District time. You only use up time when in Action Districts (where the fighting takes place). There’s a Social District that you can hang out in, chat with friends (criminal and enforcer alike) and do all your customizing to your decals, clothes, cars, etc, and this is 100% free. Fifty hours of Action District time will likely last a while. I know that personally I probably won’t use up the fifty hours in the first couple of months.

But if you do, you can pay $10 a month for unlimited time, or $7 for twenty hours. Now, if you intend to play casually (as I do), the hourly option makes an incredible amount of sense. Frankly, I wish more companies offered hourly as an option. And if you run out of time in the middle of a heated match against some criminals, the game will wait until you’re done and then move you to the social district. Neat, huh?

APB takes some fun, fast-paced, shooter action, and mixes it with lots of fun MMO-style customization. It’s rough around some of the edges, but it’s also got a pretty solid foundation to build on. You’re not going to grind raids to get gear, there are no elaborate stories to take part in. There are no elves. But if the idea of tearing around a city in a car decked out with funky personalized decals, while your friends hang out the windows shooting at the bad guys sounds like fun to you, you could do worse than check out APB.

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