Realtime Worlds has been busy. After shipping Crackdown for the Xbox 360, they decided to create something a bit more ambitious. With David Jones, one of the creators of the original Grand Theft Auto, handling lead design duties, the developer has been hard at work on All Points Bulletin, or APB. Often referred to as the “GTA MMO” (though not by the developer), the game brings a number of fresh ideas to the table, hoping to mesh together shooters and MMO games into a persistent world never before attempted.
All Points Bulletin isn’t technically an MMORPG, something that Realtime Worlds has been attempting to convey since the original announcement. Instead, they've been advertising the game as a P.O.S., or persistent online shooter, in lieu of calling it something it isn’t. This new genre fits it well, as there’s little RPG about APB. The action is in real-time and there isn’t leveling in the traditional sense. Instead, players gain ranks for different factions, which unlocks additional gear and abilities. In order to do this, and because there’s no grind for experience, the focus of the gameplay is on completing missions, all of which involve player versus player combat. There are no singleplayer objectives to be completed, no group battles versus NPCs. There are no instanced missions, just nonstop, mission-based PVP combat in two large, open districts of San Paro.
It all begins with a mission offer, which pops up at the top of the screen. The missions are different for the Enforcers and Criminals (the two factions), though they still usually boil down to being sent to a location to complete a task. Generally speaking, this task requires players to stand on a pre-determined spot and watch an animation, which, after some time, will conclude, and begin the next step of the mission. While this happens, players on the the opposing faction in the area are offered their own missions; ones that that work against the other side. If the Enforcers are supposed to protect an area, the Criminals need to make sure they keep them away from it. If the job of the Criminals is to spray-paint some buildings, it’s the task of the Enforcers to see to it that they’re stopped. Each mission has multiple stages, and additional players are given the chance to jump into the battle as it is in progress, creating large, explosive conflicts. If it's unbalanced, one team can call for backup, which opens the mission to more teammates, creating even more sprawling battles, turning the streets into war zones. When everything works perfectly, it can provide some incredibly thrilling experiences. APB can prove to be more fun than just about any other MMO when it’s at the top of its game.
Perfection, however, is an infrequent occurrence. For each large, thrilling battle that takes place there are many that simply don't go as planned. Some are unbalanced, and have experienced players picking off newcomers with powerful weapons from a distance. Others are joined too late, and can be literally unwinnable due to the time left and the distance between targets. There are also times where the missions require a player to simply run from his foes, which turns out to be less entertaining than it sounds when it can be impossible to catch up. These issues are caused by the game’s insistence on player versus player conflicts, and, since there are no NPCs to fight, it means there are a lot of matchups for the sake of matchups, even if they’re uneven. More complex, varied missions, or the ability to simply fight against NPCs, would go a long way to creating a more entertaining experience.
As far as the actual mechanics of the gameplay, it essentially boils down to shooting at enemies and driving cars. They're both major elements of the game, and function fairly well. Players can jump into just about every car on the road, pile in some teammates, and go swerving around curves while their allies fire at opponents. This ends up being a high point in the game, and, while it would have been nice to see the developers go further and add in the ability to shoot through windows or take out tires, the car physics are actually fairly strong. When out of the vehicles, the gunplay simply isn't as competent. The hit boxes don’t seem to be all that accurate, be it because of glitches or lag, and the lack of a true cover system makes the otherwise advanced game feel archaic at times.
Beneath these issues lies something great, and an element that might be strong enough to save APB from falling into irrelevancy. When it comes to customization, no games in this, or any other genre come close to accomplishing what Realtime Worlds has. It starts off with an in-depth character creation system that allows players to tweak every element of their characters' bodies. While this element is fairly routine, it simply continues to get bigger and better as the game goes on. Everything can be modified and customized; cars, clothing, and the characters’ bodies themselves are canvases. Incredibly detailed images can be created using the game’s suite of options, meaning there is very little that can’t be done.
Every player can create his own style with few restrictions, something that adds to the competitive nature of the game. It lets everyone make a character that can be recognized and feared. Statues will even be erected in the game's third district, the Social District, of the best players. To top things off, there's the option to create short musical tracks that will play whenever an enemy is killed, and longer ones to play from car stereos for all to hear. The customization works together, and serves as the largest selling point for the experience. Everything created can be sold on the game's marketplace, too, which earns the player either in-game money or RTW Points.
This might sound confusing, and that's because it sort of is. At first. APB hopes to fight spammers by offering its own micro-transactions. RTW Points cost actual money, and can be spent on items and play time. While this alone isn't all that interesting, and most players will likely be fine without spending an additional dime, the fact that RTW Points can be spent on game time is one of the more revolutionary elements of the game. While a $15/month price is available, $7 will net 20 hours of play; perfect for the gamer who might not have that much time to play, but still wants the option.
Though, just as was the case with the gameplay, not everything turns out perfectly. The customization is great, and the graphics are usually strong, but the environments leave much to be desired. It's not that they're bad, per say, just that they don't offer any variation. The two different locations look nearly identical for 95% of the streets, and the Social District, which is where players can customize their characters, is lacking in content. There are also issue with physics glitches and texture pops, both of which make the game feel somewhat unfinished.
All Points Bulletin is full of potential. Sadly, retail releases need more than potential. Those looking to jump from another MMO are going to find the content entirely lacking, and those moving in from online shooters will find a third-person shooter system that feels incredibly dated. Some of the issues can be fixed over time, and regular updates will likely see the game gradually improving as time goes on. Other problems might be too difficult to patch, something that fans will find out in the coming months. Adding in additional mission types and cleaning up the combat could save APB, but, for now, it’s worth waiting to see if Realtime Worlds can fix things up. It's a shame, too, a damn shame. There's something very special here, and it would be a shame to see it wasted. Success or failure, expect to see APB replicated, ripped off, and copied completely in the coming years. It's revolutionary in many ways, even if it isn't actually all that great.