Forget the hype. Forget the backlash. APB is not the Grand Theft Auto MMO that some of us dreamt of, but it's also no unqualified disaster. In bursts it is brilliant fun, yet it can also be deeply annoying, frustrating and disappointing. It's a game packed with ideas about where online games can go and what they might one day become, but it's also a game where many fundamental aspects just don't gel. APB is a game that will earn and deserve its own cult following, but will leave the rest of us wishing for the game it could have been.
In fact, the GTA comparisons turn out to be a big red herring. Yes, APB takes place in an urban, open-world environment and, yes, it features criminals, carjacking and cops, but in spirit it's actually far closer to a CounterStrike, Battlefield or Quake Wars: Enemy Territory than anything Rockstar has produced in the last decade. While there is plenty of driving to be done, APB is, at heart, a third-person, objective-based shooter. You really have to take it on those terms.
In brief, players sign up to the game and join one of two factions: the criminals terrorising the streets of San Paro city, and the vigilante Enforces who've been conscripted to clear those streets of scum. Launching into one of two action districts, you're called in to take on missions - either responding to requests from patrons who can advance your career, or to APBs that set you directly against agents of the opposite faction. At times your task will be to raid certain buildings, grab certain objects and drive them to certain drop-off points. At others it might be to capture and hold a position, eliminate specific enemies or spray over some graffiti. Whatever happens, it's going to bring you and your buddies into conflict with the other side.
In APB there are no AI enemies. If someone shoots at you, it's another human being pulling the trigger. At any point, the game is matchmaking you and your group against possible opponents, trying to make sure that you'll face a challenge worthy of your skills, and that the battle will escalate as each mission reaches its climax.
Now, APB handles some things brilliantly. There's never, for instance, any stress about finding a group of enforcers or criminals to join. Either you can set the game to automatically join you to a group, or you can accept APBs or backup requests as a lone wolf, drifting from group to group for a mission or two, then skipping to a new group when things get dull. You never have to locate a character to start a mission - they all come through on the radio - and you're rarely left without a means of travelling from one end of the district to the other.
If you can't steal, hijack or commandeer a vehicle, you can always find a garage that acts as a vehicle spawn point. Ammo can be purchased from vending machines around the district, and new weapons can be bought from key contacts, depending on whether you have the cash and the level to access them. Say what you like about APB, but it never forces you to backtrack, hang around or queue for some action.
And yet there are basic problems with the gameplay. Personally, we don't have any problems with the vehicle handling, which works pretty well with keyboard controls, and the sporadic vehicle chases and madcap rushes to a fight in progress are one of the big thrills of the game. The combat, however, just isn't all that brilliant. The likes of Battlefield, Call of Duty, Team Fortress 2 and Counter-Strike have had years to work out how to construct maps and balance weapons so that the action explodes at specific choke points, and so that no player or group of players has a clear advantage. APB still seems to be learning, and the result is a game that takes a while to get into, and never quite feels polished or fair.
In many cases, the side holding an objective point seem to have the advantage, and - as a beginner - you'll spend several hours racing into battle, getting shot to pieces in seconds, and returning to the fray, only to get shot again. Your experienced opponents will have better weapons at their disposal, and if there is a mechanism for pitting players of similar skill levels against each other, it doesn't seem to be working. It arguably doesn't help that each district is an instance, containing only 100 players at maximum, which means you'll spend hours running into the same goons, getting your face shot off, and trying to work up the enthusiasm to come back for another shot.
Given time, you will get better, but this is where the game's second problem comes in. At the moment, there's just not enough variety to the missions, and after the first few hours of play they all begin to blur into one. Now, you can say the same about Battlefield or Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike, but - maybe because the combat itself isn't so compelling - it's more of an issue here. The more you play APB, the more it becomes a game where flashes of brilliance are surrounded by stretches of repetitive driving and half-hearted shooting. Sure, a stream of new weapons, new cars to try and things to upgrade helps maintain some interest, but this isn't an online game that you'll be immersed in for hour after hour.
This is a shame, because APB is streets ahead of any other online game in terms of giving you the tools to make an impact on the world and build a lavish online persona. In just creating a character you face a staggering range of facial characteristics, hairstyles, body shapes, scars, age marks and beards, but then you throw in a huge selection of clothes - all customisable via a system of shaped decals - fully-customisable tattoos and jewellery, and the results are extremely impressive. Not enough? How about a death jingle, which you can sequence using simple software reminiscent of the old Amiga "tracker" programs, which will then play to every victim you ice along the way? How about customisable cars? You can even trade these with other players using the in-game marketplace, and earn your reputation as something more than a stone cold killer.
This sounds like the icing on a not particularly tasty cake, but as more players join the live game, customisation and what the game calls "celebrity" are going to become a big part of the experience. At its best, with oddly clad enforcers and criminals blasting at each other, multiple car chases going on in the city, vehicles exploding on the next intersection and a running gun battle taking place in the next plaza, APB can be brilliant, and unlike anything you've played before. Getting smoked by some hardcore twerp is one thing, but if the twerp in question has spent a few hours recreating some obscure chunk of eight-bit NES game music as his killer jingle, it's hard to feel too annoyed. At the moment, the celebrity aspect of APB is still relatively unexplored, and it's the thing that might turn out to be the game's saving grace. And while it's not the most graphically fabulous game, and certainly no match for a GTA 4, there's no question that APB has style.
Unfortunately, there is a real question over whether all this stuff is powerful enough to maintain your interest when the core gameplay just isn't all that fantastic. We're not sure. We find we like APB in small doses, and even quite compulsive for an hour at a time, but the more we play the samier it gets. And this in itself is a problem. APB gives you 53 hours of play, then expects you to pay £6 for additional 20 hour blocks. This model works in a game where you're constantly getting new content, new missions and new areas to explore, but in a game where the players are the content, the missions are variations on a theme and the city itself just isn't that inspiring a location, we can't see many players going beyond the hours they get free with the game.
APB has potential, but the core game needs a lot more work before it will have the appeal of a Counter-Strike or Battlefield, and while the customisation options are hugely impressive, that's not enough to maintain interest long-term. Don't write the game off quite yet, but this isn't as essential or exciting a game as we originally hoped it would become.