All Points Bulletin Review
At this year's E3, RealTime Worlds' action MMO All Points Bulletin was one of the most promising contenders. Designed by crime game expert, David Jones of Grand Theft Auto fame, it presented us with an action-heavy, stripped down take on the MMORPG, set in a violence-ridden city where players pick sides in a battle between self-appointed law enforcement and common criminals. I played it then briefly, and really enjoyed it. Unfortunately, having spent the last month with the game I've found APB is a little like tequila. One shot is good-- more than that'll make you sick.
OK, maybe that's harsh. APB does have some good things going for it. For one thing, it has one of the most comprehensive character customization setups you'll ever see. The game features three districts and in the non-PvP Social District, you can customize 'till the cows come home. Surprisingly complex editors allow you to change your hair, body, weapons and clothing, customize your ride and create a custom musical theme that plays whenever you kill another player (you can use presets or make your own—it's admittedly pretty hilarious to get killed and then hear the Terminator theme). You can also create your own custom symbols—logos if you will—that can be used in game on cars and clothes and can even be sold to other players. As a result of all these options, you'll see some amazingly cool and brilliantly whacked-out characters running around in game.
These additions add a lot to the MMO concept. Where RealTime Worlds goes wrong is in trying to strip away what they see as the “dull” aspects of the MMO genre. They've removed story, exploration, grouping, abilities, and leveling and in doing so, have also removed a hefty chunk of the fun. Beyond the intro movie which sets the game's historical context, APB has no story. Neither the setting nor the missions do anything to flesh out the fiction and so the context isn't particularly immersive. There's no reason to explore because everything takes place in one of three smallish urban districts: the Financial, Social or Waterfront, all of which are fairly similar in look and feel. There's no grouping in a meaningful sense; when you accept a mission you're immediately put on a team of like-factioned individuals and there's not much in the way of planning or cooperating. Everyone just dashes to the objective, shoots at one another, dies, respawns, and dashes to the objective again. Because of this, no matter what mission you're on, the game feels like one endless, disorganized Death Match.
As I said, character customization is pretty cool in APB but in the end, it's mostly cosmetic. Skill trees are nonexistent, and so the only upgrade to your abilities comes from the types of weapons you're allowed to carry. Leveling is replaced by the ideas of Prestige and Notoriety and the ultimate point of the game is not necessarily to become more powerful, but to become as famous (or as infamous) as you can. You gain Prestige by completing missions for faction NPCs and you gain Notoriety by committing crimes in front of witnesses. Paradoxically enough, public criminal action is actually a bad thing for a criminal, since more visibility means more Notoriety and more Notoriety means lower faction rewards.
RealTime Worlds may have thought that becoming a famous Criminal or Enforcer would be enough motivation to spend hours with APB, but without an overarching fiction, exploration, leveling or incentive to build in-game relationships, there's not much reason to play the game. After a few hours you realize the missions are extremely repetitive, even more so than most MMO missions are. Depending on which side you're on, they seem to all consist of spraying graffiti or wiping it off, and guarding or defending various points. And all missions are timed, which makes for some strange happenings. Sometimes you'll lose a mission before even reaching the objective and other times you'll win a mission without having to do anything. Neither is much fun (although you get rewards either way). Another wrinkle in the repetition problem is that it doesn't much matter which side you're on. It's really cool to imagine an epic battle between heroic lawmen and nefarious criminals, but the in-game reality is, aside from it being mildly interesting to arrest an enemy rather than kill him outright, the behaviors and goals of both factions are far too similar.
The last fun-obstructing issues APB suffers from have to do with the setting's seeming shallowness and less-than-great social aspects. There's not much in the world of APB that you can interact with—for my money, jumping fences and grabbing floating boxes doesn't count. There's not much you can do with the NPCs either, unless you count mugging them and hijacking their cars. Then there's the in-game community. Everyone knows you have to have a thick skin to play competitive online games because the anonymity of the 'net seems to encourage bad behavior, however, most games offer some incentive for cooperation. APB doesn't really do that, and even though it's a “mature” title, its context seems to have brought out the abusive fourteen year old kid in everyone. Yeah, I know...every game has its share of a-holes, but it seems APB, with it's “be a famous criminal” tagline, seems to have attracted every loud-mouthed jerk within range of an Internet connection.
APB is a collection of seemingly solid ideas that disappointingly, just doesn't gel. By creating interesting factions, incredible character customization, fast action and a unique urban setting, RealTime Worlds tries to emphasize the cool factor of the MMO genre and overcome the more tedious aspects of it. Sadly, repetitive, shallow gameplay and a more or less non-interactive world cripples the fun and then the obnoxious in-game community more or less finishes it off. My advice—you're better off fulfilling your dreams of becoming a famous crime lord by skipping APB and replaying Grand Theft Auto IV.