Hands-On: All Points Bulletin

I have been following All Points Bulletin (APB) ever since Real Time Worlds released Crackdown, then announced that they would not be working on a sequel, choosing instead to focus on their new online shooter. Disappointed as I was, I was intrigued by what the team could do with their new IP. This weekend at PAX East I was finally able to get my hands on the game and I was blown away by what I saw.

All Points Bulletin (APB). A real-time persistent open world third person online shooter. Sounds like an MMO right? Wrong. This game has no stats and no levels. There are no endless hours of grinding and interacting with nameless NPCs. In fact, the game itself has no A.I. (more on that later). At the helm of this whole thing is Dave Jones, who became renowned after his work on Grand Theft Auto, revolutionizing the sandbox genre. With all of this promise and pedigree, its an understatement to say that I made a beeline for their booth as soon as I got into PAX this weekend. What follows is an account of my time with the game as well as information from the developers who were present.

The booth had several terminals set up and allowed gamers to play as either enforcers or criminals. At its core, APB is basically the old game of cops and robbers, but turned up to 11.

If you have ever played a shooter game on the computer, than you will feel incredibly at home with the control scheme. All the basics regarding movement and shooting are mapped to the keys and mouse buttons you expect. Beyond that, the “F” button is the general “use” button and helps your character open doors, climb fences, assault pedestrians, pick up items and hijack cars. This level of simplicity works really well for a game that at times can take on a frenetic pace. The last thing we need is complex button combinations and control schemes to remember in order to execute maneuvers.

I started off as an enforcer. The reason they aren’t called cops is because they act more like mercenaries than the boys in blue. The controls were smooth and it was easy to just pick up and get going. Before I knew it I had “borrowed” a vehicle and was speeding toward one of the many mission points that appeared on the HUD. Missions break down into a number of different categories. For enforcers, it can include guarding a vehicle or area or, for instance, disarming a set of bombs. Generally the missions take on the form of protecting the citizens of the city. For criminals the missions involve causing unrest, robbing banks, and stealing items. There are a plethora of mission types, but I was not able to see all of them as most become available with progress in the overall story. Criminals and enforcers can also be called in to other missions as “back up” when your allies need it.

As I said before, there is no A.I. in APB. Every time you engage in combat with a character, you are fighting a real person playing the game somewhere. Players are broken up into districts with 100 total players in each, 50 criminals and 50 enforcers. With all of these people roaming around you’d think it’d just become a PvP frag fest. To prevent that, all players that are not in your immediate party or are adversarial appear grey. You cannot simply walk up to people and attack them. However, as I soon learned, I was able to briefly derail another criminal assault by ramming one of their vehicles en route to its destination.

Once a mission is active, the game will grab other players in the district who are working on a similar mission and put you together in a group. When this happens the opposing side will send enemies against you to thwart your efforts. Some of those grayed enemies become red and the fight is on. Higher renowned players on either side are free to engage into any ongoing combat that they see in progress, and enforcers who witness criminal acts can intervene on the fly. This is where APB really begins to shine and show its potential.

During my play tests, I had three other players working with me to protect a car that the criminals were trying to destroy (the other players besides those at PAX were beta testers who have been playing for weeks). The four of us teamed up and the game set three criminals against us. Why only three? Because those characters had higher notoriety and rank than us, so the game gave us the advantage in numbers to try and make the encounter equal. While there are no stats or leveling in the game, you will gain ranks and “celebrity” as the developers called it. In fact, there might be times when your group of enforcers or criminals will be matched against a single adversary because of their prowess within the game world. In fact, if you gain enough fame and cause enough trouble as either a criminal or enforcer, you can incur the highest rank of “heat” similar to those systems you find in GTA. Instead of sending bots and A.I. after you, an all points bulletin goes out to the entire district and every single player on the opposite side will be set against you, with the player that kills you earning a massive bounty reward.

While you can’t level up you will find upgraded weapons and items that can improve your fire rate, etc. However the real emphasis was to make it so that the game was based on how good are you at video games instead of it being able how well you are able to grind through mission after mission trying to accumulate the best loot.

Getting back to the play tests, we quickly were able to overpower our opposition, but that did not mean victory. They were able to call in back-up, effectively sending a message out across the district to other criminals calling for their help. We responded by calling out for other enforcers and what started as a 4 v 3 engagement quickly turned into around 8 v 8 combat. It’s that type of escalation that creates real excitement within the game and keeps the momentum in a constant state of flux.

Later on, I switched to playing the criminals. There is really no difference between the two as far as playing the game is concerned. The controls and abilities work pretty much the same. There will be different customization options for both sides. Teamwork, while a huge factor for both sides, seems like it will be more prevalent on the enforcers side. I could see the criminals faction being composed more of lone wolves who have more experience playing the game. There really isn’t any true indication of that, it just seems that the philosophy behind the two factions points more in that direction.

Speaking of factions, clans and groups are a huge part of the game and not just on the combat side. Customization in APB is in fact more amazing than the game play itself. Clans can create their own unique outfits and tags that they can place around the game world. While driving around I saw “PAX East” tags that were created and surprisingly even the Ghostbusters symbol. When asked about copyrighted material in the game, we were told that if a company calls with complaints about their use in the game, that the developers would work to facilitate a solution between players and companies. They aren’t just going to simply say no. This applies to all created content and it was stressed that the game is rated Mature, so unless the material being made involves hate speech of some kind, don’t expect the developers to legislate every little thing in the game. A refreshing statement for those that feel that games that are developed for mature audiences shouldn’t necessarily have to comply with standards set for younger audiences.

Customizing goes beyond creating tags and t-shirts. Characters and cars can be tweaked to the umpteenth degree. The tool set available to players rivals that of the developers themselves and people who excel at customizing cars, weapons and clothing in the game will be rewarded the same way players who excel at killing and completing missions will be.

APB is still in beta at the moment, and may be expanding soon so feel free to put in an application (I wish I could put in two). There is no set release date at the moment, but it is expected to be announced sometime in the near future, E3 perhaps?

APB might have been the single most impressive game displayed at PAX EAST. With other contenders like Mafia II, Red Dead Redemption, and even the aforementioned Crackdown 2 in house that is lofty praise for sure. Yet, there is no doubt the guys over at RealTime Worlds are looking to turn the online PC gaming community on its head and even reinvigorate the online shooter as they go.