Let's talk about customisation, shall we? Those occasions when a developer graciously hands the creative reins to the player, allowing them to inject a little bit of themselves into a game. While you'll never see a film with yourself cast as the heroic protagonist, customisation in the video game medium permits just such a thing - experiences where the main character can reflect the player's very appearance. Primarily it serves to increase immersion, enabling players to act out their fantasies as a sports star, warrior or super hero. Customisation also encourages creative expression, offering the tools to create unique artefacts that reflect an in-game identity.
Mass Effect and Forza are two shining examples of customisation done well, where player created characters are integrated into the game world seamlessly, and player created assets can be shared with an online community. For the majority of games, however, customisation is frighteningly superficial. Take Oblivion's remarkably in-depth character creation process for example; literally hours can be spent tinkering with skin colour, brow width, and cheek bone height, only to spend the next 60-odd hours slaying goblins and trolls in the first person perspective. What good is having a bad-ass looking character if nobody (including even the player) will ever see it? All too often customisation is irrelevant; a pleasant little time waster that proves to be only skin deep.
It took a trip spanning the length of the UK to do it, but my expectations for what can be achieved with customisation have been shattered. Sitting in Realtime Worlds' studio in Dundee, I was dumbfounded at the lengths the developers have gone to allow players to express themselves. APB takes character creation to dizzy new heights, allowing for changes to attributes you didn't even know existed. Asserting an identity is never as important as in an MMO, a notion that Realtime Worlds seems to have built its game around. While games such as WoW are populated by carbon copies of the same few slightly altered character pre-sets, APB's population will be brimming with diversity. A bit like real life really.
If you haven't heard of APB already, chances are you've been living under a fairly sizeable rock for the past few years; the game has been an important and frequently voiced topic of conversation in the industry. For the benefit of any unfortunate soul who has missed such talk, All Points Bulletin (commonly known as APB) is a unique blend of two very different genres - the MMORPG and an open world action game. The game can be summed up quite succinctly with just four words: Grand Theft Auto online, although this label isn't entirely accurate - a topic I address in my interview with Chris Collins, community manager at Realtime Worlds. In the fictional city of San Paro, players can side with the Criminals, or the Enforcers, in a sandbox action game where a war between two factions directly affects the city itself.
As Dave Jones passionately talked us through the game, he was keen to emphasise the word 'celebrity'; how each and every character will tell a story through their identity. Could a solitary player really become famous in an online game populated by millions of others? Jones argues yes. After noticing the city was populated with countless billboards and other advertising spaces, I was curious whether any real-world advertising would find its way into the game. Jones quickly dismissed the idea, adding that those spaces were reserved exclusively for the player. Should a player's fame or notoriety become high enough, they could find themselves the star of an advertising campaign promoted around the city. Never before has looking good been so important.
Customisation isn't restricted to just visuals, with audio too placed in gamers' hands. Passers by in social areas will be able to hear music blaring out of the car as you drive past, which can be imported from your own music collection. I'm personally looking forward to cruising down the streets of San Paro with a bit of Jimmy Eat World or Enter Shikari on the radio, bands that will help establish my own identity in the game. Car horns and sirens can also be customised, giving each car its own identity. More impressive than this, when one player kills another, a unique musical motif created by that character will accompany their death. The game even features a music editor to create these jingles, with an interface not dissimilar to the MTV Music Generator series back on the PlayStation 2.
All of these features can be accessed from the Social District, a unique area where players can meet, socialise, and most importantly of all, customise their identity. Character models can be changed in just about any way you can think of, from height and weight to eye colour and cheek bone structure. Freckles, moles and scars can be added to skin, and all manner of pigmentations can be applied. As well as changing your character's clothes, you can change the age of the fabric, allowing for everything from affluent mafia members to penniless street urchins. An in-game emblem editor allows the creation of designs that can be added to your clothes and motors - the symbol of a brand that could represent your clan or crew. This was fantastically in-depth, very much akin to a stripped down version of Photoshop.
Regrettably, I didn't get to tinker around with the majority of what I've just described. My time in the social district was frustratingly short lived, and I was instead shoehorned into one of the game's action districts. The Financial District was where I spent most of my time; one of two areas in San Paro where the main body of action takes place. Teaming up with a squad of friendly Scottish beta-testers, I took on the role of an enforcer, and was told to be on the lookout for law breakers.
If I'm being brutally honest, the idea of playing as an Enforcer was less than enticing, but Realtime Worlds has gone to great lengths to ensure that the law abiding folk are just as cool as their delinquent counterparts. The worry, though, is that if other players subscribe to the same train of thought as my own, the game world will end up horribly unbalanced - something Dave Jones quickly assured me wouldn't be a problem. "In the beta right now," he said, "I can tell you the split is virtually exactly 50-50." Encouraging news indeed. In a game like APB, balance couldn't be more important, with a world full of criminals and no enforcers, the game simply wouldn't work.
The life of an Enforcer involves accepting missions from 'contacts' (criminals can do this too), looking out for acts of thievery or murder, and chasing down wanted criminals. Enforcers aren't complete do-gooders, however, and can also 'steal' cars, jacking them in the name of justice. Riding shotgun while another player takes the wheel is particularly good fun, with an option to lean out the window and go to town with a machine-gun. Cars can be kept safe in virtual garages, and spawned from certain locations around the city. Vehicles can simply be stolen from the street too, of course, but they won't be as fast or well customised as your own.
I didn't get to play as a criminal (woe is me), but I'm guessing many of you will be interested in the role they play in the game. Being an open-world environment, San Paro plays host to numerous unlawful activities in which to indulge. Shops can be broken into, bombs can be planted, and pedestrians can be mugged. Such acts will raise a player's notoriety, and if it reaches a high enough level, a bounty will be placed on their head. Should this happen, all enforcers in the city will make a mad scramble to take them out, making it impossible to survive for more than a few minutes. I asked one of the beta-testers what the survival record was, and they reckoned no more than three or four minutes.
In short, the city supports the role of a criminal, and the criminals support the role of an enforcer. It's within this framework that the entire game is based. While the moment-to-moment action didn't blow me away, San Paro itself was a joy to spend time in. There's a lot to see and do, and the city feels vibrant and alive - presumably because it's populated mostly by real players. While with most MMOs, a character is merely another player; one more elven warrior in a sea of clones, APB manages to make each player feel unique. Each character has their own identity, a persona conveyed with more than just cosmetics.
Strolling around Realtime Worlds' studio, it's clear to see how much passion there is for APB. The game is a labour of love dating back well before Xbox 360 game Crackdown had even been conceived, a game Dave Jones has wanted to make for a very long time. Whether this passion will be reflected in the success of the finished product remains to be seen, but the refreshing departure from the standard MMO template in combination with gritty GTA-esque action will certainly get the game noticed.
APB will be released in 2010 for PC.