Two weeks ago All Points Bulletin was under lock-down. Scottish studio Realtime Worlds had walloped journalists with a review embargo that lasted for ten days after the game hit shelves, the industry equivalent of wrapping a game in a thick blanket of safety in case some tainted review penetrated its cocoon within the first week of its release. Generally speaking, MMO reviews are an industry sore point. Most require dozens of hours dedicated to play before a reasonable review can be churned out, resulting in error-prone overviews that often only cover a fraction of the actual game. All Points Bulletin bypasses this problem by having issues within the first five hours of play-time.
This is the third gangland-themed title to come out of the mind of industry bigwig Dave Jones, a game known casually to most as "that GTA MMO I read about". It's incredibly ambitious from the start: a massively multiplayer PVP effort with hints of Jones' previous titles embedded in the game's bullet-grazed environment. Jones had a key role in the first two GTAs, then again on Crackdown a few years later, and APB follows a similar parade of guns and stolen motors. But its ambitions are elsewhere, leaning more toward redefining the design aspects of MMOs than its PVP. The character creator is incredible, allowing Criminals and Enforcers to roam the streets looking like crosses between Dennis Rodman and the cast of The Warriors. It becomes obvious that APB has put its effort into honing its microscopic details. You can choose hair length, the heaviness of age marks, the opacity of makeup, the size of ears. You can design clothing and vehicles and edit together music themes to be played to opposing teams when you take them out in a gun battle. But the necessary elements for any MMO have atrophied in comparison.
You're in San Paro, hi and welcome. The city is split into three groups, the criminals, the enforcers, and the blanket of wandering pedestrians. Enforcers are the vigilante Justice League of the game; the guys with a heart of gold but who have enough of a rough edge to nick cars from women. Criminals are criminals; a race of bastards encouraged to graffiti on walls and shoot passers-by. Both factions are generally identical, fuelled on the PVP-based urge to shoot and kill, but the primary difference is the morality rating that encourages players to play their role accordingly. APB have swapped the traditional XP-levelling system for a Notoriety/Prestige rating that punishes the Enforcer who shoots up a crowd and praises the Criminal who does the same.
It's a basic focal point for players in a game that is continuously wobbling without any particular structure. Where most MMOs will prod you to keep moving forward, offering you a carrot-on-a-stick style of encouragement to get you on to the next level, the next talent, or the next boss, APB just hands you over another mission. It's a strange combination of menial traditions and exciting changes within the genre. APB will visually stand out from the fantasy-world traditions of MMOs but still push an incredibly familiar treadmill style of gameplay. Fancy picking up a package across the road? Good, you will. Spray graffiti, erase graffiti. Get to objective point A and nick a car. This is a free-fall rather than a climb through levels and ranks, because there is no story, nor do missions have any linear structure. Progress becomes a matter of finishing one assignment and beginning another while your rank rises and dips over time.
Group PVP missions suffer a similar problem and are marred by an overwhelming sense of unfairness. These contests aren't won because of tactical skill, they're won based on which faction drove to the marked location the fastest. With the objective points being randomly generated, the nearest players have the upper hand and will inevitably camp the area, picking out the stragglers who have arrived late to the party. It's unfortunate considering the lack of control you have over the latest car you've ripped from the hands of a local. APB's driving controls make every ride feel like your car is controlled by a 16-year old who can't quite reach the peddles.
Cornering is unbelievably sluggish, to the extent that you have to start planning your turn a good half-road before you reach an intersection. It's unwieldy and frustrating, particularly when you're working against the demands of a ticking clock; even when you're not colliding head-on with another vehicle, what should be a simple mode of transportation becomes an annoying hindrance to your mission.
Once you're in a fight it's a matter of shooting fish in a barrel, considering the lack of an established cover system beyond boxes and walls that you can dip behind when the bullets start flying. The shooting mechanics themselves are similarly awkward, amounting to pounding the correct key in the general direction of your target. Bullets can spray an enemy with little effect, meaning you can shoot to the head and your target will just keep moving. In a game that is largely about shooting other players this becomes one of the most blatant issues, effectively crippling the PVP experience unless you were lucky enough to find a place to perch on a roof.
This is a case of an MMO that will inevitably evolve within nine months time, but not before it spoils its first impression like an unwieldy teenager trying to impress a Compton street gang. The issues are issues that can be solved through patches, meaning APB is gawky but will grow. But despite RTW's attempt to keep reviewers honest with their week-long embargo, they'll have a hell of a time convincing players to stay on board long enough to experience the game as intended.