All Points Bulletin is something a bit different in the world of massively multiplayer gaming, and that in itself is a welcome experience. Set in the city of San Pero, it’s a massively multiplayer cops and robbers, where the players take the roles of criminal gang members, or the vigilante law enforcers whose job it is to hunt them down. There’s no grinding here. No endless bashing of level “x” creatures: in fact, there’s no bashing creatures at all, because any opposition you encounter is human controlled.
APB is a player versus player (PvP) game, but a controlled one. When you log in and hit the streets, you won’t be able to kill anyone (save for the CPU controlled drone pedestrians) or get shot yourself. As soon as you start a mission, that can change, and it will change as you progress through the six or seven objectives each task entails. At some point an APB will go out, and a police wagon will screech up outside those warehouses you’re supposed to be torching for the mob boss, four heavily armed player controlled enforcers will jump out and start peppering your gang with bullets.
Similarly, criminals are pitted against enforcers trying to complete tasks, and at regular intervals you’ll be offered the chance to oppose someone else in their mission, attempting to ruin their day for a change. It’s an excellent and very fluid system that skips any need to return to quest givers to cash in rewards, with missions offered on-the-fly over the radio. You can even switch which contact and organisation you’re pledged to – gaining standing with these unlocks new guns, cars and other goodies – on the go simply by clicking a character icon on the map.
It’s a shame that the tutorial doesn’t inform the player of that particular nuance, as it was one short-cut it took us ages to discover. In fact, the game’s flimsy ten minute training program barely tells you anything save how to spawn your vehicle. APB is very much a case of in at the deep end, not really explaining the game’s system of unlocks very well, and other key elements like how to shoot out of the window of a car when you’re a passenger (we ended up hurling ourselves from the vehicle when doing 70mph down the highway, much to the driver’s amusement). Similarly, enforcers aren’t told anything about witnessing or arresting.
Witnessing is a key you can press to tag a perp you’ve spotted committing a crime, so they turn PvP and you can then kill them for a bounty; or taser them, and arrest them (which is trickier, but earns bonus points). That’s the fun side of being the police, plus the fact that any criminals you’re engaged against are visible on your map and HUD.
The robbers, on the other hand, get perks of their own, such as the ability to nick any car they want and make cash from stealing them, or the freedom to merrily run over pedestrians (cops get penalised for this). Criminals can also mug passers-by, and generally get to cause havoc in a Grand Theft Auto fashion, although too much destruction and tomfoolery puts you firmly on the police radar with a bounty.
Once you’ve sussed out the basics of APB, there’s some marvellous entertainment to be had with the missions, providing you can find a group of players who have a bit of a clue about what they’re doing. Being in a gang of four, with one driving, the others hanging out of the windows with sub-machineguns peppering the enforcer van tailing you, while the driver skids through narrow alleyways trying to evade them… it had us literally giggling with glee at times. The missions are set against a timer, and it’s truly intense stuff, with some interesting tactics available to both sides, such as using vehicles as blockades. And admittedly some cheesy tactics as well, like the old classic camping on the rooftop.
At any rate, we certainly enjoyed our stay in San Pero, despite the realisation that APB hits some off notes in a number of places. As a hybrid driving and third-person shooter game, it doesn’t get either quite right. The driving feels a little too loose and slidey (though the exact handling varies depending on the vehicle, some are truly horrendous). And the shooter mechanics somehow didn’t seem smooth enough to us. Movement and aiming feels a touch jerky, and it reminded us of playing Rainbow 6 deathmatch on LAN many years ago. Both major aspects of the game are crafted well enough to be playable, but there’s an inescapable feeling that both don’t quite manage to fully hit the spot.
There are also some issues with the matchmaking system that decides which teams of players will face each other. More than occasionally, this seems to produce unbalanced and unfair teams, which can be disheartening for the lesser, more poorly equipped side.
We do also worry that with only two PvP areas of the city to explore at the moment, and fairly similar missions (many of which you end up repeating), players may begin to tire of the content that’s here before long. Then again, if you find a good crew to roll with and some well matched battles, the game always seems to be a blast despite the repetitive element. As to the high-end content, we haven’t quite got there yet, so can’t really comment on what life is like at the top.
As well as the two action districts of the city, there’s a social area too, and it’s here you can head to chill, chat, buy new weapons, cars and clothes, and customise them to your heart’s content. The customisation options are very wide ranging, so you can, for example, spray paint your name down the side of your vehicle in a stylised piece of artwork. Some of the cars and characters people have “pimped” up look fantastic, and you can even upload your own tunes to customise the in-car stereo system. There’s nothing like a drive-by machine-gunning to the beat of American Head Charge.
One final note on APB’s payment model, which does away with the traditional monthly subscription fee. Instead, you pay per hour you play, a good choice as it means players can dip in and out on a less regular basis without feeling they’re not getting value for money. You’re given 50 hours of game time in the box, and an extra 20-hour block costs £5.59. Or you can pay £7.99 for unlimited access for one month if you prefer that route. Incidentally, time in the social district is free, so you’re not forking out for tinkering around with customisation, the auction house, or just shooting the breeze with your fellow right- or wrong-doers.