Mr Caldwell has been playing APB Reloaded. We asked him to tell us what he thinks about it. It's quite the story.
Right, this is the thing...
I recently met a couple of ex-Realtime Worlds developers (see this interview) who had been scooped up by Gamersfirst as part of the Big APB Bargain Buyout in 2010. They’ve since been set to work on making the MMO shooter free-to-play. Before the interview proper, they told me about the final days of the once-giant developer – after unenthusiastic reviews, poor subscription numbers and that woeful embargo business had crippled the company just three months from the launch date.
They told me how the administrators came in and stripped the place, how even the steel letters of the ‘Realtime Worlds’ sign had been seized in the shake-down. They told me about the leak in the roof and how they had to scavenge for equipment among the piles of keyboards, which the administrators couldn’t sell on, like in some surreal zombie apocalypse night terror suffered only by programmers. They told me how they were all gathered into one room as a list of names was read out, X-Factor style, detailing who would be staying and who would be made redundant. Over 150 people lost their jobs in what is still regarded as the most implosive MMO launch failure in history.
But that story has already been told. Having played APB: Reloaded I desperately want to tell you a new one.
A story about how a group of people salvaged the corpse of APB and resuscitated it. How they medicated and rehabilitated it into a perfectly functioning member of MMO society. I want to tell you this story because it’d be dead interesting and the squishy human side of my brain is screaming, “Christ, these folks have been through hell and high dole – surely they deserve a break by now.”
But I can’t tell you that story. Because the other side of my brain – the harsh, bastard games critic with a nigh-insatiable lust for Platonic perfection – is quietly saying something else. “Brendan,” it says, with a sceptical squint. “I don’t really like this game.”
Not that I think that of the whole game. There are some incredible components. The spread of customisation options alone should be carefully noted by any developer looking to enter the deadly MMO valley. You can customise your character right down to his or her acne scars and you can design your cars and personal emblem with the same freedom and creativity. The choice and potential for design creativity is almost debilitating. I was so stunned by the possibilities when it came to my car that I simply fell back on community affiliation.
The city as a whole is fairly uninspiring, with one skyscraper mostly indistinguishable from another and with none of the hyper-detailed character usually found in open-world cities of GTA or Saints Row. But, as was noted with the original, when you look closely you discover that all the flashpoints are actually very sensibly laid out. There’s always a method of flanking or surrounding an enemy team and useful shortcuts are everywhere. The geography and map design is definitely the last thing that will irk you about the combat.
On that subject reviews of vanilla APB didn’t hold back. Combat was stifled by the player’s ability to soak up bullets, poor matchmaking that put experienced players against fresh recruits, unresponsive vehicle handling and the same old missions nobody liked that kept repeating themselves. The problems, like Anonymous, were legion. And like Anonymous I should have expected them.
This is not to say some welcome changes haven’t been made – many things have been improved according to the devs. The starting assault rifle is much stronger and a good all-round weapon. Likewise, the beginner’s car is much improved. This is so you don’t find yourself out-gunned or out-manoeuvred by players who have been online for months and are better equipped – or by players who have simply bought their way to the top by splashing out on the best items. Supposedly, you will keep the starting weapon – the Star Assault Rifle – and the first car you get for the rest of your in-game life and they will always remain useful. Indeed, I saw a few players sporting the Jack-of-all-bullet-hoses even at higher ranks, not to mention that I probably got more kills with it than any other weapon I subsequently tried – and that includes the most expensive paid-for bad boys.
Yet to say this completely balances the combat would be optimistic. To make things clearer, I played the game with two characters – one: a perp on a premium. And the other: a filthy freeloading enforcer. Within an hour the premium character had grenades, a field supplier for reloading ammo, [actually turns out the lack of these things on the freeloader is a bug, see comment below - RPS] a needlessly speedy sports car and the best sniper rifle ‘G1 credits’ could buy (one you can sprint with, rather than trudging along slowly due to the weight).
It took me until level 18 with The Freeloader to be able to get a new sub-machine gun. At level 21 I still didn’t have any grenades or the field supplier like everyone else did. This lack of explosives alone means if my two characters were to meet in combat, the Premium Perp would likely trounce The Freeloader. Grenades get thrown around in the alleyways of San Paro like a pubescent boy throws popcorn at girls in the cinema. Frequently and with frightening accuracy. Only you can’t pick up the grenade again and eat it after it’s been in your target’s luscious hair with a sort of forlorn and furtive expression on your face.
Oh, whatever. We all did it.
Anyway, death by grenade is something to get used to in APB Reloaded, along with: death by sniper’s bullet, death by scoped AK47-thing and death by dump truck. The last one is most fun but also most rare. To be fair, I should say that I am woeful at this game. I can’t aim and I can’t navigate the city’s well-designed fire-fighting arenas. It was often blind luck if I got a single kill in any mission, so I often tried to be the go-to objective-getting guy. This was somewhat hampered by the fact that a lot of the objectives involve shooting people.
Let me explain. APB’s matchmaking system works by throwing you into a group and setting you objectives. As a criminal this might be to spray paint a wall or break into a house (well, a windowpane – the stolen item simply tumbles out). If you’re an enforcer, it might be to place surveillance equipment or to deal with criminal graffiti (by spraying more graffiti over it, obviously). Round after round of these objectives take place, all haphazardly connected in narrative terms by a tiny text box in the upper-right corner of the screen that you’ll never read. Then it usually culminates in a big fire-fight between you and the opposing side with Domination style positions to hold or a single player on your team allocated as a VIP to protect.
These missions are assigned to you continuously, so you need to press ‘K’ and turn off the ‘Looking for group’ option if you want to be left alone to do your own thing for a bit. “Why would you want to be left alone to do your own thing, you sad, sad, lonely man?” I hear you ask. Well, you cheeky scamp, because the endlessly repeating missions – each one strangely resembling the last – can get A Bit Much. A huge disappointment then that even the open-world crimes (designed to be perpetrated outside of missions) only amount to either mugging pedestrians or smashing up a shop.
As an enforcer, you don’t even have these as an option. In fact, the lack of mission variety is perhaps the biggest culprit among the game’s many delinquent designs. The much-hated ‘Escape’ missions, in which you simply had to go without breaking the law for a few minutes seem to be gone. But the rest of the mission variants are still offending with their repetitiveness.
So, ultimately if you want to progress fast then you’re trapped in a third-person CoDalike, except it lacks the absolutely watertight balancing act Activision pulls off with every release. The perks (‘modifications’ and ‘equipment’ in APB) take too long to earn and don’t act in the same complex rock-paper-scissors way as they do in competitive first-person-shooters. Instead they grant MMO-like bonuses offset with a specific check. For instance, higher level players will run around with Kevlar or Health bonuses, with a penalty to their speed. That might seem sensible, right? This is an MMO after all. No, not really. APB Reloaded is not an MMO. APB Reloaded is a multiplayer shooter stuck in limbo.
What happens is that the penalty for these modifications is so minor and the benefit so universally useful (as in the health improving modification) that it’s a no-brainer between which to choose. That’s if you’ve got some mods to choose from. The Freeloader still hasn’t earned a single perk. Come to think of it, neither has The Perp. The inadequacies – and I feel quite nasty for using that word but there you go – the inadequacies of APB Reloaded as a shooter are as blindingly obvious as the sun that perpetually shines down on San Paro. You don’t have the ability to choose a game mode or even a spawn point. All these flaws compound to make missions a weird chimera of dull A to B driving and an outdated scramble for kills.
Right, critical side of the brain. You’ve had your fun. Give Reloaded a break now, throw them something... just... just skip the driving...
No, sorry. I can’t. It’s terrible. Despite the best efforts of the developer to improve the cars and make them more responsive, there is still a very noticeable delay when driving. Perhaps only three-quarters of a second. Maybe only half a second. But that is more than enough to make you fling yourself from side to side. It affects every vehicle and is definitely not down to my internet speed, which is grand, thanks for asking. You can adapt and get used to driving half a second out of step with the roads but the only way you’re ever going to be a decent driver in APB is if you somehow develop the ability to see into the future.
All right, cool it now...
No. I can’t cool it. Don’t you see? These are problems which persist. So core to the game that they seemingly can’t be re-engineered at this point. The things that do have merit – the good map design, the astoundingly detailed customisation options that let you create your own character, or style your car in any unique way, or even create your own music with which to taunt a player you’ve killed – all these great things remain choked by a shoot-things-em-up which still hasn’t fully repented for its crimes.
It’s free-to-play, which means you should go and give it a shot anyway, because if you’re reading this it means you’re at least intrigued by the concept. Hell, maybe you’ll even like it. I won’t lie – there were times when I found myself smiling and laughing, genuinely engaged by the randomness and unpredictability of the street crime. I never felt more excitement in APB than in the moments I was running away from the cops, clambering over fences and sprinting like a Jesus lizard across open roads for fear of snipers. It’s just sad that those moments are so rare. If the ability to create stories the player can share is the surest sign you’ve got a great game, then this game is far from great. I have no stories from APB Reloaded.
Well, maybe one. It’s not the story I wanted it to be. It’s not the story I could spout with a cigar in my mouth like the Premium Perp up there, not a story of a criminalised game finally vindicated or a dead game brought triumphantly back from the void.
It’s just the story of APB. And that story has already been told.