PAX East 2010 - Hands-On with All Points Bulletin
At PAX East 2010, we spent some time with Realtime Worlds' social media & community manager Chris Collins who gave us an overview of not only the types of gameplay players can expect when All Points Bulletin launches this summer, but also some of the many different ways character customization has been taken to all new extremes. If you haven't already done so, I thoroughly suggest that you check out both of our exclusive video interviews with Chris. For those of you who already have, you may be saying to yourself, "the game looks fantastic and the customization sounds awesome, but is the game actually any fun to play?" To help answer this question for our readers, I spent a fair amount of time blowing cars up, tracking down criminals and generally causing havoc at the playable demo stations set up at the APB booth throughout the weekend.
The booth itself featured a total of 8 demo stations - 4 with criminal characters and 4 set up as enforcers – and was generally packed with gamers eager to see the game in action. The demo stations were also logged into the live beta servers, and based on my experiences I'd say that the game is already looking highly polished and stable. Mind you I'm not sure what the exact specs were on the demo systems, but the entire time I played I didn’t really experience any noticeable lag or drops in frame rate, two things that can easily make or break a PvP shooter.
The first thing that stood out for me is that two of the more standard MMOG UI elements are nowhere to be seen in APB. First, there are no health bars on-screen to show you how much damage you or your opponents are taking. Instead, when you begin to receive damage the edge of your screen will begin pulsing red, growing stronger the more damage you take. What this does is it allows you to keep your attention focused on your target rather than an HP bar, which is important considering the dynamic and often hectic nature of the open world PvP. The downside here is that you also have no way of determining how much damage you're doing to your target, so at some points it seemed as though I could empty an entire clip into someone who would turn around and take me down with a single shotgun blast, all the while giving me no indication as to why I didn't seem to be causing any damage to them.
The other notable omission from the UI is any form of XP bar. That's not to say that characters don't progress in APB, it's simply handled in a different way than you may be used to if you come into the game from a fantasy MMOG background. Instead of gaining levels, players advance by unlocking new items for their character to use. These can range from the purely cosmetic like a new pair of shoes, to better weapons or even new vehicles.
If you consider that a level based MMOG assumes a liner, upward progression, I suppose the best way to describe progression in APB is to say that it expands outwards rather than upwards. Each new weapon or vehicle you unlock essentially gives you more options for how you play the game.
Gameplay itself consists of a series of dynamic mission scenarios rather than being completely open world PvP. In other words, while PvP battles can break out anywhere and at any time in the massive city districts, it's not a free-for-all. Instead, missions will be offered that you can either accept or ignore, but there are occasions when you'll be pulled into combat scenarios simply based on how you've chosen to interact with your surroundings. For example, as a criminal you may be out stealing cars or running over pedestrians which will eventually get you noticed, at which point an enforcer player may be dispatched to take you down.
The missions themselves boil down to a series of more task oriented objectives. One might ask you to break into a nearby vehicle while another might have you spraying gang logos on the sides of marked buildings. Completion of these objectives will help you advance the mission through various stages, but you can often complete the mission simply by killing or arresting your opponent a set number of times. It's an interesting way to give some semblance of structure to the PvP in the game, but at the same time it seems like there are too few different types of mission objectives which would no doubt lead to feeling a bit like getting asked to go out and kill 20 bears over and over again.
Thankfully the combat in APB makes up for the overall lack of meaningful mission objectives. If you're a fan of third person shooters, then the game provides plenty of dynamic PvP gameplay which, paired with the various item unlocks available, gives APB a much stronger metagame than had Realtime Worlds opted to go the route of instanced maps like capture the flag or what have you.
Solo play is indeed an option, but I got the sense that to get the most out of APB players are going to want to play the game socially in pre-formed groups whenever possible. Since the system will try and pair you up against players of roughly equal skill level when missions are offered, I would imagine a solid group would help insure that the game never gets stale and will feel much more dynamic over time. This also greatly increases your options for how to handle mission objectives as each player in your group can bring a different weapon or even vehicle setup to the party.
Overall, APB is looking in good shape for launch this summer. The game is stable, polished and the PvP is generally fun and dynamic enough that it shouldn't get stale for players anytime soon. Mission objectives do tend to feel somewhat superficial, but at the end of the day all they're really there for is to provide some semblance of structure to PvP. Gameplay also varies slightly for criminals and enforcers which may or may not lead to some long forum rants about balance (the enforcer's non-lethal weapons and arrest mechanic can get extremely frustrating as a criminal player) but I would expect that those are the types of things currently being worked out in the closed beta.