I had a demo appointment with community manager Chris Collins for the following day, but I had to jump in early and get my hands on Massively's most anticipated game of 2010.
Almost immediately I could feel the strong connection to the later Grand Theft Auto series, which isn't necessarily a bad thing to me. I really enjoy the GTA games and it was nice to see familiar features, without those familiar features being UI ripoffs from World of Warcraft.
I should probably lay out a bit of a disclaimer here before I go any further: I like breaking stuff much more than I like doing missions. I have never finished a storyline in any of the GTA games I own, because I'd much rather jump my lowrider off of cliffs or run over pedestrians with a city bus. So when a friendly Realtime Worlds employee was kindly explaining the rules of the mission system to me, I opted to run over NPCs and blow stuff up instead. Yes, he finally moved on to someone else.
I did get a chance later to see how the mission system works though, and with my one-on-one demo with Chris Collins the next day, it all made much more sense to me. So what did I think?
Although most of the information I was shown in the demo was already known through press releases and the studio's 18 video podcast episodes, I want to touch on most of them here throughout this article to reiterate how incredible they really are.
We started in the social district, which is an area of truce between the factions. There's no fighting here, it's all about interacting with other players and customizing your look. This is where you'll do your auction house trading, show off your goods and generally... be social. These areas hold 250 characters at a time, which is very different from the open combat areas which we'll discuss later.
One thing that Realtime has been beating into our heads since the game was announced is the three Cs of APB: Creativity, Conflict and Celebrity.
It's no secret that the customization in APB is more extensive than you'll find in any other game, especially other MMOs. There seem to be two main schools of thought when it comes to making online worlds playable: more customization with less persistence, or less customization with more persistence.
The customization options in APB are well-known by now, so I won't spend 5,000 words explaining how vast the system is (although I could), but let me say that everything you see in those videos only scratches the surface. Not only can you add, tweak, stretch, color and decorate your character, but you can also do this to their clothes, cars and tattoos. If you're not particularly artsy, there are also options for ready-made items that can be unlocked throughout the game. These ready-made items can either be used as they are, or tweaked to your heart's content.
One thing that Collins wanted to make clear is even with such a vast customization system in place, they're careful not allow "freaks" in the game. The sliders move in tandem to what would typically be anatomically correct for a human being. This said, he did admit there are some Gollums running around the test servers now.
With vehicles, customization branches even further. You can change your vehicle's wheels, body kits, exhaust sound, horn sound, engine sound and even put sirens on the Enforcer vehicles. Although only four-wheel vehicles will be in the game at launch, Collins does hint at the possibility of motorcycles in the future.
From here, Collins quickly demonstrated some of the major features of the music system by entering a music creator where you can write your own music from scratch. This music can be used as your death theme that other players will hear when they kill you. We were treated to an excellent rendition of Axel F as beta players killed Collins' character while he sat idle explaining the system to me.
There's also a way to import all of your music and sort it through LastFM technology. If a player drives their car by you, blaring a particular song that you also have on your hard drive, you will hear that song too. If you don't have that song, but one from the same album, or artist or even genre, substitutions will be made accordingly.
What's interesting to note here is that the game will come pre-loaded with hundreds of tracks from lesser-known artists as part of a special program they've established to spotlight indie music. Much like what happened with Rock Band and Guitar Hero, this game should serve as a launchpad for those lesser-known bands.
So you can make your own unique clothing, car skins, tattoos and music in this game, but what if you want to do more with your talent? Luckily, this is where the celebrity part of the equation comes in. In APB, you can literally spend the entire game as a tattoo artist, creating your custom tattoos and selling them on the auction house. There are leagues and achievements set up to award you for having the most tattoos sold and you can become very rich and famous in the game for your abilities with virtual ink.
This also applies to everything else in the game. Want to be a famous musician, selling your original music to other players? You can do that. Always dreamed of being a fashion designer? You can do that.
Not only that, but you don't even need to be creative to be a celebrity in this game. You can win leagues and earn statues in the social district through combat and mission objectives. APB makes sure to do more than simply give you titles, they want to make sure you're aptly rewarded for being the very best, giving proper incentive as well.
Combat is very similar to that of the later Grand Theft Auto series. You aim, fire and hopefully kill your enemy. The game isn't based on stats or dice rolls, it's based on player skill.
Much to the delight of my inner villain, you can run people over with your vehicle. You can also crash your vehicle into shops to bust out the front window and loot the contents for a quick sale at a local pawn shop. As an Enforcer, you will be alerted (via an APB that flashes on your screen) about a crime in progress. It's your job to hunt down the criminal and either arrest or kill them, according to the quest objectives.
This is how missions work in APB, introducing a mechanic that plunges you into the action head-first. Once the objectives of the mission are met, you will receive special rewards, based on several factors, such as number of objectives completed and notoriety level of the enemies. Notoriety and threat are used in APB to measure how good you are at your job. As an Enforcer, you want to be the best at nabbing crooks and as a Criminal, you want people to know they can't mess around with Jim. There's also a witness mechanic in place to increase threat when one of more NPC citizens see you committing a crime. As a criminal, you can commit so many crimes that your threat stars are at five, causing a bounty to be placed on your head and your location to be visible to all Enforcer players. Once that bounty is collected, your threat will go back down to three stars. This threat level rises and falls throughout the game based on your actions and cooldown time.
Rewards unlock new customization options, but since the game has no classes or levels, you won't find any type of level grind necessary. These rewards aren't based on time invested, either. You only win rewards when you win the objective and losing gets you nothing. That way, everyone has a fair chance in the game.
Ammunition is something that you'll need to keep a close eye on throughout battles. You can purchase boxes of ammo, grenades and other weapons even during a mission. Not all weapons are lethal, though. Enforcers have access to stun weapons to be used for arresting and subduing Criminals.
Arresting is an interesting mechanic that's only available to Enforcers. It's a way to use non-lethal force to immobilize players for 30 seconds. When you kill someone, they respawn 200 meters away in 6 seconds, so you can see how arrests would be a bit more frustrating for the arrested.