"The biggest obstacle I think APB faces, period, is the difference between what people have put in their heads already and what APB is - because it's so simple and it's so easy to make a comparison to what's out there, to say, oh, it's a GTA MMO."
EJ Moreland, APB's design lead, is sitting in a quiet antechamber of Realtime Worlds' spacious offices in Dundee. The soft-spoken American ex-pat has just put his finger on the public relations mountain that this highly unusual online game from the makers of the brilliant Crackdown has to climb. He's also just said the two words - well, acronyms - that everyone else in these offices is desperately trying not to say: GTA and MMO.
Given APB's urban gangster stylings and ambitious plans for a social, persistent online experience, it's not hard to see why these two touchstones have been a common crutch for press to lean on when trying to describe it. I've used them myself. And it's also, surely, a mouthwatering pitch for any money-man regarding the twin gaming colossi of World of Warcraft and Rockstar's blockbuster crime series - especially given the fact that creative director and studio head David Jones was one of GTA's founding forefathers, and Realtime Worlds is infused with DMA Design's DNA.
But, in terms of moment-to-moment gameplay, APB really doesn't have much to do with either. Before talking to EJ I spent a couple of hours pinballing around the game's open-world, 100-player gangland skirmishes in the shabby city of San Paro. I screeched between dynamically matchmade gun battles while leaning out of the window of a custom car, sirens wailing, as one of the game's cool-cop vigilante Enforcers. I raided and defended, crouched and took cover and aimed down the sights of my gun at rival teams of criminals.
Despite the city setting and point-to-point car-jacking missions, the experience was almost as far from GTA's everyman action gaming as it was the skill-bars, cooldowns and number-crunching of an MMORPG. If anything, it was a halfway hardcore online shooter: like being involved in an epic, fragmented game of Battlefield or MAG, or a Counter-Strike where the lobby is a 3D city you can drive around. Only, it's not like most shooters in some important ways - notably the fact that it doesn't allow headshots, to discourage sniper culture. It's a twitchy game with no RPG underpinnings whatsoever, but you're still wearing people down rather than picking them off.
Ready for some more contradictions? Realtime isn't steering clear of the MMO tag purely to avoid connotations of class-based, hotkey-punching combat and interminable quest grind. With instances of all three of the game's areas - the skyscraper-lined streets of the Financial district, the multi-level warehouses and dockyards of the Waterfront, and the non-combat Social district - being limited to 100 players, it can scarcely be called massively multiplayer.
Or can it? These instances are limited in size by what's fun, and what's possible with current netcode and server hardware, given APB's free-wheeling and fast-paced gameplay. But you won't be tied to just one; in fact, you'll belong to a "world" of up to 100,000 players, larger in scale than almost anything this side of EVE Online's single universe. You'll be free to interact and join games with all of these players, including communication across the Criminal/Enforcer divide. And crucially, you'll be able to trade.
MMO communities are bound together by the games' economies as much as any other feature, and APB is proposing an ambitious and thrillingly different market based around creative skill rather than crafting and harvesting mechanics. Its foudnation is the game's insanely detailed customisation - of logos, graffiti, clothes and vehicles, as well as of your own avatar. Although there is a base economy of ammunition, weapons and the like, Moreland expects that the big-ticket items will all be player creations.