Mark Rein, star of the maddest thing we've ever published, is a lot of things. He's a former id Software play-tester. He's a vice president of Epic Games. He's a shameless promoter of Unreal Engine 3. He's a fantastic conversation. Today though, Mark Rein is a cop.
He's helping Realtime Worlds demonstrate APB, playing through a series of missions with the game's community officer Chris Collins, and everything's going as expected. He's wearing a grin, and a button-up shirt with a big Unreal logo stamped on the back, and he's drawing our attention to the fact APB runs on Unreal Engine 3 in his usual, friendly showman's patter - with the usual, inflected trace of apprehension, as though he can't quite believe he gets away with banging on about Unreal Engine 3 all the time without someone slapping him. The only difference is that he's leaning out of the window of a sportscar firing an assault rifle.
Because Mark Rein isn't just playing as a cop - thanks to APB's quite staggeringly awesome character-creator, he actually is the cop. The cop doesn't just look like Mark Rein, he's unmistakable. If I ever see Mark Rein climbing up a ladder to empty a clip into a gangbanger at close range in real life, this is what it will look like.
But I'm not here to see the character creator again, and I'm not here to see Mark Rein (who himself isn't here - he's in the 20-minute gameplay video I'm watching in a private EA theatre at PAX, but his voice is brought to us by a discrete audio track of him and Collins commentating on their actions, recorded previously). I'm here to finally see gameplay from APB - Realtime Worlds' 100 per cent player-versus-player MMO, where 50 Enforcers and 50 Criminals do battle in each 'district' of a 100,000-strong server, being constantly matchmade into battles against one another as their mission arcs are literally brought into conflict.
APB plays out like a standard third-person shooter. You move around and jump with the keys, hit an action button to enter cars, climb ledges and interact with things in the world, scroll through weapons with the mousewheel, right-click to zoom and click away on the left button to fire. The missions at PAX involve transporting briefcases to drop-off points in an armoured van, getting into gunfights amongst freight cars on railway sidings, and stuff like that.
APB, though, is clearly a thoughtful and accomplished shooter. There's a grand old full-screen map of the city, San Paro, but there's no need to show us this because the interface - uncluttered by MMO standards - directs you with an economy of widgets and gizmos. Accepting a mission is a simple yes/no prompt. The top-right of the screen shows instructions and how many stages there are to the mission. On-screen arrows indicate the position of team-members, relevant items and objective markers with unexpected clarity.
Mark Rein (he mentions Unreal Engine 3 within 20 seconds, incidentally) says in the audio track that it only took him about an hour to figure out the arrow system, and I can see what he means - arrows twist and change shape to represent changes in height and direction relative to your position and orientation. There's no mini-map, but there is a bottom-right compass, which will show up markers for other players but only when they do something - like sprinting or firing a weapon. If they hadn't mentioned the fact there's going to be a regular big map, I wouldn't have thought to ask about it - the game doesn't call out for one at all.
Speaking to me afterwards, Chris Collins admits the game won't have the verticality of Crackdown, Realtime's Xbox 360 side project of a few years back, but says it matches and betters other contemporary open-world standards. There's evident variety in vehicle handling, armour levels and speeds, adding a bit of dynamism to car chases when battles go mobile, and combat situations are full of players crouching behind cover and clambering over the surrounding level furniture for a superior vantage point, all while a handsome day-and-night cycle (about eight real hours for a full one) bathes the reasonable draw distance of San Paro's waterfront district in a procession of dusky hues.
But it's the fact of the other players that distinguishes APB. They aren't just working through the content like you are; they are the content. They're responsible for the enormous variety of outfits and vehicles, their actions have unlocked the diversified weaponry that characterises your mission-based combat, and thanks to some cunning VOIP software, their real voices will fill the air between gunshots if you're within a logical radius. Even their taste in music determines the game's atmosphere: thanks to last.fm technology, a gangbanger cruising by in his SUV fills the air with hip hop; he may be listening to Dr. Dre, but you might hear NWA if last.fm's matchmaking tech decides that's the closest equivalent on your hard disk. When you die, you hear death music they wrote in the music creator.
For all the interaction, on servers running the standard ruleset you can't just mess with players for no reason, even if they're on the other side. People with grey names on screen may well be fighting one another as you drive past, but you can't run them over, or get out of your car and shoot them - if you do, your car or bullets will pass right through and they won't be griefed. Your direct involvement is a product of matchmaking and, you know, the law. If an Enforcer spots a grey-named Criminal breaking into a car, Mark Rein can shoot them, or slap on the cuffs for a greater reward, the game having alerted Mark Rein to their nefarious activities.
The matchmaking looks smart, and uses the game's up-and-down experience system for matching people of suitable skills. As you play you can ascend to level 15 or fall back down to level 1 depending on your fortunes. If you and a fellow high-level Enforcer are tasked with escorting a package, the game may send four nearby Criminals of mid-level standing to block your progress, for instance.
There's also a 'heat' gauge, which sounds like checks and balances for the 1-15 rating level. If you're on a really hot streak as an Enforcer, for example, you fill up a badge icon on the left of the HUD. This gives you a single star. Fill it up a few more times and you can get to a maximum of five. When this happens though, the server green-lights you for the whole district, and 50 rather bitter Criminals are alerted to your location and given the right to run you over or shoot you as they please, whether you're matchmade with them or not. You can log out for a while, or visit one of the non-violent districts (the social one, or one of the spawn areas) to cool it down again, or you can get killed, which does the same.
Tough it out at five stars and the rewards are much greater when you complete missions, and it's these rewards - cash to spend on customising things, patching up your car or whatever, but more importantly access to other weapons and weapon upgrades - that look to give you a traditional MMO sense of persistence and progression. Mark Rein's avatar does a dance as the mission dispenser tells him he's got a new rifle and a dart-gun. There are several base weapons - assault rifles, sniper rifles, shotguns, pistols and grenades - to be unlocked and upgraded. There's even a rocket launcher, but it sounds rather elusive.
Custom items, like Chris Collins' rather fetching sportscar with its painstakingly appointed decals and paintwork, are dealt with as equipment. The car's effectively a mount that you pick up at a spawn point or garage if you've lost track of it or swapped it for a mission-specific vehicle somewhere along the way, and players' custom rides can't be jacked by other players. They can be dented, and even blown up, but they come back at the whim of your wallet.
It all seems to make sense, and Collins and Rein both make mention of how slick they find the experience, which is evident on-screen. Respawns in matchmade battles drop you around 150 metres away from the heart of the action after a five-second break (arrests take out Criminals for 20 seconds). And there are neat little touches all over, like the option for Enforcers to call for backup if they're taking a hammering - a call that goes out to and may be answered by other nearby Enforcers. It's hard to watch Collins and Rein taking a call, sparking the rooftop blue-and-whites and racing to someone's assistance, without wishing you were at the controls.
Hopefully, the next time we get to talk to you about APB that's where we'll be. Collins says a closed beta is "weeks rather than months away", and with that Realtime Worlds will start making adjustments (they're waiting to see whether there's player demand for melee actions, for example), and perhaps we will get to experience the alternative "chaos" ruleset, where anyone can mess with anyone else at any time.
"I'm so looking forward to this," Mark Rein says at the end of the demo, having just cuffed a suspect only for Collins to comically blow his head off. "I think people have no idea how good this is until they get their hands on it." I dunno - I'm getting a pretty good sense of it.
APB is due out for PC in 2010.