APB

Any cop?

Initially, I blamed the weather. The hottest week of the year, with the blazing sun promising lazy afternoons in London parks with cold beers to hand, is a pretty uncharitable time to start plugging hours into a massively multiplayer game. I was clock-watching, glancing at the time after every couple of missions, wondering if I'd played enough for today and could justify switching off the PC and marching out into daylight.

Within the first ten hours, however, I knew that something was wrong that had nothing to do with the weather. I didn't really want to go out into the dazzling sunshine - I'm Irish, for God's sake, our reaction to the sun makes vampires wince sympathetically - I just wanted a reason to stop playing APB.

In itself, that's not unusual. Game reviewers end up playing all manner of dreadful stuff, and are honour-bound to play for several hours longer than any sane human would ever wish to. Yet APB doesn't tick the boxes that usually point to a bad game. For a start, it's from a studio - Realtime Worlds - whose last game, Crackdown, remains one of my personal highlights of the Xbox 360's catalogue, and whose creative bosses cut their teeth on little projects like, oh, inventing Grand Theft Auto.

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San Paro's approach to law enforcement is unique. He won't be doing that again, that's for sure.

For another thing, APB is a remarkably polished and accomplished game in many ways. I've played many MMOs at launch, and if they share a single trait, it's bumpy starts - server issues, unstable, buggy clients, half-finished content and unimplemented features are the order of the day. Not in APB; the game isn't technically perfect by any means, but it's closer than any launch MMO I've ever played.

If my lack of enthusiasm for APB could be blamed on easily patched technical issues, it would offer a glimmer of hope. It's a lot harder to patch fun into a game which has seemingly forgotten to add any.

That's a sweeping statement, so let me clarify. APB is a game about driving and shooting. It takes the basic template of Grand Theft Auto and attempts to place it into a massively multiplayer environment.

A lot of thought has gone into how that is accomplished, and some very clever solutions have been created, but the core idea is simple - you pick a faction for your character, either a Criminal or an Enforcer, and whenever you start a mission, the game notifies opposing players in the region and offers them the task of stopping you.

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Enforcers can subdue criminals with non-lethal weapons and earn bounties for cuffing them.

It's an entirely player-versus-player game, then, where the opposition you'll encounter during quests is made up of other players, not AI-controlled enemies. Each engagement generally ends up with a handful of players on each side, either playing in a team together or shoved together temporarily by the game's matchmaking system, all battling for a variety of objectives scattered around the city district.

Since you can only attack opposing players who are directly involved in your mission, the result is that each sprawling district ends up with multiple gun battles and high-speed chases going on at once, ensuring that there's always plenty of action to watch even if you're just cruising around the city.

If you ignore the conceit of having several of them going on in the same district at once, however, these battles are just third-person multiplayer shooters, pitching a handful of players against each other in a variety of objective-based scenarios. This is the initial surprise for many new players of APB - it has vastly more of its DNA in common with online action games than it does with MMOs. There are few stats, no concept of levelling up in the traditional sense, and no numbers floating around above people's heads in combat. It's a game about shooting and driving.

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