Unfortunate, then, that so little attention has been paid to the crucial task of making the shooting and driving entertaining. Instead, this is a game whose combat bears all the finesse and refinement of the early 3D GTA titles, and whose driving, although greatly improved since earlier betas, remains a reasonable facsimile of attempting to sail a bathtub down a canal.
The mission structure compounds these problems. Each mission is generally made up of a number of stages, in which you either have to complete objectives or defend objectives from opposing players. In general the final stage will be a lengthy one where you need to capture and hold a location, or grab an item and keep it away from your enemies until the timer runs out.
The weakness of the game's combat is brutally exposed by these missions. Like many games with poor shooter mechanics, camping is heavily favoured, so the second team to arrive at the objective will generally find themselves running in, being shot, waiting to respawn 200 yards away, running the whole way back, and then being shot again. I make no claims to be any great shakes as a gamer, but in general, if I arrived at the objective first, I won the mission; if I turned up second, I died over and over again.
To add insult to injury, on some occasions a team is wiped out with only a few seconds left on the mission clock, only for their foes to capture the location and hold it for a grand total of about five seconds before winning the mission - Realtime Worlds having determined, bizarrely, that victory should be based on who holds the location when the timer runs out, not who has held it for the majority of time over the course of the mission.
Things get even more tedious in the "hold an item"-style missions. In general, the first player to grab the item will make his way to a vehicle as quickly as possible, and drive around the city at high speed until the timer runs out. There's not much you can do about this, especially if the player has a bit of a head start. Unless he makes a mistake and crashes his car (which, admittedly, is fairly plausible given how badly the vehicles handle), the timer is going to run out and he's going to win.
These huge weaknesses are all the more annoying because they undermine the vast amount of intelligent thought and clever design that has gone into the structure of the game. There's something intensely satisfying about APB's meta-game, which gives you the ability to carry out a variety of free-form activities (stealing cars, mugging pedestrians or ram-raiding shops as a Criminal; witnessing crimes and taking out their perpetrators as an Enforcer) and then feeds a steady stream of optional missions to your in-game PDA. These might be new missions for you to undertake, or invitations to join other players who have called for backup to tackle a tough objective.
The backup system, in particular, is a great concept. In essence, it means that if you're playing solo in the game, you can drift from group to group, playing one mission with one group of people before moving on to another group when the next backup call comes through. The game is heavily focused on team play, but the backup system makes soloing possible - and although you'll often be matched up with idiots, as is the case in any online game, at least it'll only be for a few minutes before the mission ends and you can find a new team to play with.
Unfortunately, it's not just the weak shooting and driving which undermine this system. The matchmaking engine which underlies the whole APB experience is also crippled. At first, I assumed that it was simply an ill-conceived piece of code, but I soon realised that the more fundamental problem is how few players it actually has to match up against one another.