In general, there are only a few dozen players in each instance of the zone at once - the maximum number is around 100, meaning that there aren't actually very many players to match up against one another. (One could argue that this also means APB isn't really an MMO, but as it offers persistent character progression and a large shared social area, I'm going to stick with the MMO terminology.)
The result is that many of your match-ups will be incredibly unbalanced, and it's easy to be put off, early on, by running up against players who have spent vastly more time in the game than you have, and whose equipment is miles ahead of your own. APB doesn't level up your stats like a conventional MMO, but players still gain access to better weapons and equipment as they progress, and of course, those who have spent longer in the game will generally be more skilled. With only 100 players to choose from, the matchmaking system is stymied, forced to throw raw newbies into utterly unbalanced match-ups against seasoned hardcore players - a rather off-putting experience for both parties.
Although it's possible to pay a monthly "unlimited" subscription for APB as you would any MMO, Realtime Worlds expects to cover most of its costs by selling pay-as-you-go game time (20 hours for £5.59). This only applies to the Action Districts, with time spent in the Social District being off the clock. It's a fair enough proposition, but it might not work out for the studio; currently, it's hard to imagine many players exceeding the 50 hours supplied free with the game.
Did I find anything at all to love on the mean streets of San Paro, then? Well, yes. One aspect of APB which has received almost unqualified praise is its player customisation, and that's certainly the high point of the game. There's an enormous range of customisation possible for your character's physical appearance, and that's only the tip of the iceberg - as you progress you unlock options for clothing, vehicles, decals and even the ability to compose theme tunes that play when you defeat an enemy.
The range of built-in creative tools is truly amazing, and players are already turning out custom clothing, music tracks and vehicles which they can exchange with one another through the in-game auction system. Customisation even offers an alternative advancement system - spending time in the game's Social District, a non-combat region, working on your clothing or customising your vehicles will unlock higher ranks of achievements such as "Fashionista" or "Tuner", each delivering new items to play with and a cash injection for your account.
This is perhaps one of the most confusing things about the experience Realtime Worlds has created. The player customisation options are extraordinary, the game client solid and polished - yet the most basic aspects which APB needed to get right, the driving, the shooting and the mission structure, seem anaemic and neglected. There are only two Action Districts in the game, which while large, offer very little variety of scenery, and the missions you're asked to undertake will start repeating themselves within a matter of hours. It feels, for all the world, like the developers were so busy fussing over the interior design and soft furnishings that they forgot to build the house itself properly.
Coming from a team of Realtime Worlds' calibre, it should be no surprise that APB isn't dreadful - as I've pointed out, it's polished and accomplished, and certain aspects of it, such as the meta-game structure and the player customisation, are fantastic. Even so, there's no escaping the fact that the game is hugely disappointing. The flashes of brilliance only serve to throw the mediocrity of the game into even sharper relief.
6 / 10