Tuesday 15 June 2010

Assorted Ponderings on Beta

APB has launched its “Key to the City” open beta/demo/stress test event-type thing with codes available all over the place (including Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Eurogamer) for anyone who wants a bit of a peak. There’s a top-notch write up over at Combat Archaeology (with added Gary Numan lyrics), and I’ve been pottering about a bit as well.

The character creator, as unleashed almost exactly two years ago, is indeed amazing, taking slider-sliding to the next level. Crucially it’s not just for a face that you’ll hardly be looking at for the rest of the game (though you can tweak Cheekbone Depth, Nostril Flare and Earlobe Protrusion to your heart’s content) but overall height, weight and musculature as well. I believe the actual hit-box for all players is the same, though, to discourage the emaciated midget look being de rigeur. There are plenty of options for hair styles and colour, face and body hair, scars and the like; certain hairstyles can even manipulated with sliders to adjust lengths and angles of different elements, so if you’ve always wanted an asymmetric mullet this is your chance. And in the game, ah.

Launching into the actual game, the tutorial isn’t a non-stop rollercoaster of excitement, but serves to introduce the game mechanics efficiently enough without the risk of being gunned down. Said mechanics broadly consist of pressing “F”, a multi-purpose key for performing various mission tasks (spraying over graffiti, planting bugs to collect evidence), interacting with scenery (scrambling over fences, climbing ladders, opening doors with a highly satisfying boot regardless of whether you’re raiding a suspect property or ambling down to the police station car park) and getting hold of transport (by showing your badge and commandeering the vehicle if you’re an enforcer, or the more traditional punch to the face and car-jacking for criminals). It generally works well enough, though navigation can sometimes be a little annoying (only certain doors can be opened and designated fences vaulted, sometimes you’ll think you’re on the right track for an objective but end up underneath or just outside it requiring a frustrating search for the door/ladder/stairs you missed).

After the tutorial you have a choice of two “Action” districts to jump in and start gunning down criminals/enforcers (delete as appropriate, though with friendly fire both are an option), or the “Social” district where criminals and enforcers, much like ebony and ivory on my piano keyboard, live side-by-side in perfect harmony. The Social district is also where you can tinker about, terminals allowing access to the auction house and customisation options for your character’s body, clothes, car, symbols, theme tune and heated towel rail. The clothing terminal is a good starting point, after agonising over Ear Hair Density during character creation everyone is dumped into the game itself in the same training shirt and track pants. Hitting the clothing options you find a couple more basic items in your wardrobe, the option to purchase a few pieces, and a big ol’ list of locked items. Clothes unlocks are obviously a significant element of progression in the game so it’s not too surprising that you start with a limited selection, and you can still customise colours and overlay symbols and designs on a basic t-shirt for some interesting looks. Initial car customisation is similar, you’re stuck with the awesome crimefighting power of a two-door Ford Fiesta van type thing, but at least you can spray it in lurid colours and add logos of your choice. Spending time in the clothing and car designers earns rewards in the form of “Fashionista” and “Tuner” levels, granting a bit of cash and some item unlocks; mere time alone (for the first nine levels) seems a bit of an odd decision, and an incentive to leave the game open in a window, clicking now and again to avoid being flagged AFK, while, say, composing a blog post in another window… hey, Tuner Level 4!

Decked out in suitable gear it’s time to head over to an Action district for some, er, Action. Play is generally mission-driven; you can’t directly harm most other players right off the bat. This does take away slightly from the “world” feeling, but on the plus side it means you can survive for more than nine seconds; there is friendly fire, so the spawn points would become carnage, especially if you’ve just been playing a game where “Ctrl” is the crouch key and jump straight in to APB where it throws a grenade… If you did make it out of the front door of the police station, it would only be to get mown down by a random car, so a total free-for-all would be pretty awful. Instead you potter around, and if nothing else happening in the area a mission offer pops up asking you to do something suitably Enforcer-y like collecting evidence, spraying over graffiti or filling out lengthy paperwork to support “stop and search” operations. This is about as far as PvE goes in the game, and mostly involves going to a waypoint and pressing the magic “F” key, not too tricky. The interesting part comes as the match-making system kicks in, looks for a suitable band of criminals out there, and offers them the chance to try and stop you; if they accept, the sirens kick in, and it’s game on. It also works the other way around, with criminals getting missions to go and set fire to cars, nick stuff and drive without due care and attention, and suitable free Enforcer groups get the chance to go against them with a woop woop (that being the sound of da police). Criminals have a few general options without being on a specific mission to go ramraiding or otherwise causing mayhem around the city, and if Enforcers see them in the act they can report the crimes, kicking off ad-hoc missions; if you acquire enough of a reputation from performing well you can also attract a zone-wide bounty allowing anyone to engage you.

One thing I learned fairly quickly was that I’m not really cut out for solo play; one-on-one confrontations are mostly spent either trying to defend an objective, which will almost always have several approach paths, or take an objective knowing there’s an enemy player lurking somewhere in the vicinity. All very tense, sometimes an evenly matched confrontation, but more often a mismatch (usually ending up with me dead a lot, but just sometimes I came up against someone with even less clue than me for a quick victory). Slightly better when solo was answering backup calls; if the match-making system determines forces aren’t quite even on a mission, the weaker side gets to call for back-up, and the message goes out to suitable players or groups to join in. Best of all, though, was hooking up with a group of four, even random strangers, and going on missions mob handed. That way it’s less about stealth and stalking and more about one of you driving a car with the other three hanging out the windows blazing away at anything a bit hostile looking, and if you die there’s a decent opportunity of catching the enemy unaware as you head back from the spawn point. Missions are quick enough that you get a fair bit of variety, and if you meet a highly organised and skilled bunch in one it’s only five or ten minutes of pain before getting to move on.

All in all I’ve been rather enjoying it; it straddles a slightly awkward divide, being slightly wider in scope than most online shooters, but without being a deep persistent world, so I’m not sure how much longevity it will have, but for a few hours here and there of automotive mayhem it could be just the job.

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