Thursday 22 July 2010

Conflict is inevitable, but combat is optional

APB has two main features. Firstly customisation; of your character, the way they look, they way they dress, the car they drive, their theme tune. Secondly fast-paced cops n’ robbers driving and shooting action in third-person, haring around after escaping criminals, shootouts over key objectives, a bit like a bunch of dynamic mini Counterstrike matches happening on the same map. Customisation was a big focus of pre-launch publicity like the 2008 E3 presentation, and has generally lived up to the hype; players have come up with some impressive efforts themselves including a Star Trek Squad and a Metropolitan Police clan. The action side of things wasn’t so well received, so it’s not a huge surprise that the developers have announced they’re looking at improving driving, combat and matchmaking.

One of APB’s problems is that the two halves don’t always complement each other. A good example of the inherent conflict is location-based damage; it’s pretty much taken for granted in modern shooters that a headshot will do more damage. Then again in most shooters the player models are the same size, but APB gives you sliders to adjust height and weight, so if the hit box was exactly mapped to your character there’d be a competitive advantage in making the character as small as possible and top clans would be exclusively populated by emaciated midgets. And in the game, ah! (No, not ‘ah’). Instead all APB characters have the same hit box, so a ‘head’ shot would be anywhere from the top of a chest to thin air, depending on the actual character size. There have been some interesting suggestions, such as having the hit box the same size as the character, but making shorter characters move more slowly so there would be drawbacks as well as advantages, but that would just give another avenue of min-maxing, and generally be opposed to the central idea of giving players maximum creative freedom in how they look.

If the customisation was lacklustre but the action gameplay worked really well APB might be able to find a more comfortable niche, though it would be in more direct competition with any number of online shooters without monthly or per-hour costs. As it is, after perfecting your hairstyle, outfit and car paint job, you’ve got one thing to do: go head-to-head against other players. On the Venn diagram of “people who like small group deathmatch shooters” and “people who like composing theme tunes and spending ages making sure their shirt looks right”, APB is great for those in the intersection between the sets, but my suspicion is that’s not a very large segment and many people attracted by the freedom in the character creation would prefer some slightly more relaxed gameplay options. There is the Social district, though that’s something of a misnomer as most people there are clustered around auction or design terminals using the full screen editing options, and apart from the terminals it’s a useful space if you want an in-game guild meeting or something, but there’s nothing to actually do there.

Out on patrol in the action district you hit the problems every PvP game has. Some players want a balanced fight, some just want to win; the latter try to skew things in their favour as much as they can, especially in a persistent game in which unlocks and upgrades provide an incentive to keep playing. With a large enough pool of players and a robust matchmaking system those looking for a balanced fight should be able to find one, but RTW have acknowledged that things aren’t really working out as they hoped in that area. I’m increasingly finding as I potter about the place that more and more opponents have triple character and weapon upgrades, and though an individual 5% boost here and there doesn’t make a vast amount of difference in the grand scheme of things compared to player skill, if they’re a much better player to start out with my chances are somewhere between slim and none, and the upgrades mean slim gets taken out by a rocket launcher before the mission starts. I’m not sure if it’s the cherry picking and other matchmaking problems described by the devs, a lot of really good players on the criminal side, or just my bad luck with district selection, but when you keep coming up against opponents with a 15% health boost who take less damage from each shot things shift from “generally putting up a decent fight and winning a few missions” to “standing less chance than the peace-loving pygmies of the Upper Volta charging machine guns at Mboto Gorge armed only with fruit”. Still, when the matchmaking system does produce fairer fights it’s still fun, so fingers crossed their overhaul does the trick.

It might be that an improvement in the action side of the game is enough to keep APB compelling, but given more time or perhaps focus in development I wonder if it could have taken a different path. I blogged about Grand Theft Auto IV and Saints Row 2 a while back, concluding that one of the main strengths of GTAIV is its atmosphere, setting and attention to detail, whereas SR2 offers comic-book excesses and a wide variety of non-stop action, and I think either could have translated to an MMO.

The Saints Row 2 option of crazy blockbuster action would be, conceptually, pretty straightforward: throw in everything and the kitchen sink. It wouldn’t be so worried about a meaningful game world as setting players loose in a metaphorical theme park; hell, let the players loose in an actual theme park, gunfights on a roller-coaster and candy floss everywhere… Take a leaf from some SR2 activities like races on flaming quad bikes causing explosions around the place, or making players temporarily invulnerable to be hit by as many cars as possible as an insurance scam (that would work particularly well if happening at the same time as other players chasing each other on assassination missions or just in races). Add hot dog costumes and gimp masks to the clothing options, ramp everything up to 11.

A more Grand Theft Auto IV path would be quite the opposite; try and give the world more coherence and reality. The cities of GTA aren’t exactly *the* real world (police generally don’t tend to forget you’re a wanted felon if you hide around a corner for 30 seconds), but they’re *a* real world with people going about their business, news and adverts on the radio, things happening in the city. It’s difficult to take that living city into an MMO; throw in 100 maniacs with assault weapons and it’s not really so coherent and believable, the more real people you add, the less real it is. APB has an interesting enough back story, but it reads like it was dashed off as a quick excuse for criminals to be fighting a bunch of mercenary-like cops, it’s hardly reflected in the game itself when you drop into a district of this supposedly crime-ravaged anarchic lawless city. Have the population barricaded themselves in their homes, or buggered off to the country where there’s significantly less chance of being mown down in a random firefight? No, everyone is wandering about doing a bit of shopping, casually strolling across the road demonstrating a lack of awareness of the Green Cross Code that would be dangerous in a normal city let alone one where high speed pursuit is the hobby of choice, and slowly driving expensive sports cars around that might as well have “STEAL (or commandeer) ME!” emblazoned on the roof. Oh, and there’s the social district, where criminals and enforcers “decided not to fight”. As criminals and enforcers so often do.

It might go slightly against the real-world cops n’ robbers grain, but I think the only way you could really pull off an immersive city setting would be to make it near-future, after some not-apocalyptic-but-quite-major event, something like a cross between Mad Max (the first one) and Brian Wood’s DMZ comic series. Same clothes, cars and guns, but a more dishevelled city; maybe even expand things in a slightly EVE-like way with high-security areas patrolled by powerful (but not omniscient) NPCs giving way to more anarchic zones.

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