Wednesday, September 28, 2011

APB Online Reloaded Beta - Mini-Review, Videos and Screenshots

Watch Welcome To San Paro - Our Fan-Created Video Montage of the APB Reloaded Beta!

In One Sentence: I have never had such an experience that is so perfectly balanced with love and hate at the exact same time. That is APB Online (Reloaded Beta), circa 2011.

Don't get me wrong there are GOOD things about this game. FUN things, this game can really be fun as all get out, but the BAD things are very very berry berry bad and left me in hilariously angry moods after playing for a short time. Whether the game sitting was more good or bad didn't matter, APB Online Reloaded Beta is overall f-u-n.

First of all, the game seems to offer so much, the trailer shows amazing, crazy GTAplus-type of gameplay and as you start it all seems so comfortably managable. There's the standard MMO tutorial, the hand-holding instructions and pop-up information, the easy to find NPCs and simple map. It seems that you can be a master of it all in no time and not break a sweat. Then you actually play the game.

Hey you can kill people and drive a car, neat. Darn you died. Oops you died again. Oh that got you, you're dead. Hey, you got that guy, way to go! Ah, now you died. The mission's over. Oh, another mission. You died. What happened there? You're dead. Well, you died. Welp, you're dead again. Hey you got'em. Now, you're dead.  Okay, don't go 'Ready' for a while, just roam around. As a criminal you can break into shops and sell the items for cash? Wow! Okay it's been a while, go 'Ready'. Hey you finished the mission. Oh, there was noone opposing you. Well, try another one. Great, you got that guy! Oh, he got you, your're dead. Got him. He got you. You're dead. 
This paragraph is a summary of a typical gameplay sitting with this game. You had some fun, but good thing it's free.

Oh, did I mention that? I didn't play it from Day One, but apparently it was taken over by another company, GamersFirst and Reloaded Productions and they are in Beta (at the time of this post) releasing it as a Free To Play setup with a Cash Shop type of deal (how things mainly are in the East, but in North America, Brick And Mortar Boxed Retail sales rule the land). And it's a good thing this game is free as in beer. Like I said, it's fun, but there is still too much 'wrong' with it to warrant (no pun intended) throwing down fifty bucks or so for it. I don't think it will change to a subscription model anyway, games actually make a lot of money on the Cash Shop model. Those with money buy what they want and those without eek it out over time and (hopefully) can still access the same items, it will just take forever.

Heading downtown in my new car at dusk

You might be asking, So what are some of the things you can do?

After choosing a Faction (Criminals or Enforcers, opposing each other), you create your character, and the creation area is actually pretty good. You can change not only skin and hair color, but there are dozens of template s of each area of hair, eyes, nose, mouth, etc and then you still get to go into an Advanced Mode if you want, and tweak angles of ears and eyes, the length of the nose, weight and muscle size and visibility of muscles and veins (a la bump mapping). The character creation, although still somewhat limited, is definitely one of the things on the Good List. 
(A sampling of some of what the Character Creation section can do is in the Welcome To San Paro video montage at the top of this post)
As a Criminal, you can do missions, which are assigned 'quests' that get you to go somewhere, do something like smash a store front, or take a package from A to B. You can also just roam around and steal cars just like in Grand Theft Auto and take them to Chop Shops for selling, as well as bashing into Store Fronts and picking up the items that 'drop' out and take those to a Fence for more money. Money in the game allows you to buy upgraded equipment like guns and cars and clothes and customization for all of that. You get access to the items to buy them by progressing through missions and Ranks, which are basically just a tally of how much you have done in the game, akin to Levelling in other Multiplayer games. 

When doing Ram Raids as a Criminal, use your own 'recallable/respawnable' car. That way, Enforcers (and other players) can't steal your car on you while you collect what falls out of shop windows.

As an Enforcer, you can also do missions, which usually have you cleaning up the town's graffiti, trying to take evidence from A to B, basically much of the same as the Criminals get, but you are automatically (if you are Set to 'Ready') pitted against the Criminals in the area trying to do the same things. For instance, if some Criminals are on a quest to get 'packages' from A to B, your Enforcer will get assigned a mission to stop them, intercepting and either guarding the evidence or taking it back to your own drop-off, etc. This of course leads to PvP (Player Versus Player) and that seems to be the largest part of the game (Missions and PvP).

As an Enforcer, you can also just roam around the game (literally On Patrol) and watch for the no-gooders smashing their cars into stores, hijacking cars and after you 'witness' them committing the crime, chase them down and bring them to justice (alive or dead) after you witness such an act. This is a sort of 'World PvP' and although I have witnessed crimes as an Enforcer and done my share of hijacking/mugging/raiding shops in the game as a Criminal, the interaction between players on this level (roaming and finding each other) doesn't happen very often. I have an idea that I'm going to post in the Suggestions game forum about this sometime.

Missions (the 'Quests' of the game) are assigned pretty much automatically no matter where you are in the game (if you have played other MMO games, no more running back to the NPC/QuestVendor for assignments!). If you are 'Ready' then you will get some communication from your Contacts (NPCs in the game) about something to do in the area like spray paint an area to claim dominance (or clean up the spraypaint if you are en Enforcer), steal some items for ransom (or retrieve the stolen goods) and so on. The Missions pop up on their own with a little info (and story) and most of them have multiple parts to them (eg. Steal Something, Take it to a Dropoff) and there are VIP parts sometimes where there is a person you must kill (or protect), similar to what has been seen in Counterstrike and other games.

As you can see, the amount of things you can 'do' in the game isn't large, but it is a decent amount and it feels great doing it all. With the pedestrians around you, running away from your car, getting run over by your car, ducking for cover in a shoot out, making comments like they are calling the Enforcers when you rob a storefront and more, they really add to the engrossment of the game. The automatic assignment against the 'other guys' who are doing many of the same things in the area, makes you feel involved and that you are affecting the environment, even if it's temporary (that building you blew up or fence you rammed though repairs itself, etc) but over time it can get repetitive, but then, you can switch to doing something different (like stopping to fish in other games, stop doing missions and just raid stores and cars for some money build-up) or just take a break. 

How's the Driving?

Like everything else in the game, it's another love/hate relationship. Each car does handle different (a big armored security truck moves and turns slow and pushes other cars more easily than a smaller faster car that turns and grips better) but all of them are.. difficult. Well, maybe that's not the right word, you can eventually learn them all and once you get used to how they handle, you'll be drifting around corners and running your enemies down when you want. 

Female Criminal Hanging Out At Night With Teammates Downtown

The thing is, like the combat, all movement, in cars or on foot, just feels stinted somehow. I know it's a hard thing to code for and it does a good job really, but if I can compare the animation engine to other games, it's somewhere around City Of Heroes and Medal of Honor. Don't get me wrong it does work and all of the vehicles feel different and have their own stats like acceleration, durability and more. There are a lot of things to the vehicles and driving in the game (I haven't even mentioned the customization yet) it's just that it works, but it's..odd.

One of the things that is on The Bad List for driving and vehicles is the damage appearance. Bumping into a mailbox, hydrant or wall at a low speed does nothing to the paint or car. A few good solid hits make it look crumpled slightly, then nothing again for a while (especially if you are only looking at your car from behind) until smoke comes out, flames, and then it's boomtime. A few extra steps of appearance changes in between would be nice, some displacement of the parts of the model would be great, especially for seeing damage from the rear view. A buildup of smudged blood from mowing down a multitude of pedestrians (front and back) would be downright awesome. As you can see, like everything in the game there are some good things, some bad.

Update: After purposely hitting some other vehicles and doing some Ram Raids, I see that there is (now?) a nice amount of crumpling going on if you look for it (and I assume have the graphic settings up high enough to see it fully).
My female criminal's car and her driving damage (not a female driving joke)
The same car all fixed up at a GA5

What is the Combat like?

Again, like everything in the game (have I said this enough yet?) there are good points and bad. That's just the way it is with this game, you can't just say "about this, it is good" or "about this, it is all bad", because with APB Online Reloaded, those quotes would not be fully true.

To start with what's good, the combat works surprisingly speedily, compared to most MMO games. You can actually dodge incoming fire just by strafing and you can run away from a grenade that was thrown at you. You can also dodge cars that come speeding towards you if you see them ahead of time. The workings of this seems wondrous to anyone coming from MMORPG games, where you hit TAB to automatically target your enemy, then just mash buttons/keys/numbers to automatically hit them with whatever you learned to use. I have not seen such lock-on targeting in the game so far, it is more like a shooter (Battlefield series of games, Call of Duty, Quake, etc) than anything. Also, each gun has it's own stats such as damage, accuracy, effective range and can be customized with silencers, scopes to help with distance aim, stabilization for the shooting spray and more.

So what's bad about combat? Well for starters, the guns are somewhat inaccurate. Now again, I have only just started to play (I have logged less than 30 hours so far) and you do get a feel for each gun and what situations it would be good for and how you would use it according to your playstyle, but everything I have tried so far has a crazy spread of bullets. Unless you are up close and doing a strafe-dance against someone with the same type of gun, your shots feel like they are going everywhere, despite being motionless and having your cross-hair on your target. This is something that I have little knowledge of, mind you, and later in the game there is no doubt (hopefully) more accurate and powerful guns available for purchase. I am getting better at it, and find that I am even able to shoot over distances with non-sniping weapons, but overall it is difficult for a new player to master.

GameTip: To help your aim, there are many things you can do like looking down the sight more (zooming in), crouching, not running, shooting a lesser amount of shots (single clicking and not holding down the mouse button) and of course, standing still. All of these things however slow you down and make you an easier target. It is up to you how and when to tradeoff any of these to help your accuracy.

How do you get items, like weapons, in the game?

Starting out in the game, you have pretty much one workout outfit, a couple small guns and a car you can call upon at special Stations scattered throughout the game - and that's about it. This is no real surprise however, as compared to say, MMORPG games, you'd also start out with just one set of armor, a couple cheap weapons and maybe a mount if you're lucky. This isn't anything against APB Online, it's pretty much the norm. 

My female criminal gets a new weapon, yah!

Unlocking more items is connected to your 'progress' in the game. Money allows you to then buy the unlocked items. Let me explain:

At the beginning, most of everything is Locked. Mousing over items that look like something you like, whether it's guns or clothes or cars, it will tell you what you need/when you will be able to unlock it for purchase. I have seen two kinds of unlocks so far. NPC 'Standing' unlocks and Skill unlocks. I have yet to read any in depth material on the game (I am too busy just playing it and having fun!) but from what I have seen, NPC items are unlocked as you do missions and collect Standing with them. This acts like Experience (or Reputation/Favour) from other games, and as you do missions for NPCs, your Contacts, it goes up (you also get assigned numbers called Ranks - Ranks seem like Levels compared to other types of games, but does not seem to have any use yet, other than an indication of 'how much overall you have done in the game'). NPC item unlocks usually require a certain level of Standing (out of 10 for each Contact NPC) before you can buy a certain type of weapon and items from them. Also, it seems that different NPCs hold different items, so if there's no good sniper weapons at one NPC, find one with the one you want, and they will eventually sell it to you. 
There are also Skill Unlocks, where is states Machine Gunner Rank 5 Required, but I have not learned enough about Skill Ranks to state exactly what it is all about yet. I am not sure whether your Skill in a weapon goes up through just using it, or it must be purchased (a la Training) somehow in the game.

So to me, here's how it seems so far: You do Missions (quests), which increase your Standing (reputation/favour) and your overall preogress is kept track of in Ranks (experience/levels) and higher Standing and Ranks allows you access to purchase better items. Neat. Money then, is your own limiter of how many/what items you can purchase. You get in-game money (cash) by doing missions (both factions), hijacking and selling cars to specific spots (Criminals, Enforcers must take the stolen car to Impounds), ramming into storefronts and picking up what comes out (Crinimals, Enforcers collect Evidence and take it to evidence lockers), or just mugging people as a Criminal. Enforcers generally do the opposite of everything the Criminals do (stopping them from doing it) so in essence they get money the same way, but at a slower pace.
Doing/collecting all of these things is not a bad thing, but it seems to go very slow. Mind you, I am a Free Player, using a Free To Play account and your collection of all the things you need to progress in the game (Standing, Ranks, even Money) are handicapped ('nerfed') and the game never fails to remind you after every mission "You earned ______ of _______ but you missed out on ________ of it because you aren't a Premium (subscriber/Pay To Play) Account!". This isn't necessarily a bad thing because for one thing, they have to make money somehow and for another thing, I am pretty much experiencing all the game has to offer (as far as missions, eventual access to items, and overall action) it's just that it will take a Free2Play account a much much much larger amount of time to get to play with the Big Guns, cars and other goodies in the game.

Even with all the above to do, there is still more to the game. Before I talk about the appearance of clothes and car customization, I have to mention the Marketplace (Auction House) and Music Studio. The Marketplace is your basic auction house where you can sell goods (you can't buy goods from your own account, I know people are already thinking of making tons of money on your Crim and then selling an expensive item for nothing to your 'Forcer - apparently you used to be able to send money to your other characters but can't anymore). The Music Studio is an in-game small tracking program (Fruity Loops, ScreamTracker, Cakewalk type of sequencing program) that allows you to make your own music for death sequences,etc. It seems easy to use and you can save your songs and share them, I believe.  There is also an in-game music player that plays built-in songs, songs that have come from Last.FM (if it does this anymore) and songs you put in the playlists from your own machine. You can hear them whenever you get into a vehicle (a la GTA). 

Speaking of Sound and Audio for a second, the sound is this game seems great so far. It supports the (now standard) Reverb and Echo effects, there is doppler on the car horns, you can hear the gravel getting spit up against the car in alleys and on grass and sidewalks have that repetitive thumping vibration. All the guns I have tried sound different, the vehicles are varied, there seems to be a small bank of sound for ricochets that the game randomly chooses from and a somewhat larger bank of sounds for the peds walking by. It's great to hear their comments as you play the game. One I remember distinctly is running a while on foot as a Criminal and when I rounded a corner and scraped past a pedestrian, he commented, "Hey, didn't I see you on a poster somewhere?". Nice touch.

The music overall is a nice mix of genres, you can pick which set you want to listen to, and it plays whenever you are in a car. If there are songs that the game 'knows' (verified/uploaded... still not sure how this works 100% yet) then you have the same songs on your system that someone else does, and you can hear whatever they listen to in their cars as they drive by or you hitch a ride with them. Neat idea.

Partly because I am just a new player and do not have the resources to fully enjoy it yet, and partly because it's a lesser important part of the game for me, I have yet to mention the immense area of Customization in the game. I have already seen personalized, souped-up cars with special decals and paintjobs, clothes of various styles and models with personalized patterns and more. Heck even without the importing of your own logos and art, there seems to be tons of customization in the game, with tattoos, fashion designs and more, there seems to be so much that I haven't even seen yet.

Just a sample of some of the character customizations found in the game...

It doesn't look too bad. How are the graphics?

Speaking of seeing, the graphics in the game are darn good for a Free To Play game. They are only slightly 'cartoon-y' (as I like to call it), looking more like a full shooter game like Battlefield 2 than a 'cartoonified' MMO such as World of Warcraft. The amount of polygons that comprise the complexity of the models I'd put solidly between Battlefield 2 and Battlefield Bad Company 2. To give an MMO example, the models have more polys than City of Heroes, but less than RIFT. These comparisons make sense since those games are successors to each other, but you get an idea from the examples of the complexity of the models. In the game there have been textures that have downright impressed me at the highest settings and while the main characters and cars have an expectantly good amount of polygons, the environment and pedestrians aren't too shabby either. You will see a lot of the same things reused (it is a city with tall things called buildings and lots of the same cars, after all) and sometimes I run into twin pedestrians, but again, the game does variation and complexity of objects well, especially when you count the money you spent (possibly) on it. Great job, developers.

Female Criminal Looking Towards Ads Downtown

There are a lot of small touches that I am impressed with, like floating papers 'in the breeze' that fly past you, and there is a really good attempt at shadows and both static and dynamic ('painted'/planned/unchanging and shadows that change depending on what is going on in your field of view such as explosions/gunfire/etc. 

There seems to be a lot of people having trouble with the game and framerate (smoothness of the display), as seen in the forums. As I work with computer systems for a living, I will do an in-depth article on computer technology and how it affects games and apparent smooth gameplay in the future, but for now, as with all games, all I can do is suggest the standard troubleshooting steps of:
  • Turn special effects off one by one to see what helps
  • Tone down the anti-aliasing, filtering and other enhancements
  • Reduce your resolution (screen size)
  • Turn off background applications/programs running
  • Defragment your harddrive
  • Check for updates on your drivers (system files that talk to the computer hardware) like Video Drivers, Sound Drivers, etc
  • Purchase dedicated parts that work with the computer to bring the game to life. What I mean by this is, playing with a seperately-purchased and installed Video Card and Sound Card makes a huge, huge difference in playing games on a system, than using the built-in (onboard) chips that came with the average computer. These onboard/builtin components are made for office use (so that companies don't have to spend the extra money to get them seperately) and are not typically manufactured with gaming in mind. They do not have the power/speed/capacity to calculate and do many of the things that modern games need to show and play smoothly.
  • Upgrade parts of your system to more powerful components (the CPU (main engine of the computer) and the Video Card (that calculates what you display and talks to your monitor) are good choices to start with) or purchase more RAM (memory that the computer uses to do calculations with, showing you the output on the screen)
All of these steps (roughly in that order as well) will help you enjoy APB Online and other modern games much more, and if you can afford any of the purchase/upgrade steps, it is well worth it when you think of the stress you will be relieving and fun you will have.
Good luck with it and check back to this site in the future for a more in-depth article on computers and how to get games running better!

So what's so wrong with the game?

If I ignore the aimbotters and hackers (there aren't many that I have seen so far, but I have heard they are around quite a bit), I ignore the stunted driving and combat, I ignore the slow slow level and item unlocking progress (I am a Free To Play player though), there is one system in the game that I am disappointed with and that is the instancing of the world itself.

The way it seems to work is, there are 4-5 Time Zones or areas where you connect to ("pick the one that is closest to you") and in the game there are 3 main regions or maps (called Districts) you can play in (one of them is a Safe Area, consisting mainly of shops and stores and noone can attack anyone there). But these 3 regions/maps are not just the 'Main Playing Areas' for your Timezone/ServiceArea/Server. The 3 regions are further broken down into Instances (versions of the map you chose), meaning if you and your friend log in, pick the same timezone/servers, and even choose the same one out of those 3 regions (let's say The Financial District, a type of 'Downtown' setting), that region is still divided up into instances, so if you both join at the same time, you may get put into different instances (different copies of the same map/region, in this case, different copies of The Financial District). Each instance is isolated from the other versions, so if a player is on another one different from you, you won't see them in your area as you play and drive around.

That's the worst thing about this whole system. Not only are they isolated from each other but each instance of each region/map/district only holds about a hundred people and isn't very big (for those of you that have played GTAIV, a district is about the size of one island, if that). The main problem with that, is that your access to missions (remember they are automatically assigned to you based on players in your area on the other faction doing the same things) depends directly on the people that are in your instance (copy) of the map. What this means is, if you log on to the East Coast, and choose say The Financial District, your version of that map (your instance you go into) may have way more criminals than enforcers in it at that time. This isn't too bad if you want to go on a crime spree, but if you want to progress in the game/items by doing missions as a criminal, there may be so few opponents around that the game can't put together a team to oppose you!

That leads to one thing that the developers did right in this whole system, and that is let the game assign you missions that are just for you, even if there is noone else around or 'Ready' (basically like Soloable Quests in other games). The missions are basically the same (tag an area with paint, pick up some evidence to take to the locker) it's just that there is noone to fight against you, so you walk though the entire thing yourself and get a small amount of reward. Not great, but it is good that they put that in there. You can still 'play the game' even if there are odd settings of players around you at the time (you can also of course not do missions and just do the Roaming activities that build up your money/etc, especially if you are a Criminal). 

My low level female criminal mugging an Asian man in front of what looks to be a hotel, judging by the window.

Another thing that the developers included was the ability to change instances. When you sign in and pick a District to go to, like the example above, you get automatically placed into an instance that has 1) similar levelled players to you and 2) an attempt at an even number of players on each faction. This is another Good Thing. Only once, playing so far, have I been put into an area where one side outweighed the other and it was hard to find opposing players to shoot at. Most of the time, the game does well at placing you in an area where there are similar skilled players and numbers of them. I suspect that this system could be exploited once the game goes Public, but for now it works pretty good for getting you in there and shooting up the opposing faction.

GameTip: If you play in one instance in one District too long, players may have been logging in and out and you may find that the player numbers drift toward being too many of one side. If this happens, you can use this ability to change instances to choose a more evenly numbered area, or let the game automatically reassign you to one.

Working with computers, I understand why they did this. It's a form of splitting up the workload among seperate servers into smaller and smaller pieces so that basically the game is always one little instance for a small number of players (about a hundred) and not one huge world or one big server with thousands of players on it. This also cuts down the load and traffic going to that one server (your instance you are playing in), which no doubt plays a part in how well the game responds to actions and updating what is going on around you and the combat and gameplay in general.

That's another Good Thing, by the way. For an MMO (although an entirely instanced one, unlike most other MMO type of games) it is surprisingly responsive. If I drive my car over an opposing player, I see his body knocked over and he no doubt has his screen thrown around at about the same time. In a firefight, getting shot at from one side, I can run forward around a corner and am no longer getting hit, and if I turn around to shoot my pursuer, I can strafe to the side a bit to avoid incoming bullets. The game works surprisingly well in combat for an MMO. I attribute this to how they have everything set up as it is. It's not pretty, but it works.

And once again, that is the summation of APB Online Reloaded Beta for me. It's not great in some areas, but overall it's good. To quote what someone said in game, "It's broken and it's free" is another good term. Sure there are things that are fine. Sure there are things that could be improved, but it is a game still in Beta, and from the looks of the developer's blog, it is lovingly worked on to this day. 

(Addendum: I must restate the concept that this IS NOT an MMORPG. It is a Massively Multiplayer Game (although it barely squeaks by on the first M because it is instanced the way it is with limited players you can interact with at once) and it has some RPG elements (the 'Standing' you get from doing Missions for instance, is like Experience/Reputation/Favour, that unlocks items for purchase), but there is no actual 'Character Stats' per se. There are stats on weapons, such as the damage they do, and even stats on cars, but as many people in the game keep saying (perhaps to differentiate themselves on purpose) it is not an Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game.)

Regardless of some of the things that are odd in this game, I am having fun playing it - and isn't that the most important thing? 
See you in there!

(Screenshots and Videos and further comments on the game to come!)