Zipper Interactive decided to conquer quite a mountain. Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) is usually associated with big-budget, monthly fee-inducing role-playing games. MAG: Massive Action Game brings MMO into the first-person shooter genre in a giant technological leap. Up to 256 people can be playing online on the same map - on a console, no less - which is impressive. The question is, does it work?
In the not-so-far future, privatized military contractors (PMCs) are embroiled in the "Shadow War." All the tragedies of our world are cranked up to 11 in this future. Hunger in third world countries has caused rioting, oil-rich countries started rationing their black gold, stalling the global economy. After decimating wars, a global accord was reached preventing any country from deploying troops to other countries. Peace cannot last, however, so countries began employing PMCs to deploy and make war. That's where you come in.
You begin by choosing one of three factions. Valor are prototypical hoo-rah American soldiers - mostly ex-Army - who have banded together into a PMC determined to make the world a better place. Raven is the high-tech, high-profit PMC. War is a business and business is quite good for the boys of Raven. Finally, S.V.E.R. is a PMC that uses guerilla warfare and mercenary values to take aim for the sheer pleasure of battle and the destruction of its enemies.
Your choice of PMC isn't one of better tactics or weapons, but really just a matter of aesthetics. The only real reason you would prefer one faction to another is if you have friends playing MAG. After you choose your faction, you can pick what head you want on your merc and what voice. Everything else is the same from soldier to soldier, regardless of faction. These choices are few but varied and tailored to each faction's geography. One disappointment here is you can only have one character. You can't have one of each faction sitting at the ready. You can change factions anytime you want, but to do so you must reset to level one.
The menus are sensible and easy to navigate. After logging on, your choices for Barracks, Options, Armory, Extras, Community, and Deployment are all readily available in a smooth interface. Finding friends is easily done through a built-in menu, and matchmaking is easy, if long. The bigger the match, the longer matchmaking takes. Fortunately, once you enter the queue, you can still navigate some other menus while you're waiting to get started. All your awards and stats are easily available through the Barracks, such as my meager 0.32 Kill to Death Ratio.
After a brief training exercise which rewards you with some experience, you get into the game modes. The first is Suppression, which is just a straight-up 32-on-32 deathmatch within your own faction, billed as a training exercise with non-lethal ammunition. Sabotage introduces players to the importance of objectives in MAG. There are two satellite uplinks which must be defended/overtaken. When/if the uplinks fall, a third and harder objective is opened up which must be defended or destroyed.
Where MAG really hits its stride is in Acquisition mode. The ultimate goal of Acquisition is to defend/steal 2 prototype vehicles, but getting there is the real fun. Acquisition is 64-on-64 and features numerous objectives for both sides. There are bunkers which provide forward spawning/resupply points. Mortar batteries can be used by defenders to take out ground troops while anti-air batteries are used to discourage bombing runs by attackers. All these are defended or attacked. Gates, barricades, and motor pools provide objectives to be destroyed and finally the prototype vehicles themselves must be stolen and driven to a rally point. While this may all sound overwhelming, keep in mind that this is massively-multiplayer. While the platoon leaders and officer-in-charge are overseeing the battle, you're on a squad that is likely defending or attacking a single objective.
Finally, Domination is the much-hailed 256 player battle. 128-on-128, vying for control of several oil-related objectives. Multiple bunkers, anti-air, mortar, barricades, cooling tanks, sensor arrays, and many more objectives await in this massive game type. Destroy, defend, and secure; everything is in here.
If you're accustomed to Modern Warfare 2, get ready for a major adjustment. Gone are dual-wielding shotguns, the army-of-one mentality, and the focus on kill-count. Not once did someone on a headset tell me how much of a noob I was or toss a slur my direction. MAG is focused on the team. It's not about you being better than me. It's about US being better than THEM. Communication is key to victory in MAG. If you run off on your own to flank an enemy you'll find yourself dead and alone very quickly. You need a good squad leader to designate objectives. You need good teammates that know their roles in the squad. Most of all, you need to stick together.
Zipper rewards proper teamwork with experience. A kill gets you 5XP. Healing or repairing gets you one XP every couple seconds. Saving a teammate gets you 10XP. As you level up, you can assign skill points. MAG takes advantage of a skill tree, allowing you to dump points into your weapons, electronics, support, or athleticism. This allows for personal specialization with characters. Those specializing in assault weapons, explosives, and athleticism will be better prepared for a frontal assault. Pouring points into sniping weapons makes those players much better at defending from a distance.
Once you've unlocked different weapons or abilities, you go into the armory to equip up to five different loadouts. The game uses a 'weight' system to keep each player balanced. Every weapon or item has a different value assigned to it and you can't go over your maximum when creating a loadout. This keeps players from running around with all the best stuff at once, so you need to specialize.
Personally, I'm not the best FPS player. Something about moving and shooting a moving target effectively doesn't jive in my brain. I poured most of my skills into healing and repairing. I fix blown-up objectives, resuscitate fallen squad members (much faster than respawning), and heal wounded comrades. I get some kills, too; I'm not abandoning a smoking gun just to be a medic on the gargantuan fields of MAG.
A great Squad Leader makes this game stand out from the crowd. If you are defending a bunker that your Squad Leader has designated, all the experience in the vicinity of that bunker is doubled. Same if your Squad Leader designates an anti-aircraft battery for destruction. The game rewards you for effectively following orders and supporting your squad. This can also be where the game falls apart.
An inept Squad Leader can make for a miserable match. No target designation means 1/2 the experience and squad members running rampant. It makes it much harder to defend or overtake an objective if it's just you and Joe alone against a well-oiled squad of eight. I've had matches where I was getting killed left and right, didn't have an objective, and walked away with less than 50XP. I also had a match where I was a medic and engineer, primarily. I stayed close to the bunker, defending against attackers, as well as resuscitating squad members, repairing the bunker's turret, and providing healing. All my experience was doubled. I walked away with just shy of 500XP and we never let the bunker fall. Best of all, it was really fun.
The controls in MAG will take some getting used to. The standard setup has you changing weapons with R2 and changing gear with L2. While there are a handful of alternate control schemes, you can't customize the button mapping on the controller, which is disappointing.
MAG looks good. I say good, not great. The graphics won't blow you away like Modern Warfare 2, but then MW2 doesn't have 256 living human beings on the same map. Something has to give a little to handle that many gamers in one area. While there are no glaring problems with the visuals like clipping or tearing, they are nonetheless a bit standard. The sound, on the other hand, is top-notch. Sound effects are great and enhanced with THX certification. You hear a gun to off with surround sound, you know where to turn by hearing alone. If that wasn't enough, orchestral-metal group Apocalyptica composed the soundtrack and did a fantastic job.
In addition to what occurs squad-to-squad, match-to-match, the "Shadow War" is actually affected by how well players perform on a macro-scale. This is probably why you don't get to have more than one character. Zipper wants you rooting for your factions. How well you, your squad, your platoon, and your faction perform affects who is winning the "Shadow War", and should become very intriguing as days turn to weeks turn to months. In the absence of a first-person adventure, the "Shadow War" really adds value to an online-only game.
Overall, MAG is a striking turn from the norm of online FPS and yet holds onto the most fundamental mechanics that make online FPS games fun. Hardcore players will get to own and work their way into commanding positions. Less hardcore players can find alternative ways to contribute to the squad and still have a fun time. That being said, if communication or leadership breaks down, the game can be a dismal chore to play through. I applaud Zipper for their ambition and it has paid off, just make sure you have friends with headsets.