Zipper Interactive’s MAG has arrived at European retail after a considerable amount of time in the public eye. Concerning itself with multiplayer online warfare and decidedly little else, MAG has been considered the PlayStation 3’s second-generation Warhawk, and boasts a series of impressive numbers that suitably reinforces that statement. But while strength-in-numbers may be enough for some, others will demand more substance, and MAG will have to prove itself capable of providing new ideas, rather than simply bigger ones.
MAG (an acronym of “Massive Action Game”, being that as it is) features the option for 256 players to gather in a single battle, though of course it takes suitable measures to prevent players from becoming overwhelmed. Along with the fantastically huge battles, Zipper Interactive has provided a structure to keep play in an orderly fashion, and it is one that encourages extended play with similarly experienced teammates. The total number of players in each team, which varies depending on the match type, is divided into Platoons, which are then further divided into squads. Each division has a unique commander issuing orders to the rank below, and players will gain the necessary experience to be considered for a commanding position through success in the lower ranks.
Dividing teams into manageable units in such a way results in a need to rely on the commanding players for a tactical advantage. There are times at which an entire squad will move as one, taking down a number of enemy players and reaching their objective with minimal incident, and yet other times in which chaos will break loose and even the most experienced players will find themselves constantly being gunned-down within seconds of reaching the enemy. To counteract this second eventuality, players can purchase skills such as improved accuracy and reload speed to help them cope when under fire, but again only once proven in battle. And here lies the MAG’s biggest crutch: in order to access the real meat of the game, players will need to endure many hours of confusion and frustration as they build a respectable online record.
The match types available begin fairly simply – Suppression is a fancy way of phrasing Team Deathmatch and Sabotage is effectively a variation on the King of the Hill ruleset – but upon increasing your player level with XP awarded in matches more complicated scenariosbecome available. MAG is so reliant on XP that it wouldn’t be difficult to suggest that the best approach is to stick with the more basic strategies on the simpler match types until having reached level 10 at least – more than just a few hours playtime. Aside from the online matches, MAG features an offline training mode which players must partake in before joining the online battles. Short-lived and woefully inadequate at preparing players for the online action, the training offers little above that which the Instruction Manual would present.
The character creation is limited to a handful of interchangeable heads and voices, which although could be deemed fairly reasonable considering the effort it would take to render each individuals creations online, it remains somewhat disappointing that players can’t be immediately recognised by their online avatar. Occasional elements of the level design show numerous flaws in the visual quality, most notably with pieces of the landscape that are most definitely in the foreground not appearing until almost under your feet, but aside from this MAG stands as a reliable example of the acceptable level of visual fidelity in a modern online First-Person Shooter experience.
As exciting a proposition that MAG most certainly is, the resulting product is undeniably flawed. A cumbersome menu system can hide much of the nuance that makes it a compelling experience when reaching higher levels, and that which is available when starting fails to suggest any real reward will come from continued play. The class types are entirely without inspiration and the handheld health boost is lifted directly from Battlefield: Bad Company, even though most agree that DICE’s decision to include it was problematic to begin with. Far from the tightly structured balancing act that is ShadowRun, the evolving battlefield of Section 8 or the straight-forward objective-based Enemy Territory: QUAKE Wars, MAG is all about fast-paced online action, and for those willing to endure the lasting uncertainty, it manages to showcase the advantage of the power under the PlayStation 3’s hood better than most.