Armed with a killer buzzword (or, more accurately, a prodigious number), Zipper Interactive’s MAG has hovered in the background since its surprise debut at E3 2008, promising much before skulking back into the shadows and leaving a wake of unanswered questions in its path. Like, what does 256 players on one map actually play like? What have been the trade-offs – if any – in terms of performance and the game’s aesthetic in order to achieve this admittedly impressive technical feat? And, most importantly, is the FPS market as a whole ready for a game where the emphasis is not so much on personal achievement, but the concept of team-work and strategy?
MAG has been treated as a deus ex machina by Sony; a salvo in a genre-war they’re seen historically to be on the losing side of. Keen to highlight the game’s salient virtue of scale, Sony have understandably taken the easy road when faced with the task of dazzling potential adopters to MAG. After all, it’s easier to quote a number rather than dissect the ensuant qualities that arise from a game of such scope, aspects that may in fact be somewhat daunting and are assuredly missed by some. But, fittingly, it’s these virtues that marks MAG as a truly eye-opening and engaging experience.
In fact, if it wasn’t so noteworthy, we’d almost wish the technical achievement surrounding the amount of players involved at one time was suitably benched for a while in order to give MAG’s more impressive, and obviously connected, virtue – that of how collaboration is paramount to succeed in the game – more due attention. For make no mistake about it: MAG is one of the first titles that actually enforces clan mentality in a game. And hence, because of this and a number of other reasons, some people will simply not get MAG. They will not appreciate the core outlook that drives the game from the very getgo: the fact that this is not your typical FPS. This is different.
MAG demands patience and, for those more used to jumping online and running around mindlessly shooting anything that moves for a few minutes before their ADD kicks in, it requires a change of mindset in order to see what Zipper Interactive are attempting. These are war-games. And the scope and scale of the action at hand in MAG is much bigger and, paradoxically, more intimate than any other FPS on the market.
Zipper Interactive – mavens of the SOCOM franchise and a studio which boasts personnel who have worked on war simulators for the US defence forces – openly refer to their new creation as “an MMO with guns.” It’s a snappy sound bite and not without merit, but just how much of what lurks behind MAG’s 256 badge of honour can be actually quantified as MMO-ish, and what is merely deep game immersion?
Dizzily, MAG is a vertiginous labyrinth of depth and selection. And though you’re eased into its inner workings like a newborn lamb by its discerning and protective mother, it quickly becomes apparent that the scope of what has just cracked open is staggering. Three PMCs – each with their own ethos, strengths and weaknesses – levelling, buffs, vehicles, and an armoury jammed with an assortment of weapons to keep you busy for months, there’s so much to wrap your head around in MAG that some will balk and bolt. If not because of the scope of what’s on offer, then possibly due to how the game takes everything you know about FPSs and twists it into something new and challenging. Prepare to find yourself outside of your comfort zone.
The game’s premise is a focus on strategy, to communicate and plan – qualities some people will naturally shy away from in favour of a more simple online experience. It’s a shame really, as when MAG works (and admittedly, depending on who you’re playing with, sometimes it just doesn’t) there’s not much out there like it. Running from objective to objective, your squad leader’s voice guiding you toward a common goal, the feeling of immersion and purpose is second to none. Sure, other games do this, but no other game makes it the backbone of their game-play model, and hence MAG truly excels at it.
MAG is a smart FPS, an action title for those of us who want more than simply learning maps and climbing up the pecking order or earning badges so as to unlock new toys. MAG’s levelling structure offers something different from the norm in that it allows players to choose which path they wish to embark on. Unlike other games where it takes time to unlock certain classes, MAG allows you to purchase skills in whatever specialised area you wish from the start. Snipers can invest their credits in new weapons and other perks that make them more effective in the field at long-range engagement. Those that prefer to be on the front-line can equally lean in that direction with armour and more devastating up-close weaponry. Embedded within this levelling structure, the ability to command others and stamp your own personal tactics on the battlefield surfaces. Harking back to the game’s 256 mantra and the natural elements birthed from what such a large number of players presents, as you move up the ranks, the opportunity to command a squad of eight, a company of platoons, all the way up to 128 players against an opposing force of equal size (there’s that 256 number again) adds an extra layer of enjoyment and complexity to MAG. It gives the title an angle other games just don’t possess. While offering most – if not all – of what the competition can give (with the expected trade-offs), MAG’s command structure and communication aspect infuses a high degree of longevity into the game. MAG is a game that could remain popular in the online arena for a very long time, especially if Zipper Interactive support it in the way we think they will.
As a game without an offline component, however, the fate of MAG relies on its online experience. Zipper have invested time and effort in not only making Valor, Raven and SVER – the three PMCs you must choose to join at the game’s beginning – different, balanced and attractive for their own particular reasons, but also forging the premise of The Shadow War – a global conflict the trio of private armies are engaged in – to entice players back into the arena. It might not be a unique approach in the online gaming spectrum, but it is a novel and fresh concept for console gamers. With every player part of one all-encompassing persistent struggle, there is a sense of narrative introduced into what is essentially a genre where story and plot arcs often not only take a back-seat, they’re usually ripped out of the car altogether. It’s both intriguing and complimentary; a device which enhances the experience by connecting you personally to the larger conflict. Each game played affects the Shadow War and how the universe evolves. Such an aspect adds a further touch of personalisation into the game, something other online-only titles including SOCOM: Confrontation and Warhawk have ignored.
Tagging on this plot device also in no way detracts from what MAG purports to be: an online shooter MMO with an emphasis on community. While in some FPSs the primary objective (no matter how it’s masked) is to simply shoot people, in MAG the prime objective is the objective itself. Though other games reward players who work toward a common goal, in MAG it’s not only its prominent attribute, success and failure literally balances on people’s ability to take orders, strategise effectively and focus on the bigger picture. This work-ethic permeates right down through the echelons of the command structure, effectively supported by the game’s designers through buffs and passive incentives. Commanders have spheres of influence, for instance, allowing for such benefits as soldiers being able to reload quicker and obtain bigger multipliers from working together than they would off on their own.
It’s a testament to Zipper’s focus on level design and how the massive engagements play out that, throughout the manic bedlam of battle, you always feel like there is a clear objective; a constant target that is achievable. One concern, however, is just how visible the other goals and overall objective is from your limited perspective. This issue is mitigated to some degree the more you play MAG and as new avenues of visibility and command open up. For the grunt in the bunker, however, starting out in MAG or maybe just after unlocking Domination – its biggest mode – the sense of scale of what is going on around you in the 1km squared battlefield can be sometimes lost.
MAG’s much heralded technical accolades in terms of scale and size do also come with some expected drawbacks. For one, MAG is not the prettiest game at the FPS ball by a long shot. In fact, in terms of visuals and such effects – aesthetically at least - MAG can appear dated and flat compared to some of the genre’s bigger hitters. Of course, such graphical trade-offs were expected in order to deliver what MAG offers up so well, so it’s hardly surprising that it does not compete visually with the likes of the Call of Duty games or the Killzone 2s out there. The controls, too, can be cumbersome at times. This is also somewhat forgivable though, as while other shooters have the luxury of the d-pad buttons to map weapons and such to, MAG must factor in a range of command features onto the controller without relying on a cumbersome control wheel or its ilk. You quickly come to terms with the fact that throwing a grenade is a two-part action (choosing grenade from your weapons list and then physically throwing it), and while mapping the non-scoping and shooting shoulder buttons to gear and alternative weapons respectively might feel awkward at first, you make do and adapt like any good soldier would.
As we come toward our conclusion, we have to admit that MAG is inherently difficult to assess with just a mere few hours of game time under our belts. Though it had the longest beta period in Sony’s history, and many will feel familiar with its quirks and charms, it’s important not to judge the game based on what were purely evolving builds. Now that it’s here, finished and opening up its battlefields for all to experience, the fate of MAG very much rests on those who will gravitate toward its lofty premise and who naturally resonate with such grandiose aspirations.
How is it possible to review a game that, by its very nature, must be played for a long period of time before a full impression can be formed? Is such an endeavour not akin to reviewing a book based on its opening chapters? The challenge of branding MAG with a number (much smaller than its trademarked 256 and between 1 and 10) to denote its quality is akin to rating World of Warcraft after a weekend of gold-farming, long before the full majesty of the game has blossomed and shown its true potential. The best we can do is rate our early impressions, undoubtedly influenced by the game’s prospects for the future while extrapolating to some degree using such factors as Zipper’s pedigree and our own penchant for smart, tactical games that offer depth and re-playability.
In fact, MAG almost demands a second pass in order to touch base on what will undoubtedly be a fuller, more detailed picture, and we intend to do such a re-review after spending more time with the title. Though this revisit might add or subtract from the final figure below, what adorns the bottom of this review is our opinion of where MAG stands now, on the brink of going live and opening up its doors to the gaming public, and is its official score.
- Audacious premise some will fall into and never re-surface from.
- Not another typical FPS; takes chances and pulls most off with aplomb.
- Promotes smart play and a collaborative effort, embracing the future of gaming as being online.
- Deep immersion.
- Huge scope for re-playability and customisation.
- Visually not the most impressive game out there.
- Controls can be finicky at times.
- Visibility of what’s going on at a higher level can be sometimes hidden to those on the ground.
- Enjoyment can depend on others’ investment in the idea of collaboration.
There’s no doubt Zipper Interactive have made a really great game with MAG. However, only time will tell whether or not they have made a truly exceptional one.
Full disclosure: this review is based on extensive play-through with the final open MAG beta along with time spent with the final version of the game at a MAG review event in London. This event – and hence the author’s expenses – were covered by Sony.