MAG Event – London, January 20th

There’s something innately satisfying about seeing 128 PS3s in one room; a hive-mind collective no doubt capable of launching humans into space or at least solving some problems closer to home. Like global warming or why Dollhouse got a second season. Not that we can see really see them, of course – their locations secretly hidden by a massive skeletal framework of iron pipes and Sony flatscreens that just so happen to spell out 2,5 and 6 in giant neon numbers across the floor. There’s something innately satisfying about seeing 128 Sony Bravias in one room …

But we’re not here to marvel at hardware, we’re here to play MAG, Zipper Interactive’s bold “MMO with guns”, a strategic shooter from the minds that gave us SOCOM. Good SOCOM that is. On the run-up to the game’s release, and after a series of closed and open betas (I ask Zipper’s Ben Jones later on about the beta count and he laughs, almost maniacally, “Are we counting all the point iterations? I don’t know. A lot,”) the MAG launch event held at London’s P3 was Sony’s way of declaring to the world that MAG is coming. And it’s coming real soon.

– ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW –

To some, especially those who found the betas lacklustre or simply not to their taste, MAG is an aberration; an FPS that doesn’t look as nice as some of the genre’s other big hitters, or a venture that – despite all the drum-banging about its scale – though hinting at something bigger going on in the background, the fact that you’re so close to the fray, you can’t really see what the other 255 people are up to. Never mind interact with them. Or shoot them for that matter. This event was the creator’s way of showcasing just what MAG is and, tellingly, just what MAG is not trying to be.

I arrived in London after narrowly dodging an airport strike in my hometown – an auspicious omen I take as meaning the rest of the day will go swimmingly. Amazingly, it does; with few hiccups experienced by all in what was, logistically at least, a challenging endeavour. Sure, when MAG launches on January 29th and people start levelling up in order to unlock its Big Daddy mode – Domination: a 256 persistent online frag-fest – such technical feats will be ho-hum. But try herding 128 journalists and community members into the same room, hooking them all up together with the intention of imparting what is essentially a deep and multilayered game over the course of a few hours, and a whole slew of  new headaches surface. Trust me. Online gaming is easy when everyone is sitting in the comfort of their own home. Putting so many people together in close proximity and actually pulling off a game event of this scale is an art-form.

Before we get our hands on the game, however, we’re welcomed to the spectacle by Bradley, The Voice of MAG. He’s an impressive guy, with arms the size of most people’s legs and a tenor that resonates around the subterranean level with or without the need of a microphone. Fittingly for the game in question, P3 is essentially a bunker – a large open space secluded in the heart of London city and, as a venue, it works. Apart from man-mountain Bradley, decked in full combat regalia, we also have the MAG girls, four comely bullet-strewn lasses eager to pose for a picture or spend time marveling at the wide range of specimens from the geek genus that have invaded P3.

We’re also welcomed by the aforementioned Ben who promptly gives us the obligatory introduction to what MAG is. He kicks off his talk with the opening intro footage to the game; a montage of PMC (Private Military Corporation) tomfoolery around the globe featuring the usual militaristic bravado and battle sequences. It’s what you’d expect really, and sets us up nicely for the action to come.

Over the course of the afternoon we play a few rounds of Suppression and then Sabotage, the two opening modes players will soon be very familiar with upon the game’s imminent launch. Suppression is essentially a training exercise; a smaller scale incursion against members of your own PMC with the base objective to just kill the other guy. After you’ve gotten the hang of the controls and how the game plays, you will have levelled up and are ready for Sabotage – a traditionally more objective oriented mode with bombs planted and defused akimbo. As a game mode, it’s a much more tactical insight into what MAG is capable of.

We break for lunch – a surprisingly hearty steak and kidney pie with mash and gravy – and the bar adds alcoholic drinks to its range of beverages on offer. It’s between these respites from the frontline that Zipper pop up to the podium in the briefing area and offer some tips and guidance to getting the most out of MAG. Soon enough it’s Domination time as we return to our screens for the final push – a 256 battle with the developers from Zipper who – though they may be face-less, we can at least hear their smack talk thanks to MAG’s proximity chat feature – are online in Seattle and ready to wipe the floor with us.

Shockingly, we pull off the impossible and defeat Zipper at their own game. Maybe they were taking it easy on us, maybe they were suffering worse lag than we were (and we were suffering) but we’ll take whatever we can.

Regarding the lag issue (and I’m sure other people at the event will mention it), yes indeed, the Domination rounds were plagued with latency problems. From speaking to Lead Designer Scott Rudi later on, I could tell that the creators of the game were pissed that, after bringing everyone to one place to show off their baby, lag then rears its ugly head. Thankfully, the source of the annoyance was not the game or the game’s soon to be switched on servers, but a local networking gaffe. It still monumentally pissed Zipper off though. Which is a good sign when you think of it.

The second Domination match is going extremely badly. Well, for me at least. I spawn in the APC and immediately get rocketed. I then start experimenting with tailored load-outs, kitting myself with the perfect weapons of war only for us to advance on the field and hence render my sniper and long-range tactics totally ineffective. I have to die before switching back to the close-quarter configuration. Big deal. Well, this is the main event, the final contest against Zipper with some tasty prizes waiting for the best player on our side and, as I’ve made MVP a couple of times during the early rounds, I reckon I’m in with a shot. A long shot perhaps,  especially considering there are players here who have experience from all of the early betas (I only got in at the end) but a shot nonetheless. Which makes it even more heart-wrenching that, five minutes before the battle countdown hits zero, I have to abandon my post and head upstairs to interview Zipper.

I try and wrangle a consolation t-shirt out of Sony’s Corey Brotherson and Jem Alexander, but they’re wise to my wily ways. The Champions League final tickets and PSP Go find their way to some other undoubtedly more deserved player than I. As people’s tweets from around the world (if you used the hashtag #MAG256, I probably saw it. Yes Zuler, that includes yours) are cast up on the event’s wall like some sort of illuminated channel of MAG flavoured mayhem, I learn that we actually beat Zipper again in the second round. Chalk a big win up for the slightly inebriated Europeans. And don’t say it was because you weren’t playing Kovacs.

After chatting with Ben about the event and MAG in general (interview will be up tomorrow as I still have to transcribe it) we head out for some sociable drinks and then dinner with the guys from Sony and Zipper. Everyone was stellar (thank you Laura, Ian and Jen from SCEE for your hospitality once again) but I feel I should make a special mention to Destructoid’s Jim Sterling and Zipper’s Scott Rudi, who, despite jet-lag and hotel cock-ups, stayed up to the wee hours of the morning with me talking about everything from how games don’t need to be art, to why the Forgotten Realms fantasy setting needs to have its own MMO game. Stat.

All-in-all, a good day with some great people. As for MAG itself, expect us to take it through its paces in a review this Monday.

If you zoom in on the above and look toward the bottom half of the “5”. The guy in the checked shirt? That’s me.

– PAGE CONTINUES BELOW –