Before diving into this review, or while you're reading, you might want to check out our previous MAG converage which includes video and developer commentary from CES 2010, Developer Q&A from E3 2009, and CES 2010 Impressions of MAG.
The idea of 256 simultaneous players in an online FPS sounds like something you would only find on PC, but SCEA and
Zipper Interactive have created this unique experience solely for the PS3. Massive Action Game, better known as MAG, has been out in the wild for almost a week now with thousands of players populating its servers and taking part in the ever changing Shadow War between three private military contractors. Nathan and I have spent a lot of time in combat over the past week, and are pleased to say it's been a hell of a good time.
When you first start up MAG, you will need to create your character and pick a Private Military Contractor (PMC). There's a short propaganda video for each contractor that gives some details on their philosophy of combat and urges you to join. Players can choose between Raven, Valor, and SVER. Raven is a European based firm that relies advanced tech and excellence in tactical execution. Valor was formed by some old US Special Forces men. Valor believes in the rules of engagement and while not as crisp and precisely trained as a Raven soldier, they still have every ability to get the job done. Finally, there is SVER, founded by a retired soldier. The founder wanted to change the world of crime she saw around her and began hiring criminals and felons into her PMC. Of the three, this PMC is the least formal, but remains a popular choice amongst players.
Choosing between the three PMCs is a big deal, because you can only have one character at at time. Outside of their philosophies and histories, which of course does not have a direct effect on what happens in game, the different PMCs have different appearances and weapons. I spent a few minutes agonizing over my pick, but I went with Valor, a decision I haven't regretted yet.
I was now ready to choose my character's appearance between a decent selection of preset head types and outfits. Some might call for more customization here, but you'll discover that once the battle starts, identifying players by their appearance isn't the norm. Instead, their team color and player name are the most obvious ways to distinguish anyone. At this point, you can also customize up to three loadouts for your character by choosing primary and secondary weapons and other gear. As you level up and increase your rank, you'll unlock additional loadout slots. There are a lot of guns and gear to choose from (and upgrade) as you level up your character. For typical usage, setting up an assault, sniper, and support (i.e., heavy machine gun) loadout works well.
Without even having taken a step into battle I was liking MAG's direction already. Having to choose between three factions and not being able to switch between them (without deleting and restarting your character) is a potentially risky, but interesting feature. I will point out that should you max out your character in one PMC by reaching level 60, you can switch factions with Veteran Mode. It's certainly possible to have as much fun and success as one faction as the other, but I liked that Zipper really wanted players to commit and be a part of an organization. That organization's success depends on soldiers fit for combat, so before anyone can dive into the Shadow War, they must complete Training.
Modes of Play
Training is a basic and brief introduction to the game's controls, all of which will be instantly familiar to anyone that has played a first person shooter. As complicated as massive battles and teamwork will get in MAG, I thought Zipper did a good job of making the controls and gameplay elements as accessible as possible to both newcomers and veteran FPS gamers alike. However, training does not put you in combat with other players or even CPU controlled bots, and it does not show you the goals behind any of the other modes of play. I think this is one area where Zipper could have improved MAG -- allowing players to train against bots in offline mode. I don't think this training should necessarily lead to Experience Points, but I do think just having the opportunity to explore the maps and run through the objectives with bots would have been quite helpful. Plus, if your internet connection is down or the MAG servers are down (haven't seen this yet, although they do have a nightly maintenance window), it'd be nice to still be able to play. Right now, despite the official MAG site indicating that an offline training mode is available, if I put my PS3 offline, I cannot even start the game. I also wonder that, as the number of experienced MAG players continues to grow, how difficult will it be for newcomers to join in and enjoy themselves?
Regardless of whether you are a newcomer or not, success is completely team dependent. That shouldn't come as a surprise, but it's absolutely true. After the ten minute training mode, you're ready for the game's first two modes: Suppression and Sabotage. Suppression is your basic "kill and don't be killed" mode that pits two teams of thirty-two players from within the same PMC against each other. This is a live practice drill, and while the game informs you that you aren't actually killing your fellow PMC members, you are in fact using practice rounds that 'hurt like hell.' That aside, you play like it's for real, and for all intents, it is. This is definitely the most straight-forward mode and it's one that I fall back to somewhat often after taking on other PMCs in the other modes. Players still earn experience here for kills, assists, reviving team mates, and winning the battle. There is only one map for Suppression, and it puts each team on opposite sides of a hill separated by a stream and plenty of old wooden buildings.
With Sabotage, the goal for the attacking team is to take control of two satellite uplinks and then destroy the opposition's data center. I love this mode for its simplicity and thrills. One thirty-two man PMC team is pitted against another, with each team being split into four squads. Two squads take on objective A, the other two go for B. The defenders are split similarly, although the ability to change spawn points and well, do whatever you like, means you can move your forces wherever. Both Objective A and B must be captured at the same time for the final Objective, C, to be unlocked. The battle takes place over a twenty minute period and control over an Objective can change hands between the two PMCs many times. Having to depend on the other half of your team on the other side of the map is interesting and exciting. Maybe your team has secured your objective and you're holding off the defenders from reclaiming it? Maybe you should send some of your men over to help out the other squads? There's
a lot of strategy involved here and it's up to the individual player to decide if he wants to stick with his team plan or not. In an ideal match, the players follow the instructions of the team leader, either by microphone or by the role your assigned (an icon next to your name in the lower right corner of the HUD), but naturally with an online crowd, that's rarely a sure thing.
Should the attackers manage to secure A and B, the rush towards Objective C is nothing short of awesome. The final location has all team members on both sides converging for a final standoff. At this point, the attackers can parachute in rather than having to spawn in all the way back at the original spawn points. Results after the twenty minute game time has expired are broken down into Major and Minor victories, or losses. Minor simply means that your team managed to get about half of the objective complete, like taking A and B but not C, for example. Major is for when you accomplished the entire goal, and more XP is awarded per team member in those outcomes. Additionally, the top three players (measured in earned XP) are shown here.
I won't go into as much detail about the other modes of play, but they include Acquisition, Domination, and Directives. You can't play Acquisition until you've earned Level 4. Acquisition is a 128 player mode and has the attacking team taking out enemy AA guns and stealing two vehicles. The first few times I played this mode I was overwhelmed but everything going on, but you'll get the hang of it. Domination and Directives require a level 8 character, and are both 256 player matches. The goal of Domination is to capture and hold eight points across the map. Directives is interesting in that it puts players into a queue and deploys them in whatever situation their PMC needs them in most to help their cause in the Shadow War. Great stuff.
Additional Gameplay Elements
MAG has a whole lot going on besides the number of players in a battle. I've touched on a few of the other aspects already, but let me elaborate on a few more, some of which may be obvious, but worth mentioning nonetheless. First, getting back to your character. Before Deploying into a game mode, players can visit the Armory to adjust loadouts or the Barracks to check on their Rank, Skills, Leadership, Awards, and Stats. Like other games, your Rank is dependent upon the XP you've earned in battle, which comes from killing enemies (5 XP), assisting in kills (3 XP), helping fallen comrades, winning, and so forth. From the Rank screen under Barracks, you can see what level you're at and what you need to get to the next level.
Under Skills, players can purchase upgrades to their person and gear. This includes new optics for their sniper rifle, ability to sprint for longer periods of time (very useful), improve reload speeds, etc. You can view the entire list of what upgrades are available for the different weapons and gear before making your first purchase, which is very handy in planning out your upgrade path. Purchasing can only be done through points earned by earning new Levels (or Rank).
Under Leadership, you can see what Leadership abilities you have, including leading Squads, Platoons, and eventually, being the Officer In Charge, or OIC, who is the sole commander of his team. The OIC gets info from the top down, and his decisions, as well as those at all tiers, makes a big impact. Leadership comes with not only prestige, but bonuses for those soldiers in your proximity. Increased running speed, resistance to gas grenades, and so forth come to you and your team when you become a leader.
Next up under the Barracks menu is Medals. Each Medal has a cool design and is awarded for a variety of accomplishments ranging from killing 2000 enemies to repairing x number of things to destroying so many enemy vehicles. Finally, a Stats window shows your kill ratio, your number of assists, highest kill streak, and what you've managed to accomplish in the assault rifle, machine gun, sniper rifle, submachine gun, and shotgun categories.
Two other points I want to throw in is what happens when your player dies in combat. By default, you are incapacitated and a countdown timer starts. Hopefully, a teammate with a medkit will come by and heal you up, but if you're impatient or no one is around, you can press X to Bleed Out and spawn in at the next available respawn queue. While waiting to respawn, you can change your spawn location and your loadout.
So how is actually, you know, playing MAG? I haven't purposefully avoided that discussion to this point, but it's the next reasonable topic to discuss. Many of you have have probably already played the beta, so much of this is known to you. As this is an online only game, similar to, although not as broad as an MMORPG, it can be hard to
quantify the experience. How much enjoyment and longevity you'll get out of MAG depends on a lot of factors. The same can be said for a lot of other games, but an online only title is in a class by itself. Now in terms of what Zipper brings to the table for MAG, it's great. The Shadow War is a neat concept, I've already mentioned I like the idea of the three factions and all other the ranking and leadership abilities, etc. The network code is very solid too. I had a single, brief disconnect from the MAG servers but for as brief as it was, it could have very well been something on my end. That said, all in game performance has been nothing short of smooth and responsive. The controls and in game mechanics are good too.
About the only point I'd make about MAG right now is just the need for some more maps in the coming weeks. I think there is enough action and modes and variety right now from one game to another to keep most folks pleased and playing for hours on end, but more maps will become necessary in the near future. I have no doubt that those are already in development though, so keep an eye out for DLC.
In terms of presentation, MAG looks and sounds good. In fact, I'm surprised at how good the game looks considering how many players it can support at one time. I have no qualms with the visuals other than some minor clipping issues that you might notice when a player goes prone or something like that. The sounds of the game are good too and are primarily gun fire and frag grenade explosions, not to mention squadmate chatter on the mic.
The only time MAG really suffers is when the team your were assigned to isn't working together. There's no room for a lone wolf in MAG if you want to have any kind of regular success, so getting a mic on and even joining a clan is highly recommended. Naturally, with online play, you'll encounter the gamut of players, but for the most part, the teams I played on were interested and working towards a common goal.
Having only been out a week, MAG's widespread and lasting success remains to be seen, but the foundation is absolutely there. The MAG community is building rapidly and I think it's only going to increase for the foreseeable future. It's an exciting game, an impressive technical achievement, and one that keeps me coming back for more. Long live Valor!