MAG, or Massive Action Game, stunned the masses when it was revealed at E3 2008. The game promised intense 256-player battles – not just skirmishes, but full-out wars. When the first MAG gameplay was revealed, however -- I’m not going to lie -- I was a bit underwhelmed. Sure, the fact that it ran at all was miraculous, but I was skeptical that the gameplay would be enjoyable. Now, however, I’ve had hands-on time with the game, and Zipper Interactive has convinced me that MAG will be magnificent when it arrives this fall.
The first thing to know about MAG is that, as the title implies, it is a massive experience. The war-torn, semi-urban map I played on with 255 others felt like an area from an MMO, not an online shooter. When you switch to the overhead map and view the buildings and terrain Google-earth style, the scale of the battle is astounding. That’s what MAG is all about: scale. From the basic soldiers to the eight-person squad leaders to the four-squad platoon leaders to the four-platoon company commander, everyone plays a role; some are simply more essential than others.
But I digress, for scale means very little without great gameplay. Zipper has quite a record of solid tactical gameplay with the SOCOM series, and the studio hasn’t disappointed here. That basic, fundamental satisfaction that comes by besting others in great shooters is present in MAG. Each time I got a kill and “+5 XP” popped up on screen, I felt an immediate sense of gratification. That is due to the tight, Call of Duty style aiming mechanics in conjunction with the massive arsenal of weapons spread across the three factions.
The factions are S.V.E.R., Raven, and Valor. S.V.E.R. (pronounced Sever) is composed of rogues who scrounge up whatever they can get their hands on, Raven is a high-tech, futuristic fighting force, and Valor -- the faction I joined -- is similar to the U.S. army. All factions have their own strengths and weaknesses, but I didn’t spend enough time with the game to really see that in action. I was promised, however, that no faction will be inherently “better” than another; all will be meticulously balanced – the MAG beta should help with that.
With such mammoth maps, foot soldiers and handheld guns can only do so much. There are a bevy of vehicles at players’ disposal, like jeeps, tanks, and helicopters. Additionally, once a team secures a particular point on the map, the team’s commander acquires the ability to call in airstrikes, which can really strike an opposing team’s weak point for massive damage.
At any given time, there are several team objectives on-screen, such as capturing a certain point, or, adversely, repelling the enemy. In a game as immense as MAG, communication and teamwork are integral to success. Of course, as you and Zipper both know, gamers aren’t always the most cooperative people. To generate that elusive cooperative environment, Zipper rewards squads that do work together and communicate to complete objectives with additional XP, as opposed to punishing players who don’t work alongside their team.
Visually, MAG is no Killzone 2, but to expect that level of graphical fidelity from a game eight times the players (of Killzone 2's 32 players) online is unreasonable. In the E3 build, I experienced some framerate drops when the action got heavy, and witnessed an animation bug or two upon death, but for an unfinished game with 256 players, it looks quite nice. Zipper will continue to work on the game over the coming months, and should be able to release a polished product at launch. I also expect heavy post-launch support, as it is an online-only game.
MAG is a quality experience, even at this early stage. Don’t worry – I’m not simply being magnanimous. From the half-hour I spent with the game, I’m confident that it will be a dominant force in Sony’s 2009 line-up, and will be played for many months -- if not years -- to come.