One of the most overplayed and overproduced videogame genres is the first-person shooter market. We say overplayed as a substantial chunk of hardcore gamers flock to FPSs in droves, often ignoring the chance of dipping their toes in to other genres. The basic formula for the FPS has been in place for quite a while. Over the years we’ve seen a nice thick coat of polish through improved glittery graphics, enhanced gameplay controls, and of course, online multiplayer. Whether you are indulging in a spot of Killzone 2 or Modern Warfare 2, you’re still going hands-on with titles that share fundamentally near identical gameplay mechanics. Sure, different games in the genre have a multitude of highlights and features, but by and large, the real big advancements in FPSs come far too slowly and usually provide little to actually enhance the formula.
With that in mind, we tip our hats to Sony and Zipper Interactive for trying to push the genre ahead by creating the first massive online action game for a console. The sheer size and scale of this undertaking is impressive, and the actual execution seems to work pretty well, minus some shortcomings. We say it “seems” to work pretty well because the game is an online experience and will be shaped by the people who play it, alongside whatever patches or DLC are released. Therefore, reviewing a game that is living and breathing through its online community is quite difficult. While our score reflects the game’s first week of availability, there is potential for the gaming experience to drastically change as the online community develops.
MAG is a PlayStation 3 exclusive that is only playable online. There is no single player campaign, and besides the short tutorial at the beginning, the entire game is a large multiplayer romp. While the actual gameplay is nothing more than a typical FPS, there is more to the game than just enormous gun battles. MAG has some mild character development tools, but what really sets the game apart is the strategy required by your squad to win. This is not a game for the lone wolf. If you think you can survive your opponent’s onslaught by slipping behind enemy lines, think again. Since 256 players can participate in a single match, chances are you will be spotted, no matter how well you hide in the bushes.
It’s the year 2025 and three factions of private military corporations are waging battles in an otherwise peaceful world. That peace is forced because country’s militaries are scaled back and they are not allowed to leave their borders. The battles waged between the three PMCs to win contracts created the “Shadow War.” The PMCs include S.V.E.R., a force from the Middle East and Russia that learned to fight with what it had. Valor is more of the traditional armed military, while Raven, which is from Western Europe, utilizes the most high tech equipment. When you start the game you will choose to serve one of the three PMCs. Despite the described differences, the only thing you’ll likely notice among the PMCs is largely of aesthetic value. At this early point in the game, S.V.E.R. is the dominate faction. As the game progresses, we will likely see a change in the prevailing PMCs.
This is a game that will take a while to get used to, and even longer to play well. The controls are relatively standard for a FPS, but even a veteran of the genre may need a few sessions to really get comfortable with the way MAG handles. One of our biggest complaints, although it doesn’t mean this is a bad game, is that the user interface and mission objectives are not well detailed. You can easily get lost rotating weapon line-ups, learning how to heal fallen comrades, or what signal station you are supposed to capture. A hardcore FPS fan will have no problem with anything described above, but for the casual FPS player, all of these points will take some getting used to. MAG is geared toward the hardcore FPS gamer, someone who feels at home taking their time to snipe their opponents and not just run around the battlefield looking for kill shots. Given the fact you will only play this game online, there is a terrific sense of accomplishment in winning battles and completing objectives. But, if you are a gamer who is not crazy about this genre, the game will have very little to offer you outside the collective experience that comes with 256 PS3 owners competing together online.
Upon launching the game you’ll go through a brief tutorial to teach you the basics. You’ll have to learn how to really play the game in the heat of battle, so don’t be surprised if you die – a lot. There are several different game modes to play. You’ll probably start with Suppression, which is your bread n’ butter death match. Once you learn how to kill your enemies, you’ll progress to control objective modes like Sabotage. The Domination mode has a direct impact on the global Shadow War. To start a game, all you have to do is “deploy” your unit, and enter a queue for whatever mode you choose to play. The good news is the queues do not take long since there are so many people playing the game. This could change over time, but at this point you won’t wait longer than a minute or so for a queue.
Whichever two factions get the appropriate number of players to start a match will get the green light to start. As mentioned, the queues will not take too long, so you’ll likely find the action comes pretty quickly. When that action does come, it will be intense and require an awful lot of strategy. Since this is a game based heavily on its action, it’s important to note that while the combat has a learning curve; it is quite fun and extremely team oriented. As mentioned before, this is not a game to play with the intention of winning the war on your own. At no point did we feel like we were grinding for levels, instead, we felt like we were a part of a giant band of players, joined together for one purpose: to win. If you have to put the controller down for half a minute, chances are you’ll be dead from a sniper bullet or a quick knife to the back of the head.
During combat you will receive experience points for different deeds – killing enemies, healing comrades, etc. These experience points can be spent on various upgrades to your soldier and his arsenal and armor. This is where you can further customize your character. MAG’s character customization, while not revolutionary, is a welcome addition to the FPS genre.
When you die you have several seconds to wait around for someone to heal you. While you wait, take a moment and look out on the battlefield, you may be impressed at the sheer scope of the clash. No, these aren’t the best graphics to grace the PS3 or a FPS, but the detail is great given how many people are playing together online. The maps are quite large and filled with plenty of stuff to hide behind. The only problem we had in regards to maps was during Domination. The map is quite big, and if you get separated from your squad you will probably not see anyone for a while. This isn’t a problem if you stay with your teammates like you are supposed to, but if you happen to look away for a moment, or get disoriented in a gun battle; you will need to search for your teammates
As we’ve mentioned several times, MAG requires you to play as a team. You’ll get bonuses for following your squad’s leader. You’ll join a battle of 128 players broken up into four platoons. Those platoons are then broken further into four squads of eight players. The leaders for each division can give orders and bonuses. The communication isn’t always perfect and some of MAG’s presentation creates some problems. Still, if your team uses voice chat and can take orders, it’ll have an enormous advantage over your opponents. The communication aspect of MAG is key. Without it, your team will run around just trying to kill as many enemies as possible, forgetting its mission. This happened to us on many occasions. Or leaders wouldn’t give proper orders, or squad members would take off on their own direction, and even when we caught up to two or three allies, it was too late; chaos ensued. If you don’t have proper communication with your team, the game can get pretty ugly.
One of the game’s biggest problems (or, potential problems at this point), is how well the factions are balanced. Right now, S.V.E.R. dominates. This is having a multitude of affects on the actual gameplay experience. The most noticeable is that many people are noticing the factions’ strength, and deleting their Valor or Raven character to start a S.V.E.R. one. Since you can only have one character, which means that while S.V.E.R. forces increase, the other two drop. The dominate faction gains passive buffs, meaning that S.V.E.R. is even tougher to defeat. Zipper will need to sort out how it plans to balance factions or else S.V.E.R. will continue to dominate and the other factions will continue to lose members. This is a reoccurring issue for just about every online competitive game.
The game also has some pretty significant and noticeable glitches, largely they occur during death. We had one or two instances where we couldn’t respawn, likely form server lag. Even though we had some occasional problems, we are actually impressed at how stable the game runs given its impressive number of players who can compete together.
MAG is not for the casual gamer. In fact, over the next several weeks and months, it’s likely the online experience will be quite different than it was at launch. That’s because there will be a core base of gamers who enjoy this style of action. Time will likely sort out those who don’t enjoy FPSs. But, for those who love this sort of online game, MAG will be around to provide a massive experience for quite a long time.
MAG’s greatest strengths rest in its ambition and sheer scale. That’s not to say it’s without faults, but even its issues are not real problems. Since the online experience will change as the community continues to refine itself, this review only serves as a real basic look into the grand scale of MAG. It will be interesting to see what the game has to offer as the Shadow War continues to develop. As a shooter, MAG has little innovation, but as an online game, Sony and Zipper have set a new bar for what we should expect from our multiplayer experiences. While it’s not perfect, there will be a lot of people who will flock to MAG for the ability to play with 256 players. It’ll be interesting to see if the game can attract a new audience over the next few months, however.
-The Final Word-
MAG is one of the most ambitious games we've played in a long time. While at its core it's nothing more than a basic FPS, what sets this game apart is the volume of players who can compete together.