With its promise of battles featuring 256 online players, a feat yet to be attempted in a game, MAG’s surprise debut at E3 2008 gained instant intrigue at such ambitious scope. Exclusive to the PS3, MAG, formally known as the unassuming Massive Action Game, has since gained quite a following within the PSN community, thanks largely to its extended beta trials over the past few months. To put it simply, if there’s one game Sony wants to use to plug the PSN, this is it.
But here’s the predicament MAG faces – it’s now 2010 and the majority of PlayStation soldiers are either devoted to last year’s colossal Modern Warfare 2 pandemic or hotly anticipating the very promising Battlefield: Bad Company 2. Having been lodged into a squelching sandwich between two of the generation’s biggest first person shooters, MAG‘s release timing feels unfortunate. With this in mind, does it have the firepower to fend off its dogged opposition?
Much like Sony’s previous endeavour with Warhawk, MAG is a strictly online only experience by Zipper, the developers behind the acclaimed SOCOM series. You are first required to enroll with one of three PMC factions, choosing from the military style Valor, the obligatory terrorist group SVER and the more high-tech Raven black-ops.
Differences are mainly cosmetic: although select gear may differ, the abilities for each group remain similar. My gripe with these factions, however, is that you are restricted to your chosen PMC throughout the entirety of MAG unless you reach the top rank of level 60 or start over with a new profile, which is frustratingly restrictive.
As the name “Massive Action Game” may imply, there is very little personality to be found in MAG. Sure, there’s a loose back-story depicting the global Shadow War supposedly taking place in 2025, but with the absence of a plot driven single player campaign it’s never fully contextualised, limited to generic voice briefings and introductory cinematics.
Of course, you may argue that MAG delivers exactly what it says on the box, and you would be right, but the lack of substance in the characters and premise hampers the immersion somewhat. Honestly, it has all the personality of a bread bin.
A rudimentary training mission essentially teaches you how to move, which does little to prepare you for MAG’s rituals since it is devoid of any useful tuition for the various game types and team dynamics.
This leaves a lot to be desired, and, coupled with the omission of a single player mode to practice in, it’s easy to initially feel overwhelmed. Fortunately, the more daunting matches with 256 players are initially inaccessible until you rank up to level 8, meaning you actually have to work to earn such privileges.
MAG is comprised of four main game types, and players can be recruited into battle by simply joining a queue from the main menu and waiting for your chosen game of Suppression, Sabotage, Acquisition or Domination to commence. Suppression and Sabotage are your standard death match and objective based skirmishes for 64 players, but things become more interesting with Acquisition and Domination due to the influx of 128 and 256 players all vying to override the oppositions’ transports or command points.
MAG does an admirable job of handling these daringly vast battles, with minimal lag and smart squad management. Each squad is divided into a team of 8 players and 4 of these squads create a platoon of 32 players, with 4 platoons constituting a team of 128 soldiers.
Consequently however, because of this tight segmentation you never really appreciate the full scale. You can also enlist players from your friends list to join you as a group, allowing for voice communication in-between matches while also ensuring you land in the same squad together at all times.
Your initial instinct will be to go all Call of Duty, mercilessly massacring anyone who dares to cross your iron sight, but such gung-ho tactics will almost certainly result in instant death. It’s here that the game’s SOCOM roots become apparent as, unlike more traditional first person shooters, MAG puts an emphasis on strategic teamwork rather than individual performance.
This point is only heightened when you learn that medic players are your best friends, as they can instantly revive you should you fall victim to a shower of bullets. In contrast to most contemporary shooters, MAG doesn’t auto replenish health, although you can regenerate it yourself with the same tool used to revive others.
What’s more, medics also save you the hassle of horrific respawn times – squad respawns occur at set intervals, meaning you could potentially be waiting up to 20 seconds to get back into the action, which is tiresome and detrimental to the pacing of the match.
Ranking up will earn you vital experience points, allowing you to purchase additional weapons and abilities, and eventually apply for leadership roles. By pinpointing orders and objectives, squad and platoon leaders play a vital role in MAG, and can potentially divert the match into expertly co-ordinated conflicts or disastrous disarray.
While playing on the former team is satisfying, you are equally likely to be lumbered with a moronic team leader who drones down their headset with a shocking lack of puberty. To some, being constantly told what to do by a 14 year old simply isn’t very fun, whereas others will happily play along with the spirited teamwork.
The problem is, for a game of such magnitude to work every player needs to have ample dedication, and I’m not so sure your average player has the stamina or the patience. Hard-nosed teammates will often sneer at you, and sometimes even kick you, if you display the slightest hint of incompetence in a squad.
It’s all too stringent, resulting in a dry, mechanical atmosphere that makes MAG often feel like a chore to play through. It never really got my adrenaline pumping, and the constant slew of samey objectives in each match only adds to this monotony. Also, the 9 available maps are designated to specific factions, so you won’t have access to every available map in the game if you reside in the same PMC.
There’s also no denying that beneath its bombastic exterior lurks a decidedly average first person shooter – clunky combat is the order of the day and weapons lack the bite you come to expect.
Visually, MAG looks about as appetising as a stale crust of bread, sporting graphics that are embarrassingly dated compared to its competitors. Environments are left unpolished, devoid of any fine detail and explosion particle effects are especially poor, but this is the price you pay for such audacity.
Speaking of prices, MAG retails for the price of a full game which feels a tad too excessive considering it only works online with just four game modes and a handful of maps. It would have made more sense as a budget PSN Store download in the same vein as Warhawk.
MAG ultimately takes itself too seriously, creating a new breed of MMO shooters which is as off-putting as it is endearing. It’s certainly a unique console experience and I applaud its ambition, but this is a game that rewards and caters for its hardcore devotees, and is less inviting to the more casual crowd. Yes, it successfully unites 256 players in an all out war, but, while technically an impressive feat for a console, I value quality over quantity.
Overall, your experience of MAG will vary drastically due to this requirement of team coherence, resulting in a game that is riddled with bipolar disorder. At times it does work, however, so once the “n00bs” have been eradicated and MAG is left with the dedicated community it’s so clearly targeted for, it should come into its own fruition. Time will most certainly tell with this one.
Uninspiring graphics mar an otherwise solid online performance.
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Combat is clunky, but MAG's appeal lies with team participation, which can lead to either immense satisfaction or sheer frustration. If you have the right mindset, then it can be fun when everything comes together.
The weapons have no real depth and the fleeting dialogue and menu music lack any sort of charisma.
The ranking system is comprehensive but the shortage of game modes and maps don’t help matters, particularly as you see the same bland scenery all too often. Future Downloadable content could potentially solve some of these issues, however.
If you can recruit a legion of 256 like minded players then MAG would be an experience like no other, but its potential is sadly lost as, at this primal and critical stage, it still needs time to fully flourish.