Review: MAG

May 27, 2010, Author: James Sheppard

MAG, short for Massive Action Game, is the latest title exclusive for the Playstation 3 from Zipper Interactive, most known for the SOCOM franchise. From this you could gather that MAG is probably going to be a tactical team-based shooter, and you’d be absolutely right. However, if you know nothing else about MAG whatsoever, then there’s probably one fact (or figure) you’ll be aware of that sets it apart from its predecessors, and in fact any other shooting games made to date. 256 players… at once. So, how well does this work in practice? Even more importantly, does the game have much else going for it besides this insanely high player count? As of this time of writing, there is no playable demo for a game that I feel is of a very Marmite-esque disposition.

It’s a Kind of MAGic
MAG is set in 2025, with the typical fuel shortages and globalisation that you would come to expect from a fictional dystopian view of the future. In this era, private military companies fight in the ‘Shadow War,’ a secret conflict to secure contracts and money. MAG gives you the option to fight in one of three PMCs fervently battling it out: Valour; your typical patriotic army types kitted out in camo from America and Britain, Raven; a European faction with the highest weapon and vehicle technology out of the three, and S.V.E.R, (Seryi Volk Executive Response, pronounced ‘Sever’); a group mostly from Asian countries equipping whatever they can get their hands on, and mostly resembling terrorists. At the start of the game, you get to pick a faction and you are then stuck with them unless you delete your character, or reach the maximum level, whereby you are permitted to ‘Vet’ to a new faction, with a 10% EXP boost. As you can imagine, you grow loyal to this faction and can genuinely care about whether they’re doing well or not in the Shadow War.

The rather limited storyline I’ve detailed is about all you get in MAG; this is a multiplayer-only game with only a brief intro sequence when you boot the game up, a non-descript tutorial to give you a vague practice of the basics, and no campaign to get a real feel for the story. As a result, this big ‘Shadow War’ just seems like an empty premise to loosely hang the actual game on, and leaves the experience feeling lacking in character and a bit soulless. It’s not really the most enthralling or worthy cause to fight for either.

I can see my house from here...

I can see my house from here...

MAGively Multiplayer Online
MAG has been touted as a Massively Multiplayer Online first person shooter, and in a sense this is true. You pick a ‘race,’ and earn experience as you play to ‘level up’ and unlock new skills and items. It’s also got the ‘Massive’ part covered, with 256 players and huge maps. This premise has worked well for many other FPS games in the past, such as Battlefield and Call of Duty, and it definitely works well here. In fact, it’s perhaps the most addictive factor, because you’ll be a rather pathetic weakling to begin with, with default weapons, and lacking in the ability to heal and revive. Other skills that can be unlocked are weapon attachments, stability and accuracy improvements, explosion resistance, and increased health. This has the usual backwards-thinking result of new, inexperienced rookies being at further disadvantaged than those seasoned veterans with experience and skill. It’s a necessary evil in games of this ilk though, and it certainly gets you hooked.

Something unique that is unlocked with higher levels is the ability to lead, and this is something that works really well. When you reach level 15, you can become a squad leader, and by earning leadership points for doing a good job, you can eventually unlock the ability to become platoon leader. As a leader of the battle, you can order your squad mates which objective to attack/defend/repair/generally stay in the vicinity of, by setting a ‘FRAGO’ or Fragmentary Order on it, and whereas people can be free to ignore it, and yes, many will be guaranteed to ignore it no matter how much you order/coax/persuade/scream at them, the players essentially receive double experience points for anything they do in that area.

This is done using a very well-designed map brought up with the select button, and also has the function of calling air-strikes and other leadership abilities. However, leadership is something absolutely crucial to this game, and with no practice available whatsoever for these abilities and no single-player campaign or bot matches, the first time I tried becoming a squad leader, I was FRAGO’ing the most useless objectives possible, air-striking my own team, and generally being about as useful a leader to my team as a blind, rabid Alsatian with a megaphone. Needless to say I was shouted and cursed at, and kicked from squad leader faster than you can say ‘mutiny!’

You lot! Attack... them lot over there

You lot! Attack... them lot over there

Teamwork is generally something this game does very well, especially if you’re part of a clan, or have enough friends. Otherwise, there is a possibility you’re going to end up with an incompetent leader or squad. However, when it works, it works fantastically and a well-lead squad with microphones can accomplish more than two squads’ worth of antisocial, ignorant lone wolves put together. This is one game where it really doesn’t pay to work on your own, as it is so easy to be outnumbered, and the high level of character health that players have means you are even unlikely to get a few lucky kills before you’re taken down, simply because it takes too long to shoot each player dead. As far as the gunplay goes, it is a very generic affair with clunky controls. Nothing new is brought to the table here, and what is offered is of a lower standard than the leaders of its genre.

The range of weapons is adequate, with a selection of two or three assault rifles, LMGs, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, a shotgun and an SMG per faction, with most requiring unlocks as you level up. There are definite variations between the factions, with Raven generally having more accurate but slightly weaker weaponry, SVER toting powerful yet rickety, unreliable guns that spray all over the place and Valor being somewhere in between. Unfortunately, one of the main issues with the game starts to crop up here, and that is imbalance. A title that is multiplayer-only should be supremely well balanced, with anything less inexcusable.

LMGs in MAG are renowned for being ridiculously overpowered; a weapon that is effective for any situation. Running and gunning up close they have decent power, at mid-range they are as effective as an LMG should be, and they can even be used to snipe by tapping the fire button, particularly if you are prone. Recently, a patch has been released to try and fix this huge advantage but it only goes so far, and is arguably a cop-out by just making them a tad more inaccurate. Speaking of patches, there are quite a few bugs I’ve come across, such as seizure-prone corpses, entire clips of ammo seeming to do no damage, and some items having an inexplicable tendency to blow up in your face, such as grenades or rocket launchers you’ve just fired, or vehicles you’re sitting in. Hilarious.

There are a few more nasty leeches sucking out some of the fun that could be had in this game, particularly for those of us with little patience. Spawn time can be up to twenty seconds, which is a long time to wait when all you’re doing is staring at the bunker you’re waiting to spawn into, watching the counter… slowly… tick… down. If they were so set on having a twenty second spawn time, they could have at least had more for us to do, like watch a Killcam, (sorry, COD haters) or at the very least been able to watch the battle in a more exciting way. You are also unable to spawn with your squad leader and so have to spend your time running all the way back up to where you were again, probably to be blown up and sent right back to square one once more. There’s even a trophy incentive for enemies to spawn kill you as you drop in by parachute!

Pipin' hot

Pipin' hot

There are four main modes in MAG: Suppression, a 32 player deathmatch amongst your own faction, Sabotage, a 64 player mode to take out two enemy towers and storm their base, Acquisition, once again doubling to 128 players and requiring the destruction of enemy bunkers, and the capturing of an advanced technology APC, and then finally the 256 player Domination; a large scale effort to capture towers, destroy anti-air support and capture eight objectives. By choosing ‘Directives’, the game automatically recruits you for which mode your faction needs you most. I feel there are several missed opportunities with the game modes of MAG. Firstly, there are only ever two different PMCs in one battle, on an attack or defend basis, so no three-way matches, and no large deathmatch mode against other factions.

Secondly, only one mode actually even has the famous 256 player count. Finally, each faction has one map each for each mode, with the Suppression map just based on their Sabotage one, making a total of only nine maps, which a regular player will tire of quite easily. These shortcomings are a major disappointment. Also, the huge, nagging issue of imbalance rears its ugly head once more. For each mode there are ‘contracts’ won by the factions for how well they are performing, with three contracts to go around for each mode. As a general rule of thumb, SVER usually has two contracts for every single mode, making a total of six out of nine, or five on an off-day. Raven on the other hand generally has one or two if it’s lucky, and Valor has between two and three. This highlights the major imbalance between the factions; something that has never been tackled since the day of release. I can’t put my finger on whether it is the weapons, players or the maps that give the advantage, but I am inclined to go with the latter, with SVER’s maps often being impenetrable compared to other factions. The lack of balance in this game is appalling, to the extent where my game statistics show that in the matches I’ve participated in as Raven, my team has lost more than twice as much as it has won. Maybe I’m just bad luck?

Visually MAGnificent?
For a game on such a large scale, it is understandable that the graphical detail would have to be toned down considerably to avoid framerates more jittery than a seven year old girl being fed coffee and E-numbers through a drip… whilst being forced to watch The Exorcist… suspended above a pool of hungry sharks… Anyway, textures are bland, explosions and particle effects all look a bit artificial, character models are generic, lacking variety and the game generally looks like we should have been playing it last generation. It’s functional, though, not quite to the point of being an eyesore, and does enable 256 players to participate reasonably smoothly. However, it probably detracts from the experience a tad, and for an action-packed, large scale battlefield shooter the experience is important. It would be shallow to say the graphics are everything, although it would be nice if the gameplay shone through with more consistency to make up for it.

The Sound of MAGness
When you fire up the game it’ll blare out the familiar THQ screen, which fills you full of confidence for the quality of the audio in MAG. Expect it to be let down. Sometimes explosions and gunfire in the distance can sound quite immersive, but these are ruined by terribly cheesy voice acting with repetitive phrases such as ‘You have brought me back!’ when a character is revived, ‘I can’t take the pain!’ When you bleed out, and rubbish pep talk from your superiors as you enter a battle. Weapons can often sound a bit weedy also, and you get a silly ‘whoosh’ noise each time you whip out your knife. The sound in MAG is certainly not its major downfall though, and fits in nicely with the standard of the sub par graphics as ‘not abysmal, but no more than functional.’ Sometimes it would actually be nice to get more sounds in the game, that make it more obvious when you use the heal/revive tool, or voices to give more of an opinion on how the battle is going. If you and your team are playing the game properly however, it’ll be each others’ voices that are the most important sounds you’ll be listening out for.

Attack of the Yellow Lines...

Attack of the Yellow Lines...

A Bixed MAG
Sorry for the Spoonerism there. I was on a roll with managing to fit ‘MAG’ into every subtitle.

Overall, I may not be popular with some hardcore MAG players for saying this, but I think it is a failed experiment. Yes, they absolutely succeeded in making a playable 256-player first person shooter game, with brilliant team-play, on a console of all platforms, but the game itself has so many flaws. The graphics and sound are lacking, the overall breadth of content is disappointing, there are technical issues, and the player is chucked in at the deep-end with no campaign or training to properly try out their skills (the waste-of-space tutorial teaches you to do little else than things that we’ve been doing in shooting games for years, such as crouching under obstacles and erm, y’know, shooting).

Most of all, however, the final straw is the appalling excuse for balance that leaves the LMG dominating the weapons roster, and SVER dominating the other two factions. Who knows, maybe these things will be fixed one day but MAG has been out for quite a few months now and there is little sign of it. The website has had a recent poll, touting how from now on, changes to the games will be ‘down to the players!’. Their first priority to determine from players? If the time limit for Domination should be lowered. Raven and Valor already have a hard enough time trying to break through the defences of SVER that are the steel fortress to their bows and arrows, and the idea of lowering the time limit for their desperate attempts from thirty minutes to a proposed twenty minutes is ludicrous. Unsurprisingly, when I checked the results, around 80% of voters were against the idea.

It’s a shame that MAG is full of so many faults, because it really had a lot of promise. It’s a real testament to Zipper that they managed to make a 256 player FPS game work. That said, I feel that it’s a tech demo many developers, themselves included, will work on and create many new exciting multiplayer experiences from. As it stands, I would not condemn MAG entirely but feel it lacks far too much polish to award it anything more than a firm ‘Try It!’ rating.


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