MAG (Massive Action Game) as the name suggests is a first person shooter that has an emphasis on being massive; supporting up to 256 players on a single battlefield. This promising feature has certainly gained the game interest for PS3 owners and Sony has made especially sure to promote it as one of the console best exclusives. I don the helmet and jump on in with 128 fellow teammates to determine just how successful developers Zipper Interactive have been.
Your first choice in the game is that of your characters race, from a selection of three: Valor Company, Raven Industries and SVER. The three different factions are explained through a short video that demonstrate different views and backgrounds, there is little more to determine a choice than this so I selected the Raven Industries who have an emphasis on high-tech weapons and armour – certainly a recipe for success. You can make a second character from another faction, but this first requires hitting level 60 (which is no easy feat). A word to the wise, S.V.E.R. are said to have an advantage in balancing at the moment; but I expect this will be rectified by balancing patches (or at least one would hope).
Outside of your faction choice you can select from a handful of different faces, voices and armour. You can also upgrade or change your arsenal, but this comes from levelling and earning skill points. Unfortunately you start the game as a blank canvas, with only three weapons, no attachments and few additional items (such as a repair kit and grenades). This makes the initial investment into the game tiresome as enemies you encounter will typically be kitted up to the nines, able to scope you out from distance and pick you off with their advanced weaponry; and by initial investment I mean around five hours.
By the time you hit level 10 the game finally opens up and allows you to begin specialising in the games impressive skill tree system. Do you want to sit prone from a distance and snipe the enemies? The sniper talent tree is for you. This will give you bonuses to accuracy, additional scopes for your rifles and a few new rifles to choose from. For me, it was the medic talent tree as everyone’s best friend is always the soldier that picks you up off the floor when you thought the curtains had closed. In MAG a fallen enemy is not fully lost until they bleed out, which gives vital moments for a medic to run in and bring them back to their feet. That is unless they were blown to bits by a grenade or shot in the face, of course.
Whilst it would be nice to comment that the only downside of the system was the unfair advantage veteran players get along with the slow start new players have to endure, there is also the fact that resetting your talent points so you can spend anew requires you to earn the right to do so – by collecting a wealth of respect points that require hours and hours of gameplay. If that wasn’t enough of a frustration (I spent a point in the wrong tree, and want it back!) there is also the fact that points are few and far between, which results in few actual upgrades to your arsenal and far less than you would expect in your smaller online first person shooters (you know, the ones that come with an entire single player campaign). Upon hitting level 15 you are granted leadership powers that provide additional gameplay elements and add benefits for your squad, but this customisation and unique addition, whilst welcome, is little to create a sense of individualism on the battlefield.
Putting all the qualms with the levelling system aside, we jump on into the important stuff: the gameplay. Before you run on in and get yourself killed though, it’s wise to go through the games tutorial in order to get to grips with the games controls, weapons and vehicles. Unfortunately after this you can only play one gameplay mode, limiting the player count to 64 players until you level up (okay, that’s the last complaint). This mode is Suppression and pits you against your own faction in a friendly team deathmatch environment. Pick a spawn, pick your gear, and away you go hunting down your own men on a small battlefield.
You will find that your time is Suppression is brief as the initial levels will pass by quickly, where you will then be allowed to step into Sabotage and Acquisition. Sabotage is another 64 player mode which introduces an additional faction, in which one team is required to attack two outposts whilst the other defends. If the attackers are successful at obtaining the two outposts another will become available that they must plant a bomb at in order to win the match. Failing this the match will end after a twenty minute countdown and the defending team will win.
Acquisition steps the game up a little more by allowing 128 players on a map. Similar to Suppression one team attacks whilst the other defends, this time being prototype vehicles that the attacking team need to control and manually drive to an extraction point. The introduction of vehicles is a welcome one, especially being able to spawn from helicopters to jump into the middle of the battle instead of at the initial spawn point at the back of the map every time. Death and spawning is certainly an issue, as with the player count increasing you notice that death can appear more frequently from areas unchecked, and having to wait for the respawn timer to tick down followed by a long run can become a large burden for the twenty minute matches.
The final mode, Domination, will not become available until level eight and is the only mode that allows the full 256 player battles. Lasting thirty minutes, the mode’s aim is once again attacking and defending, this time with eight different command points that the attackers need to take, and then slowly damage. Damage is done during the duration that the attackers control the command points, and taking down two will unlock a further two as you progress through the map.
Matches are fast, gameplay is frantic and death can strike at any time from any corner. This only becomes more and more apparent as the modes unlock and the player count rises. With 256 players you will find with the core gameplay consists of 128 players rushing a point with a timer, whilst 128 sit and try to defend; this becomes quite hectic and the possibilities for tactical precision manoeuvring becomes less and less. It was a common occurrence to find everyone in the squad with far more deaths than kills, and the players over level 50 that have been playing for a long time doing just as poorly as the newcomers. This demonstrates my feelings well, as I found that the higher the player count went up the less enjoyment was being had. For the sake of the review I stomached the torture of surprise deaths (and believe it or not, I was one of the highest scoring on the server) and looked forward to being able to return to the 64 and 128 player battles, where the combat was large, fast, frantic… but manageable and sensible.
Obviously this perception would be completely different if working in a small squad, all communicating with headsets and taking out the majority of solo players. Unfortunately this is difficult to pull off given the PS3 doesn’t come with a headset combined with the length and distant spawns pulling you away whenever you manage to group up and appear organised. Medics do aid this somewhat, and being pulled back up in the middle of a squad battle is a fantastic feeling and one which I hope other games and gamers take to.
From a technical perspective the game held its own and from my experience dismissed all fears of the lag issues which plague many other games. For the entire duration of the review, lag was not encountered at all, bullet registration felt spot on and finding a game was fast and easy. It’s surprising that if developers Zipper Interactive can do lobby management and server hosting so well, why can’t other developers? Graphically the game does not compare well to the most graphically intensive games on offer for the PS3, but this is to be expected given the sheer scale of battles the game can encounter. They are certainly pleasant and with the varied environments, clean UI design and general graphical polish throughout. Audio is also well done, particularly the fast paced audio tracks that burst out loud in the middle of an intense fire-fight, adding perfectly to the moment. Some graphical and audio hiccups can be found, but rarely take you away from the hectic gameplay for too long.
MAG certainly tries to raise the bar over the competition, and in some senses it succeeds. Unfortunately it has numerous faults that simply shouldn’t be there considering the game is lacking a campaign mode, and should have an emphasis on refining online play to perfection. I would recommend MAG to any fan of online shooters, but heed them a word of warning that the game will require patience to fully enjoy, and to drop the expectation that the game’s sale boasting player count is not the highlight.