Reviewing a game like MAG is often times difficult because it drastically changes depending on whom you play with. For all 256 players to be skilled is most unrealistic. You need teammates who are willing to listen to commands, think of battle strategies, and all-around looking to enjoy themselves. If that’s the case, MAG is one of the best online shooters. Once you’re stuck with a large group of individuals, your fun factor quickly drops several notches. Make no mistake; MAG requires a lot of time, devotion and structure to be fully enjoyed.
MAG was developed by Sony’s go-to team for online shooters, Zipper Interactive. If that name doesn’t sound familiar, then it’s likely you weren’t around when the PS2 finally got its butt online. Zipper is behind SOCOM, one of Sony’s most popular online shooters. When they first announced their PS3 game, Massive Action Game/MAG, all of E3 thought the idea was intriguing. Put 256 players together on a battlefield with a first-person view, and let them dictate how the world comes together and evolves. Add in customization, a great stat-tracking service and much more. Sony even hosted a public beta to allow everyone the chance to see what MAG was about. With the history lesson finished, let’s jump right in. What works and what doesn’t?
Upon booting MAG, your first task is to select a faction. It’s extremely important too, because you can’t switch unless you delete that soldier and create a new one. Well, that’s not entirely true, but for many players it will be. Each faction (S.V.E.R., Valor Company, Raven Industries) employs distinct equipment that handles slightly different than another’s, and its members hail from varying regions around the globe. S.V.E.R., for example, is made up of mostly Middle-Eastern and Russian soldiers, while US, Canadian and UK men encompass Valor. Your personal geographic location doesn’t determine who you fight for, but the ethnic diversity adds authenticity to the story, which has everyone vying for military contracts in the ‘Shadow War’. Epic, no?
Getting started is very simple. Select a mode, wait for others to join, and away you go. The match-making links the first two teams with enough players, and don’t worry, a full 256 isn’t initially necessary. Lobbies fill up quickly thanks to the volume of players playing the game. Keep in mind that only a few modes are available at first. What will happen in a year or so remains to be seen, but right now entering a match is as easy as selecting a few options, waiting for a minute or so, and killing everything possible. When a battle concludes, a ‘contribution’ meter fills up a little, which eventually nets players special attributes.
Before I continue, note that Zipper has been working around the clock to ensure an overall balance. When MAG first shipped, S.V.E.R. was the noticeably go-to faction. That’s no longer the case. This is one reason why we prefer to review these sorts of games several weeks after launch. It takes some time for things to settle in, especially dealing with an online-only game. This is important is because of the rewards I keep alluding to. For each ‘level-up’, a player receives passive enhancements that makes winning easier. You can see how one faction may overpower everyone else if it’s the most popular. Thankfully Zipper is paying very close attention to this.
There are four modes on top of basic training. By basic, I mean things like learning to use primary and secondary weapons, throwing grenades and other useful information. Unfortunately, training doesn’t instruct on turret, vehicle or mini-map use, and all are vital. As a result, you have to learn the ins and outs on the actual battlefield. Prepare to die a bit and experience some growing pains.
Before discussing the modes, let’s talk the respawn system. Respawning occurs over 20-second intervals. Every 20 seconds, anyone who died is revived. If the invisible counter is at 19 and you die, only one second passes before you return. Although, medics can heal teammates who are injured before they die. This works very well, especially if you play close to squad mates, since chances are you would be revived long before needing to respawn. There’s a tactical twist to almost every single element in MAG.
The first real mode is a 32v32, 64-player team deathmatch known as Suppression. The objective is to eliminate the opposing team. Next is Sabotage, another for 64 players, where one team is dispatched to destroy a datacenter and capture two satellite dishes. Once the 256 Domination option rolls around, the game becomes very interesting, and the idea is to capture and hold several areas. That said, capturing anything requires taking out turrets, vehicle depots and more. Here it’s crucial to work closely with your teammates, otherwise you will fail. When the action heats up, Domination is insane. Your fun depends on who you play with, and how you play. Last is the 128 player Acquisition mode, the most well-balanced of all. One team attempts to capture two experimental vehicles, while the other tries to stop them. These four allow for hours of entertainment, and are tweaked all the time by Zipper.
Progression depends on what mode you play, as experience requirements change. In Suppression, experience is gained through enemy kills. Otherwise, you’re completing objectives, healing fallen teammates, etc. Experience eventually leads to a new level, and a skill point, which can be used for passive abilities, or selecting a new piece of equipment. This is where your play style comes in. Remember, leveling depends on what you play and how you play. A medic, for example, levels up fastest because all they do is heal fallen teammates, which happens every second.
Specific levels also award new abilities. One happens at level 60, where players can create a new character, and what I referred to at the beginning. Another milestone occurs at level 15, where players can apply for a leadership position. Becoming a squad leader unlocks various abilities, such as calling in an air strike, decreasing your team’s respawn time, etc. Also, players who stick with their current squad leader enjoy increased experience, damage resistance and a few other goodies. It boils down to whether you want to take command of the fight with new abilities or stay with your current team and reap the rewards that way. I’ve found the benefits of both to be very well-balanced.
The general mechanics are solid across the board, but not overly fleshed out. This is a hardcore shooter. You’re going to die a lot. If you aren’t into the genre, the chances of being sniped before firing one shot are high. If you want to play but wait too long, it’ll feel like everyone else has a significant advantage, because they do. Time and daily practice are a must to net enough experience for enjoyment. Gun balance is fair, and progression depends on how many hours you invest. Grenades are slightly unbalanced. By lobbing a few at the enemy, your chances of scoring a kill are all but assured. The blast radius is so large that I found it to be one of the best methods for gaining enemy kill experience. Zipper still has many patches to release in order to balance MAG 100%.
That means you can also expect a wide assortment of bugs. Zipper has already updated the servers and fixed a few issues, but I’ve noticed some that will have to be addressed down the line. It’s not uncommon to see players stuck, floating in the air, being run over when a vehicle isn’t even moving, etc. These aren’t present in every match, but happened enough to be noticeable. Even so, you may never notice these issues. I will say though, for the number of players playing, lag is almost never present. That’s impressive.
Aside from bugs , the maps are extremely large and surprisingly detailed given the sheer number of players. Just don’t expect Heavy Rain graphics here. The framerate remains stable with decreased textures. When you witness 256 gamers in action on these large maps with bullets flying everywhere, you start to realize how impressive MAG is. In terms of the audio, MAG is THX-certified, and that’s clear. The weapon fire is spot-on, and grenades sound more powerful than they actually are. The DTS/Dolby Digital surround sound turns your gaming room into a war zone. Meanwhile the soundtrack is lacklustre, at least in terms of building up tension between the factions. Although there really isn’t a need for a soundtrack to begin with.
MAG is an impressive shooter, but at $60 I didn’t see enough gameplay variation to be considered an instant buy. Some aspects floored me, but others disappointed. I think there needs to be a bit more. If you’re a hardcore FPS fan, then by all means purchase MAG. No two matches are ever the same. After spending an inordinate amount of time I still don’t find it repetitive. Objectives do grow stale, but I’ve found a great group to play with, and that’s what pulls me back. At the end of the day, that’s the single most important aspect of any videogame — the ability to keep players entertained.
Overall (Not an average): 8/10