M.A.G. Review

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M.A.G. Publisher: Sony
Developer: Zipper Interactive

Platform: PlayStation 3
Reviewed on PlayStation 3

Earth is completely at peace, at least as far as the public is concerned. In the year 2024, The Millennium Peace Accord put drastic restrictions on troop deployments and limited the size of armies that governments could levy. The three major private military corporations – international, publicly traded companies whose product is military force and who were founded in the early years of the century – become the only forces who can truly wage war. With all three companies eager to land lucrative international military contracts, SVER, Raven and Valor are locked into the "Shadow War." The year is 2025, and all three corporations fight secret, unofficial battles for financial and military supremacy.

Kyle Ackerman

The conceit behind M.A.G. is simple. Described at Sony's 2008 presentation at the Electronic Entertainment Expo as a "Massive Action Game," M.A.G. is an online, multiplayer first-person shooter that supports 256 players. That's a lot of people to have on one battlefield. Somehow, the developers at Zipper Interactive (the folks behind Sony's SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs games) have made it work surpassingly well.

Start Local, Kill Globally

Not every battle in M.A.G. has 256 combatants. Because individual M.A.G. players gain experience through play, and there is a little complexity to the game, players can start with the over-simplistic tutorial, quickly moving to the "Suppression" and "Sabotage" modes. Suppression is a straightforward, 64-player game – a simple team-deathmatch-style game against your own Private Military Corporation (PMC) as practice, and it's a great place to start learning the controls and systems of M.A.G.. Sabotage is also a 64-player mode, but one in which 32 players from one PMC assault the intelligence facility of another, bombing three objectives in two stages.

These opening battles are how you learn the ropes in M.A.G., because neither involves the complexity of repairing the game's many pieces of field equipment such as anti-aircraft batteries, mortars or sensor arrays, nor does either involve vehicles of any sort. After gaining a little experience (it should only require a couple of matches), players quickly unlock a few skill points and the other two modes of play.

Think About More than Your Weapon

Skill trees form the crux of the class-based combat in M.A.G.. Every level gained (to the cap of 60) earns players a skill point that can be spent to unlock weapons, gear and passive abilities that enhance the player's survival chances on the battlefield. The first 10-20 levels come quickly and are enough to specialize competitively, maxing out a single skill line (such as assault rifle, medic, sniper rifle, machine gun or close-combat specialist). Levels after that earn the skill points that broaden your abilities, allowing players to create more flexible roles, perhaps with a top-notch weapon in addition to a healing kit, repair kit, superior sidearm or intelligence equipment.

The broader set of skills is critical for success in the game's larger battles. Both "Acquisition," a mode with 128 players competing to defend or steal an experimental military vehicle, and "Domination," the 256-player mode in which two PMCs compete, with one defending and the other trying to destroy an oil refinery. Both of these modes involve maps with tremendously complex terrain, emplacements (such as mortar batteries) that allow leaders to call in artillery strikes or other powerful tools, and multi-staged objectives. Only an army with a variety of roles, able leaders and real teamwork can prevail. When both sides exhibit these traits, the battles are unbelievably immersive, edge-of-your seat fare.

Who Knew That "Domination" Stands for "Enormous Map"?

M.A.G. manages such large-scale battles by partitioning the battlefield into discrete objectives and defense points that encourage conflicts between individual squads, turning areas on colossal maps into microcosmic eight-vs.-eight battles. That's not to imply that players can't shift around. But moving players from one point to another hotspot on the battlefield entails risk, because it leaves dangerous openings and creates reverse salients. A single soldier allocated to another squad's objective can sometimes turn the tide of battle, and when able commanders fluidly shift squads to aid one another (while managing potentially disastrous vulnerabilities), the tactical landscape of the battlefield becomes yet another game and counterpoint to the individual first-person shooter battles.

The converse of this is that while the battlefields, particularly in Domination, can be enormous, as an individual soldier you may only see and interact with a tiny segment of the map. If battle lines remain static, and particularly if you find yourself repeatedly stationed in the same spot on the battlefield, it may take a lot of play before you get to see what lies beyond a particular bunker, bridge or gate.

In many ways, the Domination maps are 16 two-stage maps meant for squad-vs.-squad (8v8) play that happen to be adjacent to similar two-stage maps. They aren't, however, totally different. Some segments of the maps are wildly different, while others have similar elements repeated. That's almost certainly necessary to balance such large battles, but it means that the game feels like it needs more maps.

Each mode has three maps that can be accessed, one that your PMC defends and two on which it attacks (except suppression, where you can only compete on your own PMC's map). While the maps are huge and varied, I found it frustrating when I was defending the same refining operation for nearly three hours at a stretch. I understand that it must take a long time to develop, test and balance such large maps, but the game should have shipped with more, and if more maps are released but require extra charges as premium content, I'll be extremely disappointed.

Lead, and Do Your Best to Get Others to Follow

The leadership roles on the battlefield are rare opportunities most players want, and serve a critical role. Squad leaders guide their own eight-man team, platoon leaders are nominally in charge of four squads, and the "Officer-In-Charge" (OIC) commands the entire battlefield. Squad leaders are the most important roles, as they assign the targets for their squad, offering squad members potentially double experience for working toward those goals. They can also call in useful artillery strikes. A good squad leader shifts his squad to enemy weak points and keeps his squad working together. If a squad leader's skills include actual leadership rather than just selecting decent targets, he can turn the tide of battle by keeping squad morale high and keeping everyone working together.

Platoon leaders don't seem quite as important. They can speak to the squad leaders and can call in more powerful airstrikes, but their guidance is only effective if squad leaders listen, and they usually don't. In a way, this role is often less interesting than squad leaders, because individual M.A.G. players aren't remotely interested in their PMC's chain-of-command. The OIC, though, gets command abilities that can make a massive difference in battle, including the ability to jam enemy communications, increase spawn rates and refresh the command abilities of subordinates. A good OIC can win the battle just as a bad OIC can lose it.

It can take time and a lot of levels before a player gets a shot at leadership roles, but when an effective leader works with cooperative squads, battles are much more fun and always hard-fought.

Hell Is Still Other People. Still.

The biggest problem with M.A.G. is straightforward, and it's the same problem every other multiplayer online game faces: other people. More than most games, M.A.G. demands teamwork and effective leadership. Get stuck in a squad where everyone charges off to do their own thing, and you're stuck with up to 30 minutes of no fun. Because completing or battling near a FRAGO objective doubles experience, getting stuck with a clueless squad leader literally means getting half as much experience. Tack onto that the loss of tactical tools such as artillery strikes if the squad leader doesn't know how to call them in or the simple lack of leadership that follows if the squad leader just doesn't have a headset, and it's easy to get stuck in a doomed battle.

Of course, you can have an amazing squad leader, but with a squad who doesn't follow orders and work together, failure is also certain. Squads need a mix of different roles, including assault troops, snipers, technical personnel and medics. If the entire squad wants to hide on the edges of the map and play sniper, you'll never take objectives and progress your part of the battlefield. That can cost your entire side the match. (The only thing more annoying than having a middle-schooler cuss you out because you aren't playing the way he thinks you should, is having a French middle-schooler do the same thing.) The converse is that if you get a good squad working together, you can have hours of fun and amazing, competitive battles that make it hard to drag yourself away.

A Vibrant Shadow War

As with any game of such staggering complexity, there are still issues beyond the human failings of other players. Some of the unlockable gear items and passive skills feel like they tip the balance a bit much. Yes, someone with dozens of hours of time in the game deserves a reward, but extra health can make an enemy seem immortal, and the top tier weapons pack a serious punch. You can steal weapons from an enemy's corpse, but the most experienced and skilled players still have an advantage over newbies. It's fun when you get there, but frustrating if you didn't start on launch day.

Simply put, it's easy to recommend M.A.G. as an exceptional multiplayer online shooter, and on a console, no less. Particularly impressive is that Zipper Interactive continues to do a great job patching the game, working to keep weapons balanced and to put an end to game-upsetting exploits. M.A.G. is fodder for dozens, if not hundreds, of hours of fun on the PlayStation 3.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on February 28, 2010 9:55 AM.

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