The MAG open beta, which concluded last week, began with a disclaimer: “The MAG public beta is a work-in-progress and not the final game. The graphics, gameplay, features, audio and performance is not representative of the final game. The game content and experience will change and improve for release of the final game.” Whoa there tiger. We get it: betas only tell half the story. Unfortunately, in this case, the first half of the story doesn't bode well for the finished article.
What is MAG? It stands for Massive Action Game. And it's true: it really is a massive action game. How massive? 256 players massive. It's an online only first-person shooter set in a near future in which three private military corporations battle against each other for lucrative contracts in a persistent, MMO-esque "shadow war". MAG is Battlefield Bad Company meets World of Warcraft; Modern Warfare 2 meets Tribes.
Eight-man squads tend to focus on their own objectives, which keeps things manageable across the giant maps. But the downside of that is the game often feels like you and your squad mates are in your own little world, despite technically fighting in real-time on the same map as hundreds of other players. Still though, MAG does an impressive job of making you feel like you're engulfed in bewildering, complex chaos, with constantly shifting objectives and relentless AI alerts letting you know something you don't understand has just happened somewhere on the map. But developer Zipper Interactive, of SOCOM fame, has come up with an interesting way to tackle the 25-aside school playground football farce problem: leadership.
As is FPS de rigueur, you gain experience points as you play. You get them for doing pretty much anything that benefits your faction, from capturing control points to killing enemy players. As you level up through the ranks, you gain skill points which can then be used to purchase new weapons, attachments, gear and abilities. The Medical Kit, for example, gives you the ability to heal other soldiers as well as yourself. The Resuscitation skill gives you the ability to revive others using the Medical Kit. It's a deep system, but it is not until you reach level 15 that you can truly become a leader of men.
At level 15, you can lead a squad of eight players. But as you climb the PMC career ladder, you'll eventually be able to lead a four-squad platoon of 32 players, and then, when you're no doubt so gruesomely battle scarred and desensitised to violence that a nuclear explosion in your back garden wouldn't phase you, lead a company of four platoons containing an eye-watering 128 players as an “officer in charge”. But, as Spider-Man's Uncle Ben said, with great power comes great responsibility. As a leader it's up to you to co-ordinate your team's attacks, dishing out orders via a headset and generally making sure everyone's singing from the same hymn sheet. You can even call in air strikes and grant your squad mates bonuses. This is what MAG is really about: strategy, planning, co-ordination and, above all, teamwork.
MAG's persistent "Shadow War" tracks how well each of the three factions is doing for each of the game modes
MAG's big problem (it has others, which we'll discuss later) is that, for some reason, PS3 owners tend not to use headsets. Why is this? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that headsets aren't bundled free with PS3s, as they are with Xbox 360 Elites. Whatever the reason, it is an unfortunate reality of PS3 gaming, and an unfortunate reality for MAG. It seems essential that Sony bundle one with the game.
If you're in a game packed with scores of lone wolves, MAG is, frankly, an exercise in frustration. It is not a run and gun shooter. It is not Halo. It's more like Counter-Strike in that sense - all it takes is one or two bullets to kill someone, or one to the head if you're using one of the sniper rifles, which by the way, are overpowered. You fear exposing yourself, you fear popping your head around the corner, and you fear death. That's not the problem - some people love this kind of skill-based hardcore shooter experience - but it is part of the problem.