Ambition's great. We all want game developers to be ambitious, to push hardware, to try new things, to have a stab at doing something that's never been done before. But sometimes, ambition alone isn't enough. Sometimes you need more than ambition to make the magic happen. Take, for example, my ambitious attempt to get up at seven am this morning in order to get a head start on the day's backbreaking gaming. Did it work? No. No it did not.
And with MAG, Zipper Interactive's online-only FPS, it's the same. The game is hugely ambitious: it's a 256-player shooter. But ambition alone isn't enough to make it a must buy. Indeed, MAG is fatally flawed.
What is MAG? It's a near future military FPS in which players assume the role of a soldier in one of three private military corporations: S.V.E.R., Valor and Raven. You begin by creating your operative via a limited character creation tool (no girls allowed), then join one of the PMCs. This decision affects the maps you play while defending, and the weapons and gear available to you as you level up (Modern Warfare's influence rearing its head again), but that's about it. There's little, really, to distinguish between the three factions.
From there, you fight in online matches across four game modes, gaining experience points for completing objectives and killing other players. When you level up, you gain a skill point, which is spent on improving your load out and character statistics. MAG's persistent "Shadow War" keeps tabs on each faction's performance, granting bonuses over 24 hour periods and, theoretically at least, keeping players engaged in the fight.
256 players sounds like chaos, and so it often proves. Zipper's way of managing that chaos is to divide players up into squads, platoons and companies. Eight players make up a squad; four squads form a platoon and four platoons form a company. This is the way it's done in real life, apparently. Ooh-Rah.
Each squad has unique objectives, as well as secondary objectives set by the OIC (the player who assumes command of the entire company). But you can dabble in MAG's leadership system at lower levels, by taking charge of a squad and, later, a platoon. The abilities that are available to those who lead make them pretty important on the battlefield., but none are more key than issuing FRAGO commands, which grant experience point bonuses to squad members who complete them.
It's a cool set up – certainly unique - and a perfect fit for the kind of sprawling, almost MMO-style game MAG is. The Leadership system in particular sets MAG apart from its peers: Modern Warfare 2 and the upcoming Battlefield Bad Company 2. The idea of leading an entire company, coordinating mass scale assaults on enemy defences via private chat channels and the like, is something we haven't really seen supported properly in an online FPS. This is MAG's strength. This, Zipper can be proud of.