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 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.
You spawn, spend ages sprinting to where the action appears to be, then die from a sniper shot to the head. Then you wait up to 20 seconds to respawn again, spend a few minutes sprinting to where the action appears to be, then die from a sniper shot to the head. Rinse and repeat for 20 minutes.
MAG's rolling respawn system is designed to help squads regroup and co-ordinate fresh assaults. For the most part, though, every second of the wait feels like an age. You spend too much time doing nothing in MAG. Zipper will encourage players to make the most of MAG's "bleedout" system, which affords you half a minute or so to writhe around in agony in the hope that you'll be resuscitated by a fellow player after being shot to bits. But waiting for a second chance that rarely comes is still waiting, at a time when all you want to do is get back in the action. You can, at times, spend a minute doing nothing after getting killed. Whatever your feelings on the kind of game MAG is, that's too long.
It's a shame, because when MAG works, it's thrilling. Occasionally (perhaps one in five matches), you find yourself in a chatty squad, enabling you to play MAG the way it's meant to be played. It's much more rewarding - and fun - to be part of a squad that's at least running in the same direction. Having players who are willing to resuscitate downed comrades also adds to the fun factor (and your chances of success). All it takes, really, is for a few people to be using headsets for MAG to click.
MAG's clan system allows players to easily form groups of like-minded players, but most people won't use it. Most people will simply join a game using the automatic matchmaking tool, as they do with Modern Warfare 2 and will do with Battlefield Bad Company 2, and jump in oblivious to MAG's unforgiving brutality.
The open beta only included two game types, Sabotage and Domination. 64-player Sabotage (the only mode playable until you reach level ten, a restriction we hope won't make it into the final game), charges one side with capturing two structures, called A and B, and the other with defending them. If the attacking side manages to capture both points at the same time, they will lock down, and C becomes the focus. If C is taken, then it's game over. If the defending side manages to prevent this from happening, it wins.
If Sabotage is a playground game of football, then Domination is a no-holds barred school versus school scrap at the park. It's absolutely mental. Tanks, APCs, turrets, exploding gates, bunkers, helicopters, air strikes - it feels like World War III has erupted ON YOUR FACE. Strangely, though, Domination feels like it demands less teamwork than Sabotage (it's certainly more complex, confusing and bewildering). There's so much going on that it's possible to avoid the preying eyes of snipers, and indulge in a spot of successful running and gunning. But this doesn't play to the game's strengths; in MAG, success through teamwork breeds satisfaction.
If that wasn't depressing enough, MAG seems destined for video game obscurity. The graphics aren't show stopping, despite the long-distance vistas, the weapons and reload animations wouldn't look out of place on the PS2, and the grenade and RPG explosions are underwhelming. The framerate drops quite considerably during Domination matches, too, although hopefully that'll be sorted out for the final release. Either way, with the lovely-looking Battlefield Bad Company 2, which includes a single-player campaign, looming ominously over the horizon, MAG already looks dated.
So, our enthusiasm for MAG has been dented, but it has not been undone. It's a slow burn, and certainly designed for hardcore FPS players, but it can be immensely satisfying. If Zipper can use the feedback it's getting from the open beta to not only stress test the servers but tweak the gameplay in some crucial areas, and Sony bundles the official PS3 headset with the game, MAG could prove an essential purchase for hardcore competitive FPS fans. If not, well, MAG might end up more Massive Average Game than Massive Action Game.
MAG is due out exclusively for the PS3 on January 29.