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.
Unfortunately, MAG's clever structure is undermined by some design decisions we can't quite understand, or forgive. MAG is a brutally hardcore shooter for hardcore shooter fans. Zipper can argue the toss until the military grade cows come home, but that's the reality of the game it's created. Its huge, sprawling war-torn environments are designed to make mince meat out of any and all who dare to step out into the open and walk its muddy soils. Running and gunning Rambo-style will get you killed; quick. There's no shield to soak up enemy plasma fire, or regenerating health system as you cower behind a rock. No. In MAG, a single bullet can kill you. In MAG, a single bullet - one that's travelled a long way - often kills you.
That's fine. We can accept that some games are all about "teh hardcorz" in the great Counter-Strike, Operation Flashpoint tradition. But MAG commits some cardinal gaming sins that make it unpalatable for all; mega hardcore shooter fans and, well... everyone else, alike.
In some FPS games, when you die, you wait a few seconds then you spawn at a predetermined spawn location. In MAG, when you die, you bleed out. During this 30 second countdown (I know it's 30 seconds because I timed it), in which you're writhing around the ground in agony, another player can trot along to your position, point his or her medical kit at your body and revive you, granting you a second chance.
Again, that's fine. MAG encourages players to revive each other by granting twice as many experience points for doing so than for a standard kill. But - and this is our experience - healing is a rare occurrence. The overall feeling is one of boredom as you wait half a minute for a revive that never comes. Sigh.
Exacerbating this problem is MAG's rolling spawn system: players spawn every 20 seconds; you have to wait for this countdown to end before getting back in the action. This, in combination with the bleed out system often means you're out of the action for up to 50 seconds. 50 seconds! That's almost long enough to make a cup of tea, or, well, go on the internet and do that thing no-one likes to admit they're doing.
MAG's unforgiving nature, coupled with the amount of time you spend waiting to spawn, makes the game awfully frustrating. This is how most of our game modes felt: sprint for a minute to get back into the action, fire some shots, get killed by a sniper holed up behind some rock half a mile away, wait nearly a minute to respawn, rinse and repeat.
There are a number of simple gameplay additions that would have made MAG better in this regard. Why not have infinite sprint, for example? Not particularly realistic, but, let's be honest, MAG isn't particularly realistic, anyway. Or why not display the rolling spawn countdown as you bleed out, so you can time your spawn just before it resets? Or how about being able to do something meaningful while you wait to spawn, like check out other players and their load outs, or get some tips on the game mode you're playing? That alone would have improved the experience immensely.
Zipper will, of course, cry "COMMUNICATION!". MAG's all about communication, you see. It's not a game for lone wolves; the John Rambo types you often get in Halo. The game is best played when people are talking to each other on microphones, calling for revives, letting downed players know revives are coming, announcing FRAGO commands and generally all heading in the same direction.
The reality of the situation, however, is that most players aren't using headsets. This is our experience of the game, anyway, having played it since its US release on live servers. The odd player does, but most don't. The inescapable truth is that if you're not in a clan or taking MAG very seriously, it's not fun. If you were to play MAG with 127 mates it would probably be one of the most thrilling multiplayer experiences around, but we can't play it with 127 mates. We don't have 127 mates.
Again, there are a few simple tweaks Zipper might have implemented that would have made MAG more enjoyable for the headset-less or the clan-less. Why not have your squad leader clearly identifiable, for example, so you can quickly and easily see where he or she is and make sure you're there, too, enjoying the FRAGO bonuses? Why not have an auto "I need a revive" call, or a quick to trigger "I'm coming!" call?
There are other problems. The controls are just bonkers. To get to your grenades, medical kit or repair kit, you have to cycle through your "Gear" with the L2 button. Why not throw a grenade at the press of a button? Again, not particularly realistic, but much more enjoyable. In MAG, if you're in the thick of it and you cook a grenade, you're already dead.
Put simply, MAG is an impressive technical achievement and a great idea, but it has been poorly executed. Hardly anything is explained. The woeful tutorial might as well not exist. The four game modes are a cacophony of failed and completed objectives that seem to bear no relation to what you're doing, or impact the overall goal. This problem is at its worst in the 256 player Domination mode, which really could have done with a video tutorial of some description.
It's a shame MAG suffers so, because buried underneath the rubble of frustration is a superb, unique, often thrilling shooter. When you find yourself in a chatty squad, one packed with players willing to revive each other, stick together and play smart, MAG's great, and unlike anything else. Unfortunately these joyous occasions are rare indeed.
The game modes are designed to keep squads apart, almost doing there own thing, until the match reaches its climax, when, basically, everyone runs at each other shooting - a bit like a 25-a-side next goal wins game of footie. Take Sabotage, the 64-player mode, for example. Here, one team defends A and B as the other team attacks. If A and B are taken at the same time, the action moves on to C, where all 32 defenders run to defend, and all 32 attackers run to attack. The idea is that as matches go on, you gradually feel less like your squad is fighting in its own little world and more like you're in a giant scrap fighting with hundreds of other players for survival. Here, the idea is realised.
And, from a technical point of view, MAG's impressive. Its graphics won't send anyone at DICE or Infinity Ward running for the hills, the environments and effects are bland, and there's loads of texture pop-in, but the fact that the framerate remains solid and everything looks crisp and clear, even in Domination mode, is impressive. We haven't experienced any noticeable lag, either, which is another plus. Everything you see in the war-torn maps is player driven, from billowing smoke clouds to burning turrets, from air strikes to parachuting enemy soldiers. Nothing is scripted, and that's spectacular.
The upshot of all this is that, like all MMOs, MAG is a work in progress. It's not the finished article by any means, and through updates Zipper may realise its potential. It needs more game modes, tweaks to the spawn system, better controls, and it needs to make everything a lot clearer for those who find clans and massive action intimidating. If it does this, MAG will gain a foothold and thrive. If it doesn't? Well, with Battlefield Bad Company 2 looming ominously over the horizon, MAG may find itself full of blanks.