Whilst waiting for Zipper Interactive’s MAG to install its various components on first insert, there’s a certain amount of anticipation and excitement as to what visceral delights lay beyond, and why shouldn’t there be? MAG: an online FPS with vast, sprawling combat zones with a heavy emphasis on team play and tactical planning, a healthy array of weapons and equipment ready to deal death upon your foes and of course, the chance to play with up to 255 other gamers. All the ingredients are there for what should be an afternoon of exciting, yet challenging mayhem. MAG, the thinking mans FPS. Yet for all its grandeur something’s not quite right; but to understand what is to understand what Zipper Interactive has tried to craft.
Technically speaking MAG is quite an achievement with teams made up of 64-128 players battling it out over huge, war-torn environments with visuals that, while not as aesthetically pleasing as some other titles, still pack a punch with a frame rate that rarely misses a beat. It’s this level of commitment to keeping everything tightly sewn together that clearly sets the SOCOM teams’ Grand Opus as more than just a tech-demo showing off the PS3’s extra grunt secretly hidden away beneath all that black, shiny plastic.
The front end is as much as one would expect from an FPS title. There’s a selection of different soldier types ranging from mercenaries, war criminals, ex-special operatives and so on. Each of these are placed into separate factions, (SVER, Raven and Valour), and each have their own selection of weapons and equipment to choose from. One you’ve decided your soldier type, faction and initial weapons loadout, (there are three to begin with, with others being unlocked as you progress), you’re ready to enter the combat zone. As with any other game of this type you begin with the obligatory training level which, if the joke cracking commander directing you is anything to go by, Zipper Interactive are a little embarrassed about: “Oh look, a rock, better make sure you ‘jump over’ that!”
Clearly if Zipper already knew what kind of gamer was going to pick up MAG on day of release – albeit one who probably wouldn’t require such a simplistic introduction on the basic functions of an FPS title – then it does raise the question as to why they included one at all? Once you’ve got your training out of the way, waited patiently for the queuing time to hit zero and selected a squad to join, it’s time to deploy into the field.
256 players at any one time is a lot to take in, even for the grizzled FPS veteran, so MAG eases you in nicely with a ‘mere’ 64 players and little in the way of objectives. Experience is awarded for wounding, kills, repairs, healing, securing objectives etc. As you level up, so does the amount of players injected to the battle. The jump from 64 to 128 players is surprisingly quick with the move up to 256 taking a little more time, but this being the best that MAG has to offer, it is – for the most part – worth the slog.
While MAG certainly lacks the mayhem of close quarter combat found in the likes of Modern Warfare 2, it does have an intensity all on its own, and when it all comes together and works it can often be an exhilarating experience. Of all the games currently doing the rounds in all things that is war, Zipper Interactives’ entry into what is ostensibly an overcrowded market is without a doubt the one that will conjure up the most images from your favourite war films. A relentless barrage of explosions churn up chunks of dirt and rock across each and every map, countless rockets hurtle overhead towards unknown targets behind you and a gazillion bullets zip by and ricochet in every direction, each one threatening to put you face down in the ground at every turn. If there is to ever be a follow up to MAG, then fully destructible environments would clearly be the most obvious inclusion to the format; in fact, with Zipper being able to hold everything neatly together in such huge playing areas with relative ease, it would seem almost nonsensical not to include such a feature in a game desperately crying out for it.
In the early stages of play, game modes are typical in that they range from the basic team death match, (Suppression), to capture and secure objectives, (Sabotage) found in many an online FPS experience. As you progress too much bigger battles with more players the action moves into an even more strategic environment under the headers ‘Acquisition’ and ‘Domination’. Here objectives range from infiltrating enemy territory to steal transport, destroying anti-aircraft batteries, eliminating enemy defensive lines and so on. It’s these later objectives that, while not brimming in originality, are enough to comfortably steer the game play away from becoming stale and somewhat hackneyed.
For all intents and purposes, Zipper Interactive have succeeded in their endeavour to bring mass player combat to the online world of the first person shooter and should you be lucky enough to venture into a match where a good percentage of players are all reading from the same page it does, as already stated, work very well. It’s a shame then that so much seems to have been lost on so many of Zipper Interactives’ target audience. As briefly touched on in the opening segment of this review MAG is a video game all about tactical planning and team play, indeed in order to get the best from MAG, working together as one unified unit is a requisite.
Unfortunately the majority of your time spent with MAG will be on your own with barely a word spoken, beyond the occasional obscenity, between yourself and your ‘team mates’. Whole games where careful tactics are a necessity in order to gain the upper hand are left in a total shambles as each of chosen brothers saunter off on their own with their only intent being to kill as many of the enemy as possible, completely oblivious to the objections that will secure them victory in the field and, somewhat ironically, garner them far more XP than any amount of headshots. If your dying avatar is suddenly given a second lease of life due to a comrade-in-arms sharing a medi-pack with you it’s not because they heard your desperate please for help but because they were most likely stood directly behind you at the time or happened to be passing by just moments before you drew your final breath. Looking back at the opening training sections it might have been more applicable if Zipper had used this tool to educate gamers on how MAG should be played as supposed to which button makes you crouch and which throws grenades.
But is it fair to lay MAGs failings at the feet of the very people who play it? Perhaps Zipper Interactive, in their eagerness to bring hundreds of players together via the most popular genre to hit consoles in the last ten years, made a glaring oversight when it came to what gamers actually want from their first person shooter experience? Maybe just gathering a few friends together to spend an evening ‘blowing shit up’ is all they require and to hell with plans of attack and thoughtful planning? Shoot first, ask questions later. Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
Whatever the case, MAG still has a lot of work ahead of it and maybe, in time, it may find an audience worthy of its sense of grandeur. For now though, as long as gamers across the globe are content with the instant thrills provided by Modern Warfare 2 and more recently, Battlefield: Bad Company 2, MAG will continue struggle in the depths of its own ambition.