Reviewed: February 17, 2010
Released: January 26, 2010
Fans of the SOCOM series will already be familiar with Zipper Interactive and their own personal take on the FPS genre, and anyone who has been following the extensive game show coverage for the past two years will already know what to expect from their new PS3 exclusive title, MAG, but for everyone else, there are a few things you need to know.
First off, MAG is an online ONLY game, and judging from the huge amount of returns of this title (even more than SOCOM and Warhawk) and claims of ďI didnít know you had to be on the Internet to playÖĒ a lot of gamers donít know this, and a lot of sales clerks arenít getting the message across at the moment of sale. So, if you donít have broadband Internet access move alongÖthere is nothing to see or play here.
MAG puts a serious twist on the FPS military genre, especially when compared to games like Call of Duty that not only helped create the genre, but ultimately define it. In broad terms, Call of Duty is the arcade game while MAG is the simulation, at least by design, but in the end it all boils down to how you play it. If you jump into MAG and try to run and gun and do your own thing you will likely die fast and repeatedly, and perhaps by your own teammates. MAG is all about team gaming, and those who donít play their part will be shot or voted off the squad, at least in the more serious matches of Acquisition and Domination.
One could even go as far as to put MAG in the same league as the MMORPG games found on the PC. You create and slowly build up your online avatar, level grind for days and weeks, then eventually start over and do it all again with another character. Rather than fantasy races and professions, you have PMCís (private military corporations). There are three to choose from, the rogue Russians of S.V.E.R., the North American Valor Company, and the high-tech European Raven Industries. At first the differences may appear to be entirely visual, but if you dig deeper into each PMC you will find a unique set of weapons and equipment that have all been meticulously balanced, providing a fair but unique experience no matter which PMC you choose.
When MAG launched S.V.E.R. had an obvious advantage, either due to a greater number of skilled players who chose that PMC during the beta, or perhaps to some internal programming glitch. Iím guessing both, since after a recent update, the playing field certainly leveled off. The only real consideration in choosing your PMC is making sure you and all your friends choose the same one, at least if you want to form a clan or a group so you can play in the same squad, or at least the same side of the war.
MAG offers little in the way of instruction. The manual is basically a reprint of the on-screen hints and menu system. The tutorial walks you through the minimal information and commands required to play the game before throwing you to the wolves of online gameplay. I would have certainly appreciated some additional training, especially in the leadership roles. Nothing is more frustrating for a squad leader or the men under him as a rookie learning the ropes in the heat of battle.
Once you have your character created you can play around with the weapons loadout, but there wonít be much you can do until later when you start purchasing new items and upgrades. There are five slots, two of which you can customize from scratch. A credit system is in place forcing you to pick and choose your combination of primary weapon, sidearm, heavy weapon, and any gear you want to take into battle. These five loadout slots are then accessible each time you spawn in battle, so if you work it out you can have a specific loadout for certain situations, offensive, defense, sniping, assault, etc.
Your weapons and equipment will ultimately dictate your primary function on the battlefield. If you are carrying a health kit and a welding torch you are likely playing a support role, healing your injured teammates and repairing bunkers and vehicles. If you are carrying an AK-47 and a rocket launcher youíre probably headed for the front lines. Regardless of your function, MAG is about playing as part of a team, and the XP reward system actually encourages you to do just that by rewarding you with twice as much XP for healing a fallen comrade than killing an enemy. You can also build up XP by repairing structures and if you obey the orders (Fragos) of your commander, you can essentially double any XP earned.
There is a complex level of command structure in place where you have company and platoon leaders who have a greater view of the entire battlefield. They pass down orders through the chain of command as well as distribute tactical assets. Your squad leader will indicate targets of interest, soldiers who need killing, bunkers that need repairing, or even a rally location. Players can call up these frago targets and perform the desired action. Having played in a MAG match with 30 real-life marines, I can attest firsthand to the value of having a seasoned leader and a group of soldiers willing to follow orders. Serious cooperative gameplay is the difference between MAG and Call of Duty.
Given the cooperative and team-based nature of gameplay some sort of chat headset is a good idea. While you can probably muddle your way through a battle by simply following the frago indicators and sticking with a buddy or two visually, there is certainly an advantage to being able to call out enemy locations or request medical assistance. Snipers with a powerful scope are valuable recon assets and the soldier slowly bleeding out inside enemy HQ can still call out enemy locations and numbers.
One of the only things currently lacking in MAG is the number of maps. There are three maps for each region of the world based on the PMCís playing in that battle and depending on your PMC, you will either be defending or assaulting on the same map every time. At least the maps are large enough that it will take several hours before things start to get visually repetitive and it will take weeks before you learn all the tactical nuances of these levels.
There is a decent amount of game modes that vary in type and number of players. Suppression is a 64-player mode where rookies learn the ropes and acquire some team skills. Sabotage builds on the previous by having a PMC attack and hold two remote posts before a third and final tactical target is unlocked. Then it becomes a battle against the clock as one faction tries to destroy the final target while the other tries to defend it. Acquisition steps up the action by having 128 players trying to control the map with a heavy focus on vehicles. Domination is my favorite mode by far and has 256 soldiers spread across these massively complex environments trying to take over and hold eight unique targets. And finally you have Directives, a non-specific game mode that will simply put you into any of the other modes where another soldier is needed to fill out the roster.
With maps this large, spawn points play an important role, especially forward bunkers that allow you to join the battle on the front lines. These are defended by turrets, but if they should be destroyed you will have to spawn at the rear and make your way across long and dangerous portions of the map. You have the choice after each death to choose your next spawn location on the map, provided it has not been destroyed or under enemy control, and if enemy AA has been destroyed you may even be able to deploy via parachute into battle. Spawn times can also be affected by rapid deploy and blockade modifiers.
Of course the best alternative to spawning is not dying in the first place and a good medic can help. Assuming you arenít killed with a headshot or an explosion, you have the option to lie there squirming while you bleed out waiting for medical assistance. You always have the option to instantly bleed out and spawn with the next deployment, and if you find yourself thick in enemy territory or possibly being used as bait to lure a medic to his death, itís best to take one for the team. There is no real penalty for dying other than the potentially long trek back into battle. Medics are useful for keeping the front line advancing, but dying also has its uses, especially if you need to change your loadout or just get more ammo.
Visually, MAG is quite attractive from a technical standpoint; at least as attractive as you can get when you are fighting in train yards, shipyards, factories, and fuel refineries. The most distinct level is probably the jungle level with some ancient stone pyramids and lots of foliage that offerd a nice tactical advantage, especially for snipers. The soldier designs are excellent and you have a wealth of options for configuring your appearance, with lots of gear you canít even access until later levels. The HUD is reasonably uncluttered for a game of this type. You have your squad screen that lists names and status and the ever-scrolling text crawl that shows who killed who and how. A mini-map shows your men and the occasional enemy or you can hit SELECT for the CNI screen and get a large 3D overview of the entire area.
With up to 256 players in some of the games you might think the visuals would get confusing or cluttered, but keep in mind that everyone is pretty spread out and you seldom see more than 30 soldiers at a time unless your commander is organizing some special photo op moment. Even more surprising is that after 100+ matches I have never seen a single bit of lag and have only lost server connection twice. While the levels might not have the best texture detail ever, itís good enough and there is very minimal pop-up with a surprisingly good draw distance.
The audio package rocks with a THX certified surround mix that supports Dolby Digital as well as DTS. The only downside is that you will want to crank the volume to enjoy the epic and immersive sounds of battle, but if you are using a headset those noises are sent through the mic, usually with an annoying delay or reverb. Each PMC faction has their own regional accents and there is a bit of narration in the opening movie and mission setup screens. The music is mostly confined to the menus but there are a few gameplay-triggered moments where music kicks in after a kill streak.
MAG offers up a massive gameplay experience, both in the scope of each battle and in the weeks and months you will be obsessively playing. Iíve already logged twice as many hours in MAG as I have in Call of Duty and that game has been out three times as long. The XP and ranking system is slower so you appreciate each increase in level and are much more cautious in spending those Skill Points. You might have to level up 3-5 ranks before you can purchase a weapon or a fancy scope or even a med kit capable of healing someone other than yourself. If you find you are unhappy with your purchase decisions you can periodically Re-spec your character, essentially undoing all past purchases and allowing you to experiment with a new class of soldier. And when you reach the PMC level cap of 60 you can even switch your affiliation and try working for a new company with all new weapons and gear.
More maps are certainly needed but for now, MAG offers up a fantastic multiplayer battle simulation unlike anything you have ever played before. If you are tired of all the juvenile running and gunning of the Call of Duty and Battlefield franchises and are looking for something deeper, more tactical, and certainly more rewarding, then MAG is certainly worth a look. Bring your friends or make new ones. MAG has redefined the online military shooter, and this is the closest thing to experiencing real battle that you can get without actually enlisting.