Zipper Interactive is nothing if not ambitious. The company created one of the first PlayStation 2 online games with the original SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs back in 2002, and was able to take the PS2’s last-gen hardware and networking capability and create a groundbreaking action series. The beefed up power and networking of the PlayStation 3 inspired the company to create a MAG. An entirely new IP, MAG was originally subtitled “Massive Action Game,” and “massive” is the right word here: This PS3 exclusive first-person shooter will allow for 256-player battles. That’s eight times as many players in a game as any previous Zipper title.
I got my hands on MAG at Zipper’s office in Seattle and was able to put the combat game through its paces during a very short 20 minute play session. As the game wraps up its alpha phase, its remarkable as much for its scale as its unique gameplay features.
MAG is set 20 years in the future, when resource shortages and political pressures have forced the world’s governments to rely on the services of private armies for security. In MAG’s world, there are three competing mercenary corporations, each with its own unique setting and style. Raven is the sleek and high-tech set. It favors a clean looks and cutting-edge weapons. The second combat corporation, Sver (pronounced “sever”), are a rag-tag group of mercs who rock thrown together weapons and an edgy, underdog style. Valor, the third MAG army, are closest to “traditional” soldiers-- they wear camouflage gear and look like dogfaces, but with a certain Hollywood flair about them to give the faction flavor.
Each group has its own set of weapons to choose from, different vehicles, different air-strikes and different command capabilities. But each has a counter-balance on the other sides; Zipper says it has worked hard to balance the factions, and that the biggest difference between groups is the types of people that gravitate toward each army’s unique style.
The three factions are locked in a never-ending battle with one another over lucrative government contracts in a perpetual struggle called “The Shadow War.” This conflict serves as the basis for MAG’s persistent online presence. Although Zipper hasn’t revealed the full details of the Shadow War’s scoring system, the company promises that each win or loss will affect the larger, persistent world of MAG. Think of it as a 24-7 tournament between your side and the two other mercenary corporations of the game.
No matter what color clothing they wear or what they call themselves, having such a large number of players online at a given time could easily result in chaos and a bad player experience. Keeping things logical and sensible and only allowing for the good kind of chaos associated with battle gave birth to MAG’s unique command structure. Here’s how it will break down:
A fully manned, 128 player MAG army will feature 16 squad leaders, each in charge of an eight-player squad. Four platoon leaders guide four squads each, and, at the very top, the Officer in Charge coordinates the battle for his side.
At the bottom level of the pyramid are the rank-and-file soldiers. You’ll start the game as one of these, and choose between the three starting weapon packs accordingly. If you favor heavy artillery, gear up with the rocket launcher pack, if you’re more a utility player, strap on the assault rifle pack, and if you’re more about sniping, there’s a long-range rifle for you, too. Don’t worry too much about your choice: You’ll be able to switch out mid game if you’d like.
Although the game’s eight-player squads have commanders, feel free to lone-wolf if you like, but your mini-map will show you squad objectives (blow up that bunker, destroy that anti-aircraft battery, etc.) and you’ll quickly learn that helping your squad with objectives will add experience points faster than taking out random enemies or running around and looking at the pretty scenery. It’s a carrot approach as opposed to a stick: You won’t be penalized for not listening to orders, but the game will be a lot more fun and you’ll progress faster if you stick with the group.
As you complete objectives and fight in battles, you gain experience points based on your actions under fire. Earn enough experience and you can “level up” and assume the next rank—The Squad Leader. Squad leaders set the objectives for their men by issuing FRAGOs, or fragmentary orders. So while the battle’s main objective might be to take over an area, along the way, the squad leader will tell his men to complete intermediary tasks to make it happen. The game communicates FRAGOs without the necessity of a headset--Squad leaders’ wishes are displayed clearly on the game’s mini-map immediately to members of a squad.
Above the Squad Leader is the Platoon Leader who coordinates the attacks of the different squads. Above him/her is the Officer in Charge, who directs the entire battle for his team.
More than simply telling other players what to do, soldiers with higher ranks also command unique attacks, including the ability to order mortar strikes, gas bombardments, artillery barrages and strafing runs. Higher ranked soldiers will also be able to run faster, run longer, shoot more accurately and reload faster than the guys at the bottom of the pile, so the advantages of moving up the chain-of-command are obvious. At the very top, the commanding officer makes decisions that affect the entire battlefield, like radar jamming passes that make sure the enemy can’t communicate, or orders that reveal all enemy positions for a period of time. It bears mentioning that this is not an RPG--in keeping with Zipper’s tradition of creating realistic war games, there is no easy button, bullets will kill anyone, and a player with no rank could easily take out a Commanding Officer if he has the skills.
As for the nuts and bolts of gameplay, the game press were given 20 minutes to try out the title. Our battle featured 128 total players, with half given the simple escort objective of stealing a couple of vehicles from the other 64 player team and driving them to an extraction point.
The game spawns you with the rest of your squad-- in our case we dropped in on parachutes. Immediately upon “entering” the game, the player is immersed in battle. Sights familiar to anyone who has ever played a war game were there in abundance: The distance smoke of far off fires, the sounds of gunfire, a far-away air attack. But the difference between MAG and many games is that, according to Zipper, all of the events in-game are triggered by players. They don’t “cheat” by adding atmospherics: If you hear a mortar round land elsewhere on the battlefield, it means a player actually ordered that strike. Knowing that the battle was all “real” is pretty awesome and definitely adds to the gameplay experience.
MAG’s command system really adds order to what might otherwise be a chaotic, meaningless frag-fest. The battle is understandable, in spite of the number of things happening at once. Although the game is just coming out of alpha, judging from what I played, Zipper has created a viable super-large-scale battle game that manages to move beyond the typical “Team Slayer” game type and create something innovative but familiar.
At least from the point of view of a low-level soldier, MAG’s command system is easy. understandable and intuitive. This isn’t a case of another dude barking orders into a headset to “make” you do something. In fact, the headset is optional. Commanding officers’ FRAGOs appear in the game’s mini-map and onscreen with no need for a sound component at all. Objectives are obvious and cleanly presented, although we weren’t given a full scale demo of what the game plays like from the squad leader, platoon leader or commanding officer’s perspective.
While our “test” game was made up of grizzled game journalists playing against Zipper employees and playtesters, in practice, match-making will be an important part of MAG. You will be able to enter battle with your friends or clan, but if you just log on to a random game, MAG’s matchmaking system will try to hook you up with the “right” teammates and opponents. The match-making system’s primary goal is to get you into a match fast, but secondarily to that, MAG will take your experience level and play style into account when it teams you up. Experienced players will be teamed with (and pitted against, presumably) other experienced players, but not to the extent that no newbs will be allowed. MAG also takes your play-style into account and matches you into viable groups, so you shouldn’t end up in a team of all medics or all snipers.
The graphics are workmanlike. As with the SOCOM games of the past, Zipper is obviously going for reality here with the visuals, and the gray and brown tones worked well. Nothing that jumped out at you like Oh my God, that’s amazing! But when representing a realistic battle, jump-out-at-you stylistic graphics are a detriment as opposed to a help.
Wisely, Zipper stuck with a control scheme that is immediately understandable and intuitive to anyone who has ever played a shooter before – hit the right button to fire your gun, left to switch to grenade or med pack and right to use them. Pretty standard stuff.
The level design works hand-in-hand with the command structure. We started by blasting open a gate in response to our squad leader’s orders, and the goal was immediate and identifiable both visually and on the mini-map. After entering the enemy’s territory through the blasted gate, things got a bit more chaotic. My squad was met with resistance from enemies who tried to stop us from proceeding with showers of lead. No one lasted long.
Players in MAG respawn with their squad, and are given an opportunity to change their weapon package on the fly – so if you notice your team needs a little more heavy weaponry, you can strap on a rocket launcher. Spawn points, always a major aspect of a battle game, work like this: As your team takes more territory, your spawn point moves up, but if you want to hang back a little, you can choose a position further back from the frontline.
While in a “real” battle, the majority of the glory usually belongs to a commander, in MAG, there are plenty of moments for low level characters to get some heavy-hitting heroics. In our game, I managed to stealthy plant an explosive charge on tank blockade, then stand back with some of my squad mates and defend the bomb until the thing blew up. Other possible scenarios: When a higher-up on the enemy side orders an air-strike, one lone grunt can repair the anti-aircraft gun and end the strafing run that’s killing his buddies.
After the too-brief battle, the game featured a round-up screen that detailed players’ contribution to the battle. Along with the obvious tally of deaths vs. kills, the game singles out specific actions on the battlefield and rewards you experience points based upon them as well as a look at your rank. I’m a sucker for fake “achievements,” and this feature, as much as the action and explosions, is the thing that is likely to keep me logging in to blow off some steam.
Of course the 800-pound gorilla in the room with this game rhymes with its title: Lag. The battle we played in was lag-free, and, although I can’t say for sure, seemed to live up to Zipper’s stated goal of at least 30 FPS – at no point did game play feel stuttery, disjointed or interrupted. It was smooth. Of course, we were playing the game under optimum conditions – in Zipper’s studio and with only half of the player cap. How MAG will perform with 256 players on 256 different connections from all over the country won’t really be known until the game actually drops later this year.
Zipper hasn’t released all the details of how the “meta-game” of the Shadow War will actually play out and work, but they have said that after a faction takes over an area, it will earn special buffs in that area like defenses and different command abilities.
I’ve never been a super-hardcore realistic wargame player, so I didn’t go into this preview of MAG with incredibly high expectations, but playing it completely changed my mind. If the final game lives up to the promise set by the preview when it releases commercially, PlayStation 3 owners will be very, very happy, and I’ll be building my stats and working my way up the chain-of-command from release day on.
Check out our slew of battle-hardened art and screenshots!