MAG (Massive Action Game), Zipper Interactive's follow-up to the SOCOM series, isn't free of disappointments, but it's one of the most impressive shooters to grace gaming consoles in years.
- Massive, frantic online action
- Unparalleled sense of teamwork
- Generally lag-free online play
- Bad teammates dramatically undermine experience
- Disappointing visuals and sound effects
- Minimal tutorial means steep learning curve
With its landing cushioned by a generous parachute full of hype, the single biggest shooter to hit the PS3 has finally arrived. Despite the lofty expectations, Massive Action Game is a no-frills shooter, delivering exactly what its title promises and little else. However, the question is: Is what MAG delivers enough to woo gamers away from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 a game that, by comparison, is polished and glittering with weapons and accessories? MAG may be enough, but that depends on what you're looking to get out of it.
A Familiar Future
In 2025, the world has devolved into a playground for three corporate paramilitary factions who engage in global battles (the kind that real nations have been barred from) in the name of "world peace." You start by choosing one of those three factions, with Valor, comprised primarily of North American forces, being the one closest to the current U.S. military. Raven is the latte-sipping European force, outfitted with the highest-tech weaponry, while S.V.E.R. covers the former Warsaw Pact nations plus the Middle East. The differences between factions are minor, with Raven weapons excelling at accuracy, S.V.E.R. guns offering the most stopping power and Valor falling somewhere in between.
Despite taking place 15 years in the future, the weaponry remains familiar. As your primary armaments, you get assault rifles, SMGs and rocket launchers, just to name a few. Most are not officially licensed, meaning if you want to hit the battlefield rocking a Benelli M1014 shotgun, you'll instead have to make do with a "Boudini" 12-gauge. Most players won't care, but racing games are better with real cars and so too are shooters with real rifles.
In a post-Modern Warfare world, it's no surprise that you start off with only the most basic of equipment, delving deeper into your faction's armory as you gain notoriety on the battlefield. Leveling up earns you a point that can be used for upgrades: Minor skill upgrades (e.g. longer grenade tosses) cost one point, most weapon attachments (e.g. grips, sights) cost two and new weapons will often run you three or more points. You can unlock what you want when you want it, but you can de-allocate points and start fresh every 10 levels or so. Once unlocked, weapons and gear can be assigned to your five loadout templates, which, like SOCOM, can be switched out between respawns (but oddly can’t be renamed). Each template has one primary weapon and sidearm and then can be augmented with rocket launchers, explosives, repair kits, and lots of other goodies too -- if you have the room. For example, Troopers can only carry so much until becoming maxed out, slowing them down on the battlefield.
MAG's experience system rewards teamplay by giving you twice the points for resurrecting a fallen teammate as it would for killing an enemy. Without an auto-regeneration of health, this makes medical kits very important for survival. This dynamic has an interesting effect on the game: Instead of listening to people insult their teammates for having no skill, you hear them asking for help and thanking their cohorts for resurrecting them. Friendly people in an online shooter? Yeah, it's weird.
Unfortunately, this sense of camaraderie doesn't necessarily equate to a cohesive strategy on the battlefield. The maps are gigantic and littered with objectives and while spawn points are rarely far away from the action, channeling forces can be difficult. This is where the squad leaders come in. Each game is split into squads of eight and these squads are then grouped into platoons that make up the offensive or defensive force. At each level of hierarchy, a leader is designated: squad leader, platoon leader and officer in charge (OIC). Squad leaders can call in air strikes or artillery, set waypoints and provide directives called FRAGOs, ("destroy that bunker" or "protect that tower") which, if obeyed, earn troops bonus experience. When ignored, as they often are, nobody loses anything -- except the fight.
Platoon leaders and OICs can't assign FRAGOs (a seeming oversight), but they can give physical bonuses to nearby troops. By doing so, they get access to even more fun special abilities like recon UAVs, scatter bombs and bunker-busting munitions. None of that matters though when players aren’t listening to their leaders and, sadly, it's rare when they do. Dangling bonus experience like a carrot works well with an organized team, but when you have a bunch of new players afraid to run into the fray, it fails. Good commanders will often call newbs out by name and tell them to move up the battlefield, but there's nothing stopping anyone from ignoring orders -- there's no stick. It’s a bit like herding cats.
The process of becoming a leader is also less than perfect. The squad commander position is opened at level 15; however, to advance to platoon and OIC eligibility, you need leadership points, which are earned by leading. If there are multiple eligible leaders, MAG seems to choose one player at random and it could be another five or ten games before you are chosen to take the reins for one. It’s doubly frustrating when the leader chosen over you doesn't have a microphone or spends the match mumbling about how his squad sucks.
The Devil’s in the Details
There was doubt that PlayStation Network’s infrastructure could handle the load of so many gamers participating in 256-player matches, but MAG manages it all commendably. Yes, there is some lag at times, but no more than in any other multiplayer shooter. While the network code is solid, the rest of the experience is a bit weak. In MAG’s worst moments, it feels like a tech demo, a proof of concept to show that, yes indeed, the system can do it. While the lack of a single-player campaign and any useful training is probably the most obvious omission, the game's atmosphere could have used some further attention instead of the repetitive character models, bland backgrounds and generic sound effects. It’s technically proficient, but lacking personality.
Take the drop?
MAG stands simply for Massive Action Game and, while that is this particular title's biggest asset, it's also its biggest flaw: its magnitude is matched by a steep learning curve. A much more thorough tutorial is needed, the weapons locker needs more variety and it graphically resembles a PS3 launch title. Aside from those issues, the game thrives and stumbles based on the community. At its best, the game delivers on its promise of frantic shooter action on a massive scale. If you can get yourself in a squad with some like-minded teammates serving under a commander who can genuinely inspire, MAG is a truly great online experience.