Review / MAG (PlayStation 3)

A successful shooter should not only provide a great campaign, but worthwhile multiplayer options too. It’s a big risk then, to focus solely on just one mode. Regardless, MAG, an online only FPS has stepped up to the task. It makes up for the lack of a campaign with the number of players on the battlefield. That number, if you didn’t know by now, is 256. The real question about MAG though, once you get over its impressive scale, is if bigger is better.

So once again the world is screwed up, and we’re fighting for what’s left of our resources. You sign up to one of three PMC’s: Valor, S.V.E.R., or Raven, and then spend your time waging war on the other two. Sound like something you once saw/played? You can probably think of a fair few titles that share a similar setup. MAG hasn’t got a fresh story, but it doesn’t really need to. An actual reason for you to fight is more than you get with most multiplayer titles, although when it has been done, it’s been done better.

The only real problem with this lack of originality is that it affects the gameplay. We’ve played thousands of modern FPSs before, so the weapons and vehicles etc aren’t going to be anything you haven’t seen before. As a result, the game lacks character, something hard to establish in the online world without the distinctive looks of a game like Team Fortress 2.

Each PMC offers a slight variation in gameplay; Raven have high-tech kit, S.V.E.R believe in courage and determination, and Valor use a well-rounded approach that balances out. No one side drastically differs from the other, but it’s worth taking a moment to think about who you’re going to fight as. For example, I consider myself to be a scrappy fighter, so I went with S.V.E.R., grabbed a dingy little AK-47U, and got in up close.

That got me dead pretty fast. Luckily MAG’s character customization is deep enough to let me go back and make my guy stronger. This shows that player size isn’t the only way that this is a big game; there are a wealth of upgrades to choose from, which you buy with points from leveling up. To level up, you gather XP from completing objectives and killing enemies. Again, nothing new, but there’s clearly been a lot of attention paid to this part of the game, making it a developed and at times addictive aspect. The “one more game” affect certainly settles in you’re close to the next level.

Now fully prepared, it’s time to head back into battle. It takes a few hours of leveling up to earn a spot in the big 256 player battles, but before there are a fair few game modes to keep you entertained during. Suppression, sabotage, and acquisition are the first 3 match types. Suppression and sabotage are essentially 64 player deathmatch and capture/hold missions, while acquisition is like a vehicle capture the flag as both teams have vehicles that they must protect or destroy.

The 256 player game type is domination, unlocked at level 8. This plays much like sabotage, just bigger. Things don’t get too messy despite the amount of people fighting, as you’re split into squads of eight men to control the chaos. Each squad has an objective; a structure to defend/attack. As you complete or fail objectives, you’ll push further into the map, where everyone meets up for the final showdown. It might sound daunting, but it’s perhaps the best way to put some kind of a leash on the battle. There is a strong learning curve though; it seems like a mammoth task getting to know all the maps etc.

To make the game something more than a Call of Duty clone, get a sense of the scale. For me, this happened a short time into a domination game, where I was struggling against a tank with my squad. I took a quick glance over to the far side of the map and, to my amazement, caught site of another squad having a similar encounter. It really impressed me that there was this whole other side, practically fighting a different match to my squad, and that in a few minutes we’d all meet up to take on a more challenging objective. It’s times like this I felt most that MAG had an identity of its own.

Despite the game living up to this promise, it’s taken me a long time to figure out if I like MAG. Throughout three solid days of playing I’ve changed my opinion a lot. It works well enough though the buttons differ from standard FPS (why is triangle crouch?) but you get used to them eventually. There are a few other niggles, like assigning so much equipment to the L2 button I throw a grenade when I mean to heal myself. You’ll never be able to control smoothly as Modern Warfare 2, but it does work.

The funniest thing about this game is that its real problems aren’t necessarily its own fault. Developers Zipper Interactive worked on the SOCOM games for PS2, which were the only titles worth playing online on the system. They focused on teamwork and communication. The same applies here, only it’s a lot harder to ask for these things when you increase the player size this much. You need a headset for the best experience, but the device doesn’t come with a PS3. I’ve yet to play a game with a good amount of players talking, or really working together.

This means that if you did play SOCOM, then you’ll fit right in with MAG’s harsh restrictions on respawn counts etc and come prepared with a headset. For these players, this is an incredible game, a true evolution of a PS2 classic.

There aren’t many people like that though, the rest of us getting lost in the maps and being served up for sniper bait. When I realised this, the real fact about MAG struck me, this is a niche game, one that’s trying to make it into the mainstream, but won’t get there. It looks like your standard shooter, but the potential is there for so much more. If you don’t play how the game wants you to play however, you’ll be punished.

Probably the best, most decisive thing I can say about MAG is that it is never a bad game. You can have a bad match, or just suck all the time, but it’s up to how you play. To say “it’s not as good as Modern Warfare 2” is simply irrelevant. It asks for too much to make a perfect game, and you’ll only get that once in a while.

Graphically, we’re not talking much. It’s not bad looking, but the settings don’t exactly allow for eye watering visuals. It’s all train yards and industrial estates, with a complete lack of anything interesting to look at. The best word to describe everything in this department is ‘fine’, and the game never exceeds that. This does help it to run without a hitch 90% of the time, rarely giving you trouble finding a game or suffering lag.

The sounds can really help the atmosphere though. When you’ve got a full squad letting their guns loose, with RPGs flying and tanks storming through, it’s truly an assault on the ears and as a result is the game’s best presentational feature.

MAG is a hard game to review, because your opinion will differ from a lot of people, so giving a definitive verdict is a difficult task. The game mainly appeals to a small fan base, but asks for a lot more players. If you liked/could have liked SOCOM, then you’ll probably love it. If not, you’ll have to put in a massive effort to appreciate this action game.

+ Delivers on its 256 player promise with ease
+ Despite first glance, offers a lot more than a standard CoD clone, offering deep strategic gameplay
+ Game engine holds up well even in the bigger matches

– You need teamwork, you need a headset. You won’t find either very often
– Doesn’t appeal to a mass audience but at the same time requires it
– Lack of originality makes for uninspired weapons, equipment, setting etc