Announced at E3 2008, MAG (Massive Action Game) set its goals high from the very start. It promised to feature intense, large-scale battles with up to 256 players and this lead to lots of speculation regarding the game; not to mention boasts that this sort of console combat could only be done on the PlayStation 3. Naturally Zipper Interactive has a lot to prove, but does it live up to expectations?
In the not so distant future of 2025, private military companies control the war economy. Competing against each other for information, technology and crude resources, these PMCs work for anyone who's willing to pay and in turn offer a variety of services. Players get to select one of three factions and make a character to fight over control of various objectives. S.V.E.R (personnel drawn from war-torn Middle East/Russia), Raven Industries (European soldiers) and Valor Company (mostly North American troops) all compete against each other on both home and enemy territory. One annoyance here though, is that once a faction is selected, it's not possible to change without attaining level 60, or going back to level 1 all over again.
Before entering the large scale fights, players are given the chance to warm up through a simple deathmatch mode whereby players are pitted against their own team in a 'recreational simulation'. There's also a short training tutorial that teaches how to shoot, run, climb, and other very basic controls. Getting kills, completing objectives and defending critical points all net experience which then yields levels. Levels give players the ability to further customize their character's appearance as well as giving points that can be put into various attributes. Better guns, land mines, more stable firing and more effective med kits are just a few of the options offered, and going further into a particular skill tree will net even better skill options in the future.
Gaining levels eventually gives players access to a command position, which is the real cream of the crop. While not everyone can gain access to being a commanding officer at once, there are benefits for both taking up the role and assisting those who've taken on the challenge. Squad leaders can set objectives, call in air support and overall direct the flow of the battle. Their teammates nearby gain boosts to anything from stamina regeneration, reload speed, and movement, depending on what level the squad leader is. Teamwork is absolutely pinnacle to MAG, as there's so much happening that individual soldiers won't accomplish much without squad assistance.
Unfortunately, the depth of MAG ends about there. The rest of the game is really a massive gamble, depending on what kind of squad the player happens to find themselves in. With such a heavy focus on teamwork and cooperative play, having a squad leader 'go rogue' and do whatever they like hurts the team greatly, as much as having teammates that like to play solo. Even worse is having anyone who likes to rush headlong into objectives only to be taken apart by people who have actually taken the time to setup defensive positions. Without constant communication and team effort, MAG falls apart rapidly, and it's hard to find who precisely to blame when a battle turns into a loss.
MAG also assumes a lot of the player, giving no instructions aside from 'defend the objective' or 'capture this point'. There's no short explanation on how to drive any of the APCs in game, or that capturing some objectives yields positive effects. Players are also not given much incentive to experiment with different weapon builds, as the cost to respec out of skills learned doubles each time the ability is used. While there aren't too many possible builds and points can be spread out reasonably without affecting gameplay too much and it seems strange that a game which encourages squad based combat wouldn't encourage more specialization for effective unit coherence.
Graphically the game is very impressive for what it does. Fielding even 64 players on a single map is no easy feat, and for the most part, the game doesn't suffer too greatly from lag. Lag however, is not completely absent from the game. Large scale explosions, mass airstrikes, or simply too many people in a single spot will cause a bit of strain on the games system, even if it is a rare occurence. Overall players should be quite satisfied, as levels contain enough depth and scale for endless amounts of strategy. The sound quality is a bit disappointing though, small and large scale firearms sound solid but explosions seem a bit muted.
Replay wise, the game has a lot to offer, especially for those who've been looking for a lot of team based action. It can be hard to see the big picture at times, but with each squad working together for a common objective the gameplay becomes quite rich. It's not hard to find a lot to do in game, and once players get based the steep learning curve there's a lot that can be done.
While the game is quite solid in its own right, its primary function is to be a large scale tactical shooter. In that, it succeeds. However, take away the numbers and all that's left is a very generic experience. MAG isn't about delivering a unique set of controls, or gamebreaking mechanics. It's about giant fights, working as a team, and learning the lay of the land in extremely large levels. Those looking for something to just jump right into may be uncomfortable with the amount of time and dedication the game demands, but sitting down and really diving into the game can be a rewarding experience.