MAG is a game being sold on ambition. Let's be honest, if you looked at most of the points on the box, you'd assume that this is a standard multiplayer first person shooter. You know, one set in the near future with some sort of new global war happening, with various private military corporations fighting for territory and resources, set in various vaguely-foreign landscapes with high-tech military equipment. Aesthetically, there's not a lot to differentiate this PlayStation 3-exclusive from the crowd. But that's not the ambition. Instead, MAG promises 256-players simultaneously on one map, in huge battles for dominance over various tactical points. It's a practically unheard-of number, and one which is impressive to see as a dot point on the box, but does it actually make for a better game?
As mentioned, MAG takes place in the not-too-distant future, where three private military companies are locked in combat. Hailing from the Middle East and Russia is the ragtag company known as S.V.E.R., which has proved popular with players as the biggest faction. The Western European Raven Industries have access to high-tech equipment, while Valor Company are a more standard military faction from USA, Canada, Mexico and UK. At the beginning of the game, you're asked to join one of these factions and create your own character. As of writing, the factions were reasonably balanced across the various game modes, with each faction dominating at least one. Dominating a game mode brings leadership bonuses through 'contracts', making maintaining that faction's lead a priority.
Character creation is simple, with only a few basic choices for character design, but this is understandable due to the huge number of players which have to be generated for the matches. What's more annoying is that you can only ever have one character in the game. So, if you start up the game and decide to enrol in Raven, but find your friends have joined up with S.V.E.R., you'll have to delete your current character and start again, which can be quite annoying if you've been trying to build up experience points to level up your character. Our advice is if you're going to be playing this game with friends - plan ahead, and make sure you join the same faction as your buddies.
As we mentioned, the game has as an experience point system like that found in several other online games. It's actually important to get a handle on this as soon as possible, as you gain skill points by levelling up which can be used to gain medical or repair kits, improve reload speeds and unlock new guns. Your level also dictates what modes you can play in. You see, of the four modes available there's only one mode which allows for 256-players. You'll have to reach level eight before you're allowed to play in that one. The modes are broken up as follows: Suppression, a 64-player team deathmatch using players from one faction in war games; Sabotage, a 64-player game that sees one faction on the attack, and the other defending two control points and their base; Acquisition, a 128-player match where the attacking team must retrieve two vehicles from the opposing team, as well taking out their bunker; and Domination, the 256-player mode where eight command points must be taken by both teams, with the attacking team's objective being to hold onto as many command points for as long as possible to damage the defence.
However, there's yet another twist. Once you reach level fifteen, you can apply to become the leader of a squad, platoon or even the officer in charge. You see, in every game type you'll be assigned into a squad of eight players, which in turn is part of a platoon of thirty two. In Domination, there are four platoons on each side. Leaders provide passive benefits such as increased experience to soldiers who stay with them, so it really is in your best interest to pay attention to your commander and stick around, and they can also call in artillery attacks. Often your victory will hinge on whether you have a leader who's invested in the battle and paying attention, rather than one who's just volunteered for the position then runs around by themselves contributing nothing.
This holds true for the game in general, as well. If your squad sticks together, and people communicate with one another, then you'll stand a better chance at success and get a lot more out of the game. Of course, this holds true for any online FPS, but when you're running against the clock with 127 buddies it helps to form a united front, prioritising objectives effectively. This wasn't as common as we would have liked during our time with MAG, but that doesn't mean we didn't have some good games here and there. Of all of the modes, we'd say we enjoyed Sabotage and Acquisition the most, as they seemed to have the right mix of a large number of players focusing on a couple of objectives. While Domination is impressive, too often you'll find yourself amongst your platoon just taking care of two of the eight objectives, rather than taking in the full battlefield with the rest of the players.
The downside to all this is that MAG is ridden with some unfortunate glitches. These are things that will probably be patched later on, but right now they are noticeable and can affect your enjoyment of the game. For instance, while we largely found the game to be lag-free, there were a few times when we'd be killed by an enemy, and continue on playing as a 'ghost', able to move around and shoot but unable to affect anything. This would happen for about a minute before we finally 'died'. Another glitch we encountered several times was while waiting to re-spawn, the menu which appears as you wait would freeze up and leave you unable to re-spawn. This was especially annoying when we'd built up a large amount of experience, and wanted to see the match through to its conclusion, so we just had to wait for the game to finish. When matches are up to half an hour long, this is a problem. There was also another annoying glitch that occured when we re-spawned at parachute drops. As soon as we spawned, we'd immediately fall to our deaths rather than parachuting down to safety. When this glitch was coupled with the aforementioned respawn glitch, it made for some pretty frustrating sessions.
Due to the premise of MAG's huge number of simultaneous players, the presentation of the game is understandably a little standard. While the graphics aren't necessarily anything to write home about, with a colour palette of browns, greys and greens, and a decent amount of texture pop-in, they do the job pretty well. Occasionally some of the level designs actually become quite intriguing, such as one set in a jungle with ruins strewn throughout, and another at a dock with several sunken ships. While these aren't necessarily anything new, they are designed well. On the aural side of things, the game's music and main theme are actually quite catchy and well-composed, although sparsely incorporated into the actual game. Sound effects have a fair bit of oomph to them, although the various guns and ammo don't really have a lot of personality.
Despite the problems we've mentioned, MAG can actually be a really fun online FPS. If you've got a good squad with competent leaders, then chances are you'll really get into the game and have a blast. Sure, there are times when you'll find yourself running to an objective only to be killed by an enemy you never saw - and make no mistake, you will die a lot in this game - but provided the game doesn't refuse to re-spawn you, you'll just become more motivated to find a safer route next time and get to a vehicle's mini-turret to deal some serious damage. The way levelling up is tied so firmly into the rest of the game may frustrate casual gamers who want to play in 256-player matches from the get go, but does make sure that once you reach Domination, you'll be well prepared. While the massive number of players in the game doesn't make as huge a difference to gameplay as you might think, MAG is still an impressive technical achievement and fun game to play. Hopefully the most frustrating glitches will be ironed out soon, in which case feel free to add another half-point to the score.