MAG review

The first thought I had about MAG was that it seemed that not a huge amount of thought had gone into the game name – ‘Massive Action Game’ sounds like a work-in-progress title that nobody thought to change. However, like the annoying bloke on the ads for those DIY products used to say – ‘it does exactly what it says on the tin’ and gives you a fairly clear idea of what kind of game you’re getting, in this case a First-Person Shooter in which three Private Military Corporations (PMCs) via for supremacy across massive maps with up to 256 (count ’em: 256!) players on the battlefield at once.

It’s actually quite a good time for Sony to be launching this kind of title, what with everyone’s copies of Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 starting to get worn out through excessive play, and many COD fans calling for the new map packs to arrive (not for a few months yet chaps, if advance publicity can be believed). Yes, it seems like a perfect time to launch a First-Person Shooter with an even bigger online mode than COD: MW2, but how does it fare? Read on, dear gamer…

My first impression of MAG was not, I would have to say, a 100% positive one. In the interests of properly testing it, and to get myself used to the controls, which are slightly different to the COD set up, I tackled the training mode first. This is short and very simple, introducing you to the crouch and jump buttons, taking you through some elementary target practice and explaining the procedure for planting explosives in order to blow stuff up, and then using the repair kit to fix stuff that’s already been blown up. Nice and easy to get to grips with for any total novices, quick and easy to navigate through for more experienced players. Or rather, it should have been. For barely a minute into the training level, I got stuck. At the shooting range, I was instructed to switch from my sub-machinegun to my pistol, and shoot a couple of targets. This I did, but the game simply repeated the order to ‘switch to pistol and shoot the targets’. So I did it again. And again. And AGAIN. Then I collected some more ammo and did it again. Then I switched to my main weapon and back to the pistol, and shot the targets again… nothing. All I got was the same command repeated – the game was stuck in a loop. On the training level. Not exactly something to inspire confidence! Undeterred (well okay – slightly deterred) I quit out, and tried again. The next time round, ironically, the game didn’t even ask me to use my pistol, it just skipped that part altogether, so I made it to the end of the stage and was ready for some actual combat.

Now one of the key features of MAG is that it’s online only. That means it’s not really going to appeal to those PS3 owners who – despite the wealth of available games with awesome online modes out there – have not yet signed up for Broadband. Seriously, this game is NOT for you. For everyone else however, what it means is that you don’t have the option of an AI-opponent-filled single-player mode… no, in this game, from the word go, you’re fighting with and against real humans.

Ordinarily this wouldn’t be a problem, but unfortunately (due to a slight postal issue) my review code for MAG didn’t get to me until about a week after it had hit the shops, and so by the time I got online with it, there were already gamers on the servers who had racked up about 140 hours of playing time (seriously, do these guys not sleep? Or not have jobs for that matter!) This meant that for the first half hour or so of playing, I basically spent almost all of my time getting shot (many, many times) by far more experienced players. I persevered however, and after a while I’d managed to get to the point that I was actually spending slightly more time on the battlefield than in the respawn waiting area, and things kind of improved from there. It does highlight an important point about the game though: with no offline single-player to cut your teeth on, if you come to this game as a newbie, then when you first log in, you can expect to get shot… a LOT.

Part of the reason for this is that it’s extremely easy to die – starting with the most basic of weapons and equipment, you can get killed by other players in just one or two shots, which can often mean that you’re dead before you even realise that someone is shooting at you. You quickly learn that while rushing in like Rambo might work in other games, that’s not the best method to employ here. But then that’s because this game is created around the concept of teamwork.

When you join you’re assigned to an eight person squad, each of which has its own squad leader. This squad is part of a 32-person platoon (ie: a platoon is made up of four squads), with a platoon commander, and up to four platoons can go into the field at once, giving you an army of up to 127 comrades-in-arms. The theory behind this is that each squad will be led by their squad leader, and through leadership and teamwork, achieve individual objectives; the platoon commanders direct the squads to coordinate attacks on bigger targets and the ‘big cheese’ in charge of the army is responsible for the overall battle plan, just like in real war (I’m guessing, never having served in the armed forces myself). The only problem with this concept is that it makes a few assumptions about the players: firstly that any of them know anything about leading people, and secondly that any of them will actually want to be led. Bear in mind that a large percentage of gamers will be teenage boys, whose sole use of the Bluetooth headset function up till now will have been to ‘trash talk’ other players, to force people to listen to their own particularly bad taste in music, or to try and chat up any player who sounds like she might be female and have a pulse. Expecting these gamers to suddenly develop into a well honed, disciplined military fighting force is optimistic to say the least!

My first experience of the online game was testament to this – we all spawned on the battlefield, and everyone then just went legging it off into the fray, much as you’d expect in any normal deathmatch mode. I cautiously ventured out from our base, all the while waiting for some inspiring leadership from our squad commander, but it never came. Instead, everyone just seemed to do their own thing, and voice communications were limited to a few ‘look out behind yous’, a couple of guys discussing a new car one of them had apparently recently bought (which apparently gets GREAT gas mileage) and various episodes of swearing when people got shot. A team we were not… which is very possibly why we lost, spectacularly.

After a while and several more games however, it became clear that some gamers were embracing the central precept of the game a little more, and some teams genuinely did seem to work as coordinated units. Unfortunately, more often than not, these teams seemed to be the opposing ones. And it’s not like, as a newbie player, you can even try and take control of your errant squad yourself, because to be a team leader, rather sensibly, you need to have reached a certain rank in the game. The theory (presumably) is that anyone who’s got to that rank will have the smarts to be able to tell everyone else what to do. Sadly though, sometimes the most experienced player is simply the spotty teen shut-in who is only at that level because he’s been playing 24-hours a day since he bought the game as he has no ‘offline’ life, and this being the case he (it’s generally a ‘he’) usually prefers to camp out in a remote corner of the map with a sniper rifle doing his own thing rather than lead his team to group glory.

Teamwork aside, this game plays like a cross between COD:MW2 and EA’s Battlefield: Bad Company. There is a rich variety of weapons on offer, most of which need to be unlocked as you progress, and like with Bad Company, there are also various vehicles to utilise, depending on which game mode you’re in. There are a variety of different game modes, all of which have a very big team element to them, but all of which are essentially familiar variations on the usual deathmatch themes, meaning that MAG’s unique selling point is basically the number of players that you theoretically have on the battlefield at any one time. I say theoretically, not because I’m disputing there actually ARE this many players on the field, but only because, owing to the squad makeup of the game and the size of the playing fields, you generally don’t see hundreds of troops at any one time, more like dozens, with different squads usually ending up battling on different sections of the map.

The size of the map itself can be a problem, as often you’ll spawn, run for about five minutes to get to a particular location owing to the size of the playing area, only to get shot straight away by someone you didn’t even see, and thus end up back at base five minutes away from all the action again. Having huge maps is great for giving everyone plenty of objectives and space to play in, but the positioning of the spawn points isn’t always optimum for keeping up the pace of the whole thing. Admittedly, you do get extra spawn points as you manage to complete objectives, but you still can’t help but feel that at least half your time is spent just running for miles to get to the action, rather than actually taking part in it.

All in all, MAG is an innovative attempt to do something a little different with the online FPS genre, but it might be one that’s a little too narrow for everyone’s tastes. If however you’re the kind of person who only ever plays Call Of Duty in private teams formed from your friends and loves employing teamwork to get things done, AND you’re prepared to put a little work into in to get the hang of the game, then MAG does offer some very rewarding gameplay. The three different PMCs each have slightly different strengths, weaknesses and equipment, so this adds a little to the replay value, and at the end of the day, while it’s not quite up there with Modern Warfare 2 in the gameplay stakes (or the graphics and animation stakes, come to that) it wins hands down in the sheer scale of the battles on offer, and as such it’s certainly worth a look. I’d give MAG a nice solid ‘Good’ 6 out of 10.

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Related: Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, Battlefield: Bad Company

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