I think that, in many ways, what a person does for a living heavily influences what they do in their downtime. If your job involves a lot of stress – like being a police officer or a mother of eight pyromaniac five year olds or something – when you get some free time, you're just going to want to do something relaxing, like crochet, or power-sitting. Conversely, if you do something extremely unexciting for a living, like absolutely nothing, chances are you'll be more drawn to a chaotic, stressful game like MAG.
MAG, in case you have just arrived here from several years in the past and from a foreign planet and are deaf and only just now, this very second, learned how to read, is a first-person-shooter by Zipper (the team behind SOCOM). It's strictly online, and has been the focus of much publicity not just because of the developer's pedigree (which is pretty good), but because it touted character growth and customization, persistent scores and bonuses for the armies, and, most importantly, up to 256 concurrent players in a match. Due to its online-ituity (now officially a word), we couldn't play before the official release date, and we didn't want to review the game based on the beta, because betas are there specifically to implement changes before release. So now that you have the general gist, let's put this game under a MAG-nifying glass! My, how witty I am.
Let's start with character creation. The first step is choosing a faction or PMC (stands for Private Military Company). There are three to choose from, and once you make your decision, you're stuck with them until you delete your character and start again. S.V.E.R (pronounced 'sever') is, at the time of writing, the most popular of the three. They're a rag-tag crew of soldiers from the middle-east and Russia. Next in popularity is Valor Company – a combination of veterans from the US, UK, Canada and Mexico. I decided to play as these guys because I could make a character that looked vaguely like Bill Cosby. I base most of my decisions in life on the Cosby factor. Bringing up the rear is Raven Industries; Eastern-Europeans with a focus on hi-tech equipment. A common misconception amongst those I've talked to is that the PMCs are all identical in terms of gameplay. They're not. Each PMC has their own set of equipment with its own stats, so the PMC you choose has the potential to greatly alter your capabilities in battle.
Getting into a battle is simply a task of choosing a game mode and queuing up. Queues don't take too long simply because of the volume of players and, as best I can tell, matchmaking works on a first-come, first-serve basis. Whichever two PMCs has enough players queued up to start a match first are paired to compete. Whoever wins these matches – which I'll cover in a little while – contributes points (which are represented by a colored bar on the match-selection screen) towards their PMC's victory total. Eventually, a PMC will fill the bar and be rewarded with a passive bonus for future matches.
This is where my first major complaint with the game begins, and it's a doozy. Now, perhaps it was a complete fluke. Perhaps several groups of skilled players had organized prior to the launch to join S.V.E.R. and tear it up. Or, and this is what I fear, there is an imbalance in the strength of the S.V.E.R gear, that, although extremely slight, gives them an edge over the other two PMCs, because since day one S.V.E.R has been completely dominating in every single game type (I later deleted my Valor character specifically to test out S.V.E.R. and, through my own personal observation, even at lower levels I noticed I was more successful at getting kills and winning matches).
That isn't my complaint. My complaint is that, due to their dominance, players are deleting their Raven and Valor characters and joining the winning team. As a result, most matches are S.V.E.R versus Raven, and S.V.E.R versus Valor. Rarely is it ever Raven versus Valor. This means that S.V.E.R – who were already winning most of their matches – was now also playing many more matches than either of the other PMCs, and as a result, their victories were compounding. Naturally, S.V.E.R is almost always the highest scoring PMC, giving them the passive rewards and making it even easier for them to win. In essence, S.V.E.R is slowly snowballing into an unbeatable juggernaut, and the other two PMCs can do little to curb the growing imbalance.
What of the actual gameplay, though? MAG has four different game modes and a training mode. The training mode is very basic and takes you through movement with the left stick, toggling ducking and crawling with Triangle, and destroying/capturing objectives and restocking your equipment at specific points with Circle. They also take you through the process of repairing devices with the repair tool, and have you perform some basic target practice with your primary and secondary weapons, and grenades. They don't teach you, however, how to enter, exit and pilot vehicles, or man turrets or mounted guns. They also don't teach you about the mini-map at all.
The first real game mode you're going to play (known as Suppression) is essentially a skirmish with your own PMC members. The only objective is to take out the opposing 32-player squad more efficiently than they can take out yours. It essentially gets you used to the shooting mechanics, and teaches you an important lesson about not running around in the open – the lesson being "don't run around in the open". You'll notice that players die from just a few hits, even with the heaviest armor equipped. Chances are very good that you will spend the majority of your first few minutes dead and waiting to respawn – a process which happens on a 20 second loop. That's not to say that it takes you 20 seconds to respawn, but that every 20 seconds, everyone who is dead will respawn. If you die with only five seconds before the next respawn, you'll only have to wait five seconds.
There is an alternative to respawning though, although you may not encounter it in your first game. If you weren't knifed or exploded, when you're taken down a red skull will appear at the bottom of the screen and slowly drain away. During this time, any player equipped with the appropriate ability may run over and revive you, thereby putting you immediately back in the fray. Annoyingly, there is no sound or animation when you are revived, so if you're not paying attention, you may just end up standing there long enough to get killed (again). Any sort of sound – character vocalizations, for example – would greatly help this problem.
Any positive actions you perform will reward you with experience points. In the case of Suppression mode, you'll basically be getting points from kills alone. In other game modes, such as Sabotage (another 64 player map where the goal for the attacking team is to capture two satellite dishes, and ultimately destroy a datacenter), you will gain experience from completing objectives, destroying opposing vehicles and constructions, repairing your own, and healing and reviving your allies. Leveling up gives you a skill point which can be spent on increasing a passive ability, or giving you a new piece of equipment for your loadout. This is where the game separates itself from most other shooters, as you can customize your character's play-style through this system.
Experience is fairly heavily weighted towards playing a supporting role. Medic-type characters will blast through levels far quicker than anyone else, which meant that, by the time I had unlocked the 256-player Domination maps about midway through launch day, about half the players were strictly medics.
On the topic of the Domination maps, they were somewhat of a disappointment. Yeah, you can have 256 players all battling it out at once, but due to the way the maps are designed, and due to the squad system, it never feels like there are that many players. In fact, you'll be lucky to see anyone outside your platoon, and if you do, it means either they or you are doing something wrong. Once players reach level 15, they can opt for a leadership position in their squads. Players who stick with their squad leader get passive benefits – increased experience, faster reload times, damage resistance etc... – so it's to a squad's benefit to stick together. However, on the larger Domination campaigns, squads spawn in a ring around the opponent, and each have their own suggested objectives, so they never really coalesce and you never have that storming-the-Normandy-beaches moment. Players who nab a leadership position also gain the ability to call in special attacks, such as artillery bombardments and the ability to lengthen opponent spawn times or shorten your own. They're interesting abilities and add an extra layer of tactical options, but it's not something you'll get to experience with any regularity, and there's also the expectation that you will actually lead the battle – something many players may shy away from.
The objective for Domination is to destroy your opponent's fuel supplies by attacking their cooling towers before moving on to take control of some fancy looking control panels. The longer you hold the control panels, the more damage you deal to their oil or something somehow. Make sense? No? Correct! It's basically just about capturing and holding areas. There are a lot of little things you can do to make it easier – destroying bunkers, anti-aircraft guns and vehicle depots – the volume of which, unless your team is communicating extremely well, tends to splinter people (conversely, in a good team, it's fun to systematically blow through your opponent's defenses). There's also so much going on, with the artillery bombardments and aircraft bombings, that you're not likely to live for more than a minute or two at a time. Because of the chaos and short lifespan, and because the game is half an hour long as a defender (which involves visiting the exact same points over and over again), this scenario was actually the least fun.
The medium-sized option – Acquisition – pits two 64-player teams against each other, with one attempting to capture two experimental vehicles, and the other trying to prevent them. It strikes a balance between the simple Sabotage scenario, and the overly complex (and long) Domination, and involves the most variety and movement. Even so, it frequently boils down to stalemate skirmishing matches around the gates. Both this scenario and Domination have vehicles, which are used more as mobile spawn points than as a means of invasion for the attacking team, and are used mostly as roadblocks by defenders.
Overall, the shooting mechanics are solid, but not at all tuned for casual players. Unless you're used to the kind of instant-death split-second FPS, you are going to become increasingly frustrated from having to spend so much time respawing and running, only to be shot down as soon as you get near the action. This is especially bad if you're a latecomer to the game and everyone else has geared up to the teeth. It's also pretty tough to tell friend from foe from a distance, as it sometimes takes a few seconds for the little blue triangle to pop up over an ally's head. The visual design differences between factions are negligible when you're sniping, or even attacking from a middle-distance. Grenades are also terribly overpowered. The blast radius is large enough, and the damage high enough, that two grenades can easily clear out any chokepoint, and I'd estimate I got a third of my kills (at least!) simply from random grenade-lobbing.
There are also a multitude of bugs that slipped through the beta. Approaching a stationary vehicle from the front poses the risk of the server registering you as being run over. Bodies freeze and twitch in the middle of the battlefield. Rubberbanding from server lag is uncommon, but still happens, and in one instance we were entirely unable to respawn. The only solution I was able to find was to exit the game and re-queue. The rocket launcher also has a nasty habit of inexplicably blowing up the user, or bouncing off of the target. I shot a helicopter from about ten feet away and had the rocket ricochet off and explode on the ground below.
Finally, there simply isn't much content here. There are nine maps total, and although the maps are large, many share the same set pieces so it frankly feels like three maps and three variations on each one. Plus, you're always only ever attacking on certain maps and defending on others, depending on your faction, so unless you delete and start again, you'll never see what's on the other side. I wish I could say that, at $60 for the game, you're guaranteed to get plenty of free content added, but Zipper hasn't commented on how it'll support MAG, and are under no obligation to fork out freebies.
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