When Zipper Interactive's SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs debuted back in 2003, it became one of the first PlayStation 2 games to feature online gameplay. Seven years and several sequels later, the studio's latest project, MAG (Massive Action Game), is hoping to impress shooter fans once again by supporting up to a staggering 256 players per match. When we got a chance to play MAG's closed beta, it was limited to 128 players per map, but this time around, we got a chance to participate in full-scale 256-player bloodbaths as part of a UK event organised by Sony Europe for media, bloggers, and community members. The logistical scale of the event was impressive; however, the real boon was being able to see how the game would handle the stress of 256 simultaneous players.
If you're new to MAG, here's what you need to know: It's a multiplayer-only shooter exclusive to the PlayStation 3 and set in the near future where three private military contractors are fighting each other. MAG has three distinct teams to choose from: the gung-ho, US-based Valor; the high-tech, European-themed Raven; and the guerrilla-like Eastern Bloc SVER (Seryi Volk Executive Response). There are five match types, including two training modes, a control-the-point mode called Sabotage, a capture-the-vehicle (flag) mode called Acquisition, and a Domination mode where teams take it in turn to attack or defend an oil refinery. Each team has one map per match type with 15 maps in total. We got the chance to play two 30-minute domination matches as part of a 128-player UK team facing the best that Zipper's US studio had to offer.
With so many people, it's easy to feel overwhelmed with the number of enemies and objectives on each map. To combat this, each team is divided into eight-person squads with an assigned leader. Based on your experience and progress, you might be able to command a squad yourself. According to lead programmer Nate Klee, MAG's overarching goal is teamwork. "To encourage people to work together as a team in these large maps, where you get a huge number of people together, and in order to actually make sense out of that, it really [is important] to try to work as a team." Players that "try to work together with their team in the right location and follow their objectives" are rewarded. If you follow the instructions of your squad leader, such as destroying an enemy fortification, you earn double the experience points. You can, however, decide to be a lone ranger instead, and Klee said the game won't penalise players if they just want to run around shooting people. But the conditions weren't optimum because the noise generated from 128 monitors and players was enough to drown out any orders coming through, despite every player having his or her own headset. This meant we went for the strategy of killing as many enemies as possible. While MAG features some large maps, the action tended to flow toward the centre, with firefights occurring in bottlenecks. Our favourite weapon was the Apex 100 machine gun, which was ideal for mowing down enemies that continued to appear in these crossroads and helped us rack up a healthy amount of XP in the process.
Depending on your preferences, you might prefer to equip your soldier with a sniper or assault rifle, as well as pistols, missile launchers, grenades, health packs, or a welding device used to repair infiltration points. There are no preset classes to choose from, so you can decide how to configure your characters. "The way it works is that you gain experience," explained Klee. "From that experience, you level up and get points that you can spend in our barracks where you can choose different weapons and equipment that you can build into your loadouts and decide how you want to configure your character's weapons, attachments, armour, and various equipment. So you can build your own character based on your play style or build several characters. And, situationally, if you find that within the map you need to change [characters], you can do that."
We did encounter some lag during our games, with enemies jumping from point to point frequently. When we spoke to Zipper, we were told it was the result of specific issues from that venue. Given that the game hinges on a successful connection, fans will be pleased to know that Zipper has put a lot of effort into stress testing the game's online infrastructure. "We've been trying to do it since the beginning…we built the network tech first," Klee explained. "We've been working on testing this for a long time now, but as you continue to scale up, there are always more and more issues. We tried to have a long beta process to help our launch go smoothly." With the game due this week, we won't have to wait long to see how the final version holds up on retail PS3 units with typically home Internet speeds. And we're hoping that, with Zipper's long history of online support, MAG will be as lag-free as possible.
If you're a fan of SOCOM, then MAG is likely to appeal to you, with the controls, visuals, gameplay, and overall presentation all seemingly cut from the same cloth as its predecessor. Zipper is also hoping to win over new fans with the launch of MAG. "We're hoping it's actually more mass market [than SOCOM]…that it's a game that will appeal to the general shooter population," said Klee. "We wanted to leverage what we learned from the previous games, but it's a different game, and it's ambitious in the scale and persistence." With MAG due out this week in both North America and Europe, we won't have to wait long to see if it lives up to its high aspirations.