As of last month, the long-running beta for MAG has gone from private to public. What was once a restricted sneak peek at this ambitious 256-player shooter is now open to anyone who's met the appropriate preorder criteria. Naturally, that means a sudden influx of new players setting up show on the MAG servers. With all the ins and outs that go along with a game of this scope, it can be pretty intimidating for newcomers. For that reason, Sony recently invited us over for a thorough rundown of some of those parts of the game that won't be immediately apparent when you first spawn into a match.
Like most online shooters released in the post-Call of Duty 4 era, MAG will offer a robust leveling and upgrade system. Every positive feat you pull off on the battlefield accrues some experience points, from winning a match right on down to the simplest knife kill. Beginning at level one, you'll create a character by choosing a faction to join, customizing his look with a number of outfits and preset facial configurations, and then deciding whether you want to roll with the default weapons loadouts or create your own. Want to be a clean-cut sniper dressed head to toe in camouflage? Maybe a reckless machine gunner with a tattoo on the side of your head and sweet wraparound sunglasses? The choice is up to you.
As you gain levels, you'll earn skill points to spend on increasing your proficiency with certain weapons and equipment. With no set class system in the game, you're given a good amount of room to climb these skill trees however you see fit. You can upgrade weapons with better attachments like higher-zoom scopes and grenade launchers, unlock new weapons like the submachine gun that you can use to replace your sidearm pistol, or focus on improving your skills with better close-quarters fighting and higher electronics skills. But one thing to keep in mind is that despite all these potential boosts to your soldierly abilities, developer Zipper Interactive is taking pains to make sure that the gap between a level-one grunt and a grizzled level-50 veteran isn't so great that the new guy doesn't stand a chance; it's aiming to hit that sweet spot between a sense of progression and a sense of balance.
One aspect of MAG's leveling system that sets it apart from other shooters is the officer hierarchy. With matches capable of supporting two teams of 128 players, things would get pretty chaotic without a leadership system in place, so that's what MAG offers. Once you hit the level-15 threshold, you'll be capable of applying for an officer position in each match, starting with a squad leader (controlling eight players at a time) and going on up to the OIC of an entire 128-player team. If you choose to pursue membership in this exclusive club, you'll get your own special leveling rewards called leadership bonuses. The best officers are the ones who have leadership bonuses that let them increase the armor rating of everyone in their squad, improve their weapons abilities, and so on.
These leaders are capable of chatting with each other over a special voice channel to develop a strategy during a match and then issue out orders to their underlings via optional secondary objectives. These include non-mission-critical tasks, such as destroy that turret or demolish that barricade. There's no penalty for ignoring these directives, but the incentive for soldiers to follow them lies in the fact that they'll earn double the experience points for each action requested by the squad leader. Sony describes this as taking the stick out of the carrot-and-stick approach to encourage players to follow orders.
Right now, Sony and Zipper are cycling various maps and game modes to focus beta testing. They're focusing on specific areas of the game so they can pull data and see what they want to change. A lot is being accounted for, from bird's-eye-view heat maps telling them where choke points are too constricted to weapon stats telling them which guns need to be balanced. Will all that work pay off come MAG's January 26 release? As a game with few rivals in terms of size and scope, it's certainly going to be interesting as we begin to find out.