MAG Hands-On Impressions

We blast our way through Sony's ambitious online shooter.

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The 256-player online shooter originally announced as MAG: Massive Action Game has since had its name trimmed of the cut-and-dry subtitle, but the scope of the game remains just as enormous as when news of its existence first broke at E3 2008. For Sony and developer Zipper Interactive, the team behind the bulk of the SOCOM series, that means living up to some pretty lofty claims. After visiting Zipper's Redmond, Washington studio last week for a chance to meet with staff and go hands-on with MAG, it looks as though they're well on their way to living up to those promises.

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As you'd certainly expect, MAG has proven to be an ambitious undertaking for Zipper and Sony. Not only have they elected to build a new game engine from scratch, but they've also had to design a network infrastructure that will be key to making sure that these giant matches run smoothly. Zipper and its partners have been working for the past few years on this brand-new server system, culminating in full-capacity testing beginning in late 2008. Since then, it's been a balancing act of keeping smooth visuals that run at a minimum of 30 frames per second while maintaining a serviceable connection for all players. With the framework in place, next on the agenda is a public multiplayer beta, which several Zipper employees told us is a necessity to test their system under real-world conditions.

Although the tech behind MAG is breaking all-new ground, the game's setting sticks a bit more closely to first-person shooter traditions. The game takes place 20 years in the future, in a time when world powers have begun relying much more heavily on the use of private military contractors to fight their battles--what Zipper refers to as a "shadow war" of PMCs against PMCs. That lays the foundation for the game's three factions: the sleek, high-tech Raven; the burly, camo-covered Valor; and SEVR, a group of ragtag fighters adorned in makeshift armor. Each has its own distinct look, from clothing to weaponry, as a way to help players tell friend from foe on the expansive battlefields.

Get ready for some pretty huge firefights.
Get ready for some pretty huge firefights.

To keep those battlefields from getting too chaotic, Zipper has organized each team in such a way that there are multiple layers of leadership to help guide you along. Each match has a pair of 128-man armies, which are divided into 32-man platoons and 8-man squads. You've got a leader at every one of those levels who's capable of dishing out to his subordinates orders that can expand on or differ from the overall team goal. These are called FRAGOs (fragmentary orders) and include objectives such as destroying gates or antiaircraft guns, or what have you. The penalty for disobeying your commanding officer? Nothing. But the benefit is drastically increased XP, which you'll use to unlock all manner of goodies in the game's focus on persistent leveling and rewards.

So what exactly does a 256-player match feel like in action? Sadly, we can't say. Our hands-on time with MAG was set on one of the 128-player maps, with closer to half of the maximum number of players actually playing, a decision that Zipper made for easier coordination among journalists and testers. But even at a fraction of the game's capacity, the match was impressive in scale. The map was huge, and between all of the distant gunfire, parachutes dotting the sky, and splinter battles, there was a lot going on.

The controls offer zippy movement and don't feel far off from the Call of Duty games. You can choose from a number of kits that all include a primary weapon, a pistol, a knife, grenades, and specialized gear such as a medic gun or repair tool. We tried a number of weapons, including an assault rifle, a submachine gun, a light machine gun, and a sniper rifle. With so many players, we didn't survive long with our original run-and-gun tactic; we had much better luck simply going prone with a sniper rifle and picking off parachuting enemies. (Call us dirty spawn campers if you like, but players are given a number of spawn location choices.) Overall, the core gameplay seems pretty accessible and straightforward. Most of the depth looks like it will come from teamwork and getting to know the ins and outs of each map.

Maps of varying sizes will be offered for when you can't get a full match going.
Maps of varying sizes will be offered for when you can't get a full match going.

We played a mode that challenges one team with sneaking into enemy territory and stealing a pair of heavily armored vehicles within a particular time limit. There was discernible flow to the action as one team pushed deeper into the other's side, though with the number of players out there, the fighting was divided into lots of little pockets. To help get a better feel for what's going on, you can pull up a slick overhead map that shows an isometric view of all buildings, and icons for enemies, vehicles, and points of interest.

If you were hoping for MAG to turn the fundamentals of the first-person shooter genre on its ear, you'll likely wind up disappointed. But if you were looking for a familiar approach to shooter gameplay on a ridiculously huge scale, you're in luck--it seems that's just where MAG is headed. We had a fun time with it, but we're eager to experience a full-capacity match to see just how intense it will be. You can expect plenty more coverage on MAG leading up to its release in late 2009.

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