Review: MAG

MAG is one of the most ambitious, innovative games I've played over the course of the past year -- and considering the past year has seen the introduction of a disc-jockey simulator and a game you play exclusively with your feet, I think that's a braggable claim.

If you're coming over to MAG straight from an extended tour of service in Modern Warfare 2, the transition is going to be a rough one. While the former rewards mad skillz and high K/D ratioz, Zipper Interactive's 256-player battles ultimately aren't affected by your personal performance. No one player can pull his team to victory -- and, alternatively, no one player can be blamed for his team's loss, which really takes the pressure off of mediocre soldiers like me.

Instead, battles are won with communication, teamwork and leadership. When all three are present in your squad, MAG is one of the most enjoyable multiplayer shooters you'll ever play. When just one of them is absent, it's a total nightmare.
The main "hook" of MAG is, of course, the large number of players it can cater to at a single time. More central to the game's philosophy than that, however, is the way these players are partitioned off into smaller gaggles, each with its own commanding officer and list of priorities. Though MAG's largest gametype will drop you on a team of 128 players, you'll really only be dealing with your eight-man squad. This smaller group is part of a four-squad platoon, and four platoons make up an army.

Each of these designated groups -- squad, platoon and army -- have their own leader with varying levels of power and responsibility. Players can only apply for a leadership position once they hit level 15, ensuring that they have a bit of in-game experience before taking charge. While fighting on the ground, officers have the ability to paint targets as their group's current objective. If players work to complete these objectives, they'll earn double experience for kills, assists, repairs and healing, adding additional incentive for a team to follow the orders of its superiors.

Surely you've tried to verbally orchestrate grand, four-front assaults in other multiplayer shooters, such as Battlefield 1943. What MAG does is take that idea of leadership, and place it in a cogent, straightforward in-game interface. Provided the hand on your squad's rudder isn't attached to an inaudible dimwit, it's a system that works surprisingly well.

Don't worry -- your soldier isn't just an innominate cog in a military machine. You've got a few basic aesthetic choices when designing your character, including camouflage and other accessories you unlock as your rank increases. There's also a simple tree which allows you to specialize in a certain field, or become more proficient with a certain type of weapon. Depending on which branches of the skill tree you go down, you'll automatically be given a designation (field support, commando, etc.) which helps commanding officers know better where to place you on the battlefield.

I spent my first few skill points bolstering my Medical Kit, giving me the ability to heal allies and, after a few more points, bring them back to life. I was pleased to find that the experience points rewarded for doing so are significant -- especially when healing or reviving teammates within the vicinity of your squad's targeted objective. I would later pick up anti-personnel mines, allowing me to set up "safety zones" where injured players could enter, get a quick spray of the good stuff, then run back out into the fray. From within my "Free Health Care Quik-Stop," I frequently became my platoon's MVP.

MAG is broken down into four main gametypes: Suppression, a simple 64-player deathmatch skirmish; Sabotage, a 64-player match in which the attacking team attempts to destroy three objectives, Acquisition, a 128-player mode where the attacking team attempts to steal vehicles and return them to an extraction point, and Domination, the main 256-player mode where attackers try to take down a handful of objectives in 30 minutes in an attempt to destroy the defender's oil refinery.

That may not sound like a lot of variety, but the larger gameplay modes place teams on offense and defense, each of which present different challenges and strategies to players and officers alike. There are three maps for each of the different gametypes, so you'll be seeing a lot of the same real estate the longer you play -- however, the action's dynamic enough to keep things feeling fresh.

Regardless of which gametype you're playing, or which role you're fulfilling, the wheels really fall off the wagon when your squad, platoon and army doesn't function as a single unit. If your squad leader doesn't perform his duties effectively, you're going to lose. If your team doesn't follow the orders delivered by its commanding officers, you're going to lose. If your squad lacks soldiers of varying specializations -- particularly medics -- you're probably going to lose.

Worse still, if your ragtag group of uncoordinated nincompoops is facing off against an army that does have their stuff together, you're in for a lengthy exercise in disappointment and frustration.

Of course, negative experiences like those could hypothetically be curtailed by MAG's strong community support and clan functionality. So far, I've only enlisted into matches by my lonesome -- I imagine that, with a few friends or the support of an active clan, the teamwork would come a lot more naturally.

Then again, perhaps I've only ended up in the occasional disorganized outfit because the game is so new, and so unlike other entries in the genre. There's a pretty steep learning curve -- not just for how to be a good soldier, but for how to effectively direct a 128-player army as a single, cohesive unit. Players are still figuring out how to be good at the game -- and after being repeatedly eviscerated in Modern Warfare 2 by experienced veterans of the franchise, I found MAG's collective learning process to be downright refreshing.

MAG is an incredibly polished and -- when teamwork prevails -- incredibly satisfying multiplayer shooter which deserves the consideration of every PS3 owner. Though it has the propensity for frustration when communication between squadmates breaks down, it still offers a brand new experience for the first-person shooter genre; an experience I'm excited to watch develop from the ground floor.

Editors' note: This review is based on the retail version of the game provided by Sony.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.