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Joystiq hands-on: MAG

Colin Torretta
Little has been heard about MAG, Sony's ambitious 256-person online shooter that was announced during last year's E3. In fact, other than the CG trailer shown at the conference, there has been an almost total lockdown on any information related to the game. Last week, however, all that changed during Sony's Seattle Gamers Day event.

The event was held at developer Zipper Interactive's Redmond, Washington headquarters, where studio heads Jim Bosler and Brian Soderberg took the stage to explain MAG, the technology behind it, and how the game actually works with 256 people.

With a long history of making online shooters (the developer was the first to bring an online game to the PS2 with the first SOCOM), Zipper has been working hard to make sure that players will experience a smooth and pleasant experience, even when playing against a couple hundred other people. In fact, it's been running weekly 256-player tests since late last year with SCEA folks in California in order to test the network technology -- Zipper says it's already achieved smooth gameplay.

Concept-wise, the idea behind MAG was to be able to re-create battles on the scale of Blackhawk Down, with hundreds of well trained soldiers engaging in highly coordinated battles across large areas. In order to do this, the developer has created one of the most robust command systems we've ever seen in a videogame.

Gallery: MAG | 37 Photos

When you first jump into the game, you are auto-matched into squads of eight with a dedicated squad leader. Each squad is a member of a platoon with three other squads, which also has a dedicated commander. Finally, each platoon is a member of the army with a top level commander overseeing everything. So, ultimately the goal is to have two 128-member armies battling it out with commanders issuing orders, while smaller squads and platoons engage in skirmishes while working towards the final goal of the map.

While each map will have its own dedicated main objectives (see: "steal these top secret vehicles"), what really makes the commanders and squad leaders critical is the concept of FRAGOs. "FRAGO" is a real military term that stands for "Fragmentary Orders" -- these are on-the-fly orders that are issued as the battlescape dynamically changes during a fight. Sure, you need to steal those vehicles to win the round, but on your way there, you might run into a mortar that is destroying your front line -- the squad leaders can place a FRAGO on the mortar, indicating that your team should focus on blowing the mortar up before continuing onto the tanks. Besides simply making you an efficient army, MAG also rewards players who follow FRAGOs with additional experience points for fulfilling the order. You can always ignore the FRAGO, but getting twice the experience for fulfilling it makes it awfully enticing -- even if you're a lone wolf player.

The game will allow you to run off and do whatever you want and won't punish you for it.

Speaking of lone wolf players, the game will allow you to run off and do whatever you want and won't punish you for it. But players who stick close with their squads and platoons will find they get a bevy of bonuses, including things like faster reload times, the ability to run faster, or maybe increased accuracy. In-game, this was a fantastic way to make you want to stay with your squad, since the benefits are quite tangible (though not powerful enough to threaten the balance).

It should come as no surprise to fans of Zipper's SOCOM series to learn that the company is serious about its military games -- in fact, many of the developers at the studio came from the military, where they'd work on sims used to train soldiers. That sort of experience permeates all aspects of the game. Though set twenty years in the future, the game is still grounded in realism (if a slightly exaggerated realism -- still gotta have fun!). The guns look and feel fantastic, packing the right amount of punch and the battlefield itself feels chaotic and dangerous. Forget SOCOM: Confrontation -- this is the next-gen SOCOM, only taken to a whole new level.

Visually the game is quite striking. Perhaps not as sharp as Modern Warfare, but a gorgeous-looking game considering the scale. In particular, the lighting is fantastic, with light-scattering fog creating an absorbing ambiance that at times is similar to S.T.A.L.K.E.R (specifically while you're playing on a SVER map, with their scavenged technology and pieced together buildings). Speaking of which, depending on which faction you decide to join when you first create your account, your whole UI will change as well to match your faction's style. Resolution wise, the game will run at a native 720p and will upscale to 1080i for owners of older HD sets.

Each of the factions in MAG differ quite a bit in terms of design and weapons (of which there are over 70). The Raven faction is a glossy, high-tech group with the latest and greatest weapons and gear. Their slick, gray and black carbon body armor look matches their headquarters as well, both in color and tech level. Meanwhile, as mentioned, SVER is a rough-and-tumble group who customize weapons found on the battlefield with graffiti and taped-on customizations. Their bases are jungles of rusty metal and corrugated steel sheets, providing cover from enemy fire. Finally, the last group is Valor -- think USA Delta Forces and you're on track. They have more traditional military gear, with lots of camo and more classically styled gear. Their headquarters in Alaska is complemented nicely by the huge beards that many of their troopers have.

Controls are immediately accessible to any veteran FPS player.

So, how does it play? For our demo last week, we were playing a 128-person match, with journalists being grouped together in an eight-person squad, with Zipper and SCEA employees rounding out the rest of the match. The map we played was the aforementioned "Steal the vehicles" map, where we needed to sweep into the enemy's base, steal two armored vehicles and get back out alive. This was a lot harder than it sounds, particularly with the enemy commander calling in air strikes and mortars right on top of our squad as we tried to advance through the heavy enemy resistance.

Controls are immediately accessible to any veteran FPS player (though our recent obsession with Resistance 2 co-op meant we kept accidentally pulling out grenades instead of running). The Zipper employee walking us through the map also mentioned that the team plans on having fully customizable controls -- so even if you really, really want to Killzone-up your controls, you can. The game is very responsive, and targeting enemy soldiers quickly and accurately felt great. No learning curve here.

Upon spawning, our first task was to take out a fortified bunker that was a front-line spawn location for the opposing Raven soldiers. Our platoon leader placed a FRAGO on the bunker, and our squads started to surround the bunker as we tried to avoid the machine gun turret on top and the enemy soldiers flooding in. It was a heated battle, but never felt overly chaotic and eventually we were able to take down enough soldiers to mount a C4 charge on the back of the bunker. Once placed, we still needed to wait around, though, and make sure that the Raven soldiers weren't able to come back and deactivate the charge. Currently it's a 30-second countdown, but Zipper is still working on balancing that so that no one side is favored during demolitions

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