MAG: It's an innocuous title that does anything but paint a picture of what to expect from a video game with such an acronym. That is, unless, you've plugged hours into the game's Beta program and kept vigilant to any news concerning Zipper Interactive's PS3 exclusive, online-only first-person shooter. In that case, not only would you know that MAG stands for Massive Action Game, but also why you're caught up in a private war between three multi-national factions. No, there's no doubt MAG lives up to its extended name and is a benchmark release for console-based online gameplay, but for all of its technical achievement, it lacks the community infrastructure and contextual support that would make it a compelling addiction.
That isn't to say MAG's oft insta-death battles happen without reason, but that it takes effort to ground yourself in the “Shadow War.” By creating a fiction from more than in-game cutscenes or texts, Zipper has afforded themselves the opportunity to cultivate passionate followers to what could be classified as a social experiment for 'hardcore' video games. From visiting MAG.com and its accompanying channels, you're treated to background on why there is global conflict, directed to Facebook profiles of the game's private military corporations and their leaders, and updated on their war efforts from a faux news reporter via Twitter. It all fits together organically, and brings together contemporary forms of communication in a way that seems like more than a clever marketing strategy.
The problem is, it's all too easy to bypass or be unaware of the ancillary social elements to MAG and only play what's in the plastic case. However, in doing so not only will you find online, multiplayer matches of unprecedented size, but an interface that fails to provide for a call-to-action or deeper reason to be a loyal part of any of the PMCs. For some, fulfilling objectives, earning experience points and leveling up a character MMO-style with new equipment may be reason enough to spend dozens of hours in a game. Yet, as the FPS genre grows, and as other titles push the boundaries of community support, only providing a “Career Stats” screen for a game that boasts unmatched 256-player arenas is disappointing.
Providing games of the scale available in MAG is an appreciable feat, and asking for more may be a criticism of 'asking too much'—but this is a case where more is a necessary complement to, and not a hypothetical pipe dream for, the game.
Some of this dispute, luckily, is mitigated by a scheme where episodic battles in one of three game types contribute to a tally that rewards your conquering faction with a boost until its supremacy is overtaken. As your PMC progresses in each game type, you find that Zipper has done well in creating a sense of militaristic division and hierarchy, with ranking players qualifying as officers and giving in-mission directives to their squad (8 players), platoon (32), or army (128). With competent commanders and strong communication, each match turns into a terse contest, sometimes won with split-second coordination.
With medals and ribbons to attain from completing specific tasks, there is some added incentive to replay the same handful of maps time and again; and with the large sizes of these arenas causing you to “improvise, adapt, and overcome” (Valor's motto), there's no denying the intense nature of the game. A clan system makes it easier for groups to play together and achieve the decorations, but it's unnecessary without an ability to challenge rival clans in tournament-style play. Not to mention, a functional in-game Friends List works just as well in putting together a full squad.
Though the leveling system is solid and the awards add value to your play time, each are tried methods of culling players to deepen their couch grooves and don't feel as significant a contribution to gaming when compared to the sheer size of the game's battles. MAG just tends to be a bit underwhelming when compared to franchises like Halo or Battlefield in terms of fueling meaningful competition or loyalty to your faction.
The game does manage to hold up to the senses, however. A feeling of war-torn chaos is easily created with strong graphical fidelity, aside from pixelated smoke and fire effects, and some here-and-there latency issues in the bigger battles. On the audio side, heavy guitar riffs played when you're doing well may muddle all-important communiques, but overall the symphonic metal provided by Apocalyptica is impressive and fitting along side squawk box commands and dynamic weapon effects.
With most of its context, backstory, and updates coming from outside of the game, MAG has the potential for encapsulating players in a rich, ongoing fantasy war that extends beyond their PS3 controller. However, the disconnect between the in-game tug-of-war and alternate reality programming leaves the game less immersive or capable of a die-hard following. Ultimately, it may be a strong package from a technical standpoint, but one that isn't as well rounded or robust as it should be. Playing with 127 allies across a gigantic map is impressive, but its novelty is subject to wear thin without as-unique extra content to back it up.
Played in any of the massive land battles in MAG? What's your biggest record? Let us know over Twitter @Gamers_Hell