I shouldn’t like MAG as much as I do. At this point, I should have put it back on the shelf, tucked away as reference material. But there is something about it that demands otherwise. Zipper Interactive, developer of the SOCOM series and Crimson Skies, has hit on something. As an unfriendly of a game as they have made, as often elementary as its mechanics may seem, they have put together a concoction that is something beyond its parts. It remains to be seen, however, if its potential will be fully realized or if it will linger in a state of unfinished excellence.
Well, that may be a bit much. After all, the game is quite good, but there is so much more that can be done. For starters, why I or anyone else can not only like but become so heavily invested into such an unwelcoming game is a miracle all its own. An online-only, squad-based title that has only the most rudimentary of training, no bot support, no way to practice on maps, progression as slow as molasses, and with only one map in which all levels and ranks can practice, it is surprising that anyone is playing. But people are playing. In their throw-them-to-the-wolves design, Zipper has created a compelling, addictive, and thoroughly enjoyable title that has caused me more late nights and cramped hands than I could have ever imagined.
As a mercenary employed by one of three private military contractors, you take your character, and until you hit level 60 your only character, from a recruit to a battle-hardened soldier by engaging in skirmishes across the globe. Contracts are what matter, and contracts go to the victors. Each faction has a chance to engage in a series of missions where they defend and assault one of the other companies, in an effort to steal intel, cripple their capacity for war, and build prestige in a Shadow War.
Engaged in this nefarious Shadow War are Valor, the middle-of-the-road faction made up of veteran soldiers from North America and Britain; Raven, the tech-focused, Austrian-based faction is made up of greener Western Europe and the Middle East troops; and S.V.E.R. (Seryi Volk Executive Response) are the hard-hitters primarily from India, China, and Russia. In 2025, these contractors battle it out for global supremacy as the Millennium Accord, and a dangerously low supply of resources, restricts militaries to each nation’s borders. Each victory brings an advantage to your faction within the war, and with those benefits come personal experience bonuses as well as contracts that can lead to other perks, from additional experience to lessened downtime between in-mission critical strikes. Not only do you want to succeed to gain said bonuses, but you also want to win because of factional pride - many of the humorous chants and taunts I heard helped to build a sense of camaraderie.
And comradeship is key. Each platoon deployed to a map is broken up into squads, with each squad having a leader that issues orders and keeps their troops on target. One feature that makes MAG so successful is the necessity of and focus on the squad, as the maps can range from 64 players to a whopping 256 players. Aside from keeping the matches from devolving into chaos, squad leaders also impart benefits and extra experience to those that follow orders and remain near them and the objective; neglectful commanders can also be voted out. Above the squad leader are the platoon leaders and Officers in Charge, who can communicate to a greater number of soldiers and utilize their own special commands, such as air strikes.
Even if someone wants to go it alone, they often find themselves migrating back to the squad leader. The design necessitates sticking together, because the gung-ho style prevalent in so many other first-person shooters simply doesn’t cut it in MAG. Snipers can get away with going solo for a bit, but even they will eventually need the help of a support-minded comrade. For the other classes, going alone often results in being swarmed by a cohesive enemy squad that would like nothing more than to exchange a few spent rounds for some experience points. And the idea of easy experience is frightfully motivating.
Leveling isn’t easy, and the game is stingy with its skill point, so experience is always on everybody’s mind. With only one skill point given per level gained and most of the skill tree items requiring at least two points, you want to gain as much experience as possible per round. The skill tree, largely the same between factions, is broken down by tiers roughly into three categories: weapons, support abilities, and personal enhancements. The weapon set is further broken down by the three primary guns – assault rifle, sniper rifle, and machine gun – with points purchasing such accessories such as additional grips, scopes, and secondary functions. Support abilities include the ability to heal other members by bandage and resuscitation, repair machinery, as well as functions to increase the potency and speed for each. Enhancements are character-related, such as athleticism and personal defense, and harden up your character through better shot detection, less damage taken from falls, less susceptible to poison gas, quicker sidearm draw, less cool down time after sprinting, and so on. But the skill tree’s open nature, which can make allocating that few points torturous, makes for some highly customizable soldiers.
While the game auto fills three of the five loadout slots from the get-go optimized for each general class – the lightly armed assault soldier, the sniper, and the heavy machine gunner – each item within the loadout can be utilized. This means that you can have a sniper with heavy armor, a machine gunner with little protection and increased speed, or a soldier that focuses on a support role. As long as your equipment’s cost does not exceed the loadout’s 1,000-point ‘c’ (credit) limit, you’re good to go. Taking advantage of one of the tips that display during load screens, I have a loadout based around an assault soldier that heals and repairs, another that sports heavier armor and the strongest rifle for defending, and another with less protection but heavier arms (fragment grenades, strongest assault rifle, and a rocket launcher) – it’s best to have one premade for every situation. It’s a deceptively simple system that encourages experimentation both with equipment and skill tree categories.
The war is broken up into several theaters, in addition to the barebones training scenario. Suppression is where you’ll practice against fellow faction members on a small map with the aim to deplete the other side’s reserves. Sabotage has an attack and defense element with each side facing off over three objective points; skirmishes over the first two objectives culminate into a large battle for the unlocked third. Both Suppression and Sabotage are 64-player matches, with 32 on each side. Acquisition is the 128-player map, 64 per side, with one team attempting to hijack another’s vehicles and return them to their base. The last type, Domination, is a beast: 256 players, 128 on each side. Eight targets in a forward position are contested before the final assault on a large base. This is where the game shines, as mortar rounds rain down, planes strafe passageways, and engineers work overtime to repair doors and radars as the enemy storms forward.
To help minimize the waiting, a Directives mode is available that auto adds you to whatever match needs players. You are also rewarded with additional experience for going to where the faction was in need. There are only a handful of maps in total, but they are of an excellent design. Each has natural chokepoints that quickly become hotly contested, as well as small nooks and crannies throughout that are perfect for snipers and machine gunners. While I might have some maps I favor more than others, and some faction’s starting points I feel are better situated, there are none that I dislike.
Rendering such large areas, especially in Domination, for an action-heavy online title requires some visual sacrifice. If everything looked like Uncharted 2, the game would slow to a crawl. In that regarding, MAG has a very sim-like presentation about it with a sparse HUD, decent animation, so-so models and detail - serviceable, but not ugly. There are, however, numerous minor glitches that pop up here and there that present some problems for a game so demanding; it is both embarrassing and deadly to open up on what looks to be moving feet but is instead a branch appearing and disappearing. There are also moments when a model will get stuck in its death animation, jerking in place for a few moments. I hope that a future update will address this, because a game this tactical requires it. Sound, on the other hand, is suitably low-key and does a great job in heightening the tension. Music is almost nonexistent, and I would argue completely unnecessary, as the generic rock that will randomly blare doesn’t add too much. I especially like the auto voice clips that would play during combat, quickly alerting teammates to a tossed grenade, when they’ve walked into someone else’s firing line, and cries for a medic; though, it was odd that “Sniper!” was often heard after the sniper was dispatched. The flurry of zips and pops in the smaller fights are just right, but the absolutely deafening endgame of a Domination match is something else.
Some of the design decisions mentioned earlier on will, I think, be a problem going forward. Since Suppression is the only mode to practice in that doesn’t go towards your faction’s standing in the war, the players going at it will range from those just beginning to old pros. Granted, some of the lower-level fighters could be veterans that have hit the level-60 cap and have started a new character with a new faction, but most are green recruits that are just trying to learn what is going on; and judging by the confused chatter, the trainer and manual aren’t nearly sufficient. What all of this means is that you will have someone who just reached level 3 going up against someone who is level 35, supped up and battle hardened, testing out a new scope or grip. The massacres that result will undoubtedly turn some people off. With no way to tell the level of your opponent, you might inadvertently stomp someone who has no idea what direction to even go. One training area for all levels is such a haphazard approach that, though tempered it might eventually make players, too many players will be needlessly frustrated and demoralized. To all newcomers: I encourage you to stick with it.
With three factions sharing so much, there is bound to be some complaints about balance. I have read that many feel that S.V.E.R. has more advantageous maps and their weapons, while slower, are far more powerful. That may be so, but I’ve often found that it’s leadership that plays the deciding factor; as the saying goes, sheep led by a lion are deadlier than lions led by a sheep. But one thing that did catch my attention was the incredible accuracy of the light machine gun. From using it, I know it has some recoil in the beginning, but it seems to be that a few skill points can quickly turn it into an assault rifle on steroids, with all the perks in addition to higher stopping power. On the other hand, the game could do a much better job during training to fully disclose the pluses and minuses of the weapons, as it tells you nothing, so you can at least have a rough idea of how to deal with them. I do feel sorry for the combat engineer, because, unlike the medic’s dual and constant stream of experience, they are stuck with a slow trickle of single points at the expense of limited mobility and having to watch that unholy migraine-inducing light from the weld area the entire time they’re working. At some point, all of the map and weapon nuances will be well known, which is happening with some already, and something new will have to be injected into the system – new maps, bot support for practice, skills – to keep people playing.
For the moment and foreseeable future, however, MAG will remain in steady rotation. As soon as I would quit after a frustrating round, often due to being in a squad that never clicked, I would be back in minutes later. As bewildering as it may be, I found myself on the edge of my seat, literally, during every session. Jumping out of a helicopter spawn point while your squadmates cover you from the gunner positions, blowing a gate for everyone else to rush in, taking down that skilled sniper, or scattering at the sight of poisonous gas or the sound of incoming long-range fire is exhilarating. Play enough and you will also get a new lease on the game as the earned respect points will allow you to redistribute your skill points and try out a new ‘class’ with proper gear, offering a somewhat different experience. There’s a lot to offer in what’s given, but I just hope Zipper has more of it to give.
MAG is an addictive and focused, if slightly rough around the edges, action shooter. As enjoyable as it is, though, it is a tough sell: inadequate training and documentation, no bot support, no single-player campaign, and three similar factions. In truth, most of these elements aren’t new, with Battlefield 2 doing quite a bit of them some time ago, but Zipper’s take on them have come together nicely for an enjoyable and at times bewildering experience.
(This review is based on a copy provided by the publisher.)