Click to viewIt's not hard to imagine that Sony knew Microsoft would choose E3 to make its curtain-call announcement of Final Fantasy XIII for the 360. It's likewise reasonable to believe they searched their catalog of works under development for the best candidate to generate any buzz. What we got was a mixed bag - the trailer of an incredibly expansive shooter, but it didn't even have a title. It was just MAG: Massive Action Game. It sounded tempting, but very incomplete.
In fact it was shown to a focus group less than a month before E3. One among that group, after seeing the MAG E3 debut, reached out to me, under a promise of anonymity, to describe what was shown and asked of the group. Put simply, MAG - whatever title it comes out under - will be a mercenary combat MMO. We're told that it will more than likely carry SOCOM branding, as Zipper Interactive is behind it. And if so, it could be called SOCOM: Shadow War or SOCOM: Zero. Though Sony did stress it was a brand new IP at the press conference.
For purposes of identity protection, my source, who has experience in other video game focus groups, will be called Orange. Being identified could cost Orange, and others, future work.
"They gave us six options for taglines at the end," said Orange, who could only remember four: MAG: Shadow War; MAG: Zero; MAG: Global Assault and MAG: Final Hour. Orange said the group liked Shadow War and Zero. Orange reasoned that Zipper Interactive's involvement means all signs would point to a repurposing of SOCOM IP for this one, rather than creating a new title outright. Indeed, when providing me visual examples of certain factions that he observed, Orange used images from SOCOM 3.
"We were all deliberating what sort of game it was similar to, and for the most part, SOCOM and Planetside (another Sony title) were the only names that came out, based on what we have heard and seen," Orange said. The group members saw, or was described, gameplay but could not perform it themselves, which indicated it was in a far less complete stage than other games for which Orange had been in a focus group. All the group saw was a "touched up" version of the trailer that ran at E3, Orange said. Then they were asked questions, mostly regarding the game's story and the scope of its battles.
SOCOM and Planetside were the closest cousins, Orange said, because the game involves "troop like gameplay with a 3rd person view. The game is set following catstrophic events in the near future - "2015 to 2020, around there," said Orange - in which mercenaries, aligned with certain factions, are engaged in relentless secret wars for control of resources.
Orange saw three factions - Americans, based in Alaska ("I can assume a snow level," Orange joked) Europeans and a Middle East faction. Orange provided two .jpgs from SOCOM 3 that were close analogues to the MAG Europe and Middle East factions. If Sony chooses to go forward like this, the obvious Middle East motif could cause some PR problems (although, "It was a black American soldier they showed us, if that makes up for it.") To Anglo players, that kind of garb clearly says "terrorist," and not mercenaries, especially considering the regular fatigues and high-tech suits worn by Americans and Europeans, respectively.
Orange said the presenters focused on two topics: Whether the story justifying the state of current events in the game was believable enough for gamers, and whether the scale of combat was appealing. MAG is promising multiplayer battles of up to 256 participants, broken down into 8-member units aligned to one of two sides. There will be no third-party intercessions on any battles, Orange said.
"For MAG they were all about scale," Orange said. "That was the word they were going for. Massive (as in the scale of the level). With 256 players, they don't want it to be a clusterfuck of deathmatch. They want vast levels where troops can approach from all angles."
At that scale, you can be an independent operator assigned to one unit, knowing none of the others on your side, or you can gather up to seven of your friends and jump in as a squad, with other participants added in if your unit totals less than eight. Obviously, it's not obligating you to find 127 of your closest friends if you want to see the largest scale of combat MAG will offer.
That said, mission objectives for these battles will definitely be in the hands of a few human players. We've reported on the concept of ranks in MAG, where players accumulate experience and ascend a shot-calling ladder within the game, such that they are either grunts, lieutenants, or generals in charge of the whole operation. You'll ascend in rank according to a points accrual system that Orange was able to describe loosely.
"When they were describing it, it kept reminding me of Alterac Valley from World of Warcraft, if you are familiar," Orange said. "What happens is: You get points for contributing with your troop/overall team. If you happen to win or do better than the rest of your team, you get more points. So the more you play, or the more points you get, the higher your rank goes."
Some speculated/wished that at high command levels, the game moved back into some sort of top-down/RTS interface. That sort of happens. "Everyone is in the field," Orange said, "but the person in charge is capable of looking at the map and commanding the overall group or individual troops. He is also capable of things like airstrikes and parachute drops. He could either control and babysit from far back, or jump right into the action [with a weapon himself.]"
Orange didn't like the fact another human player could set all the mission parameters. "Why would I want someone telling me how to play the game?" Orange said. "Perhaps I know more about the certain terrain than they do, should they have the ability to penalize me if I don't listen? Granted, penalizing and kicking were not mentioned but they're always a possiblity.
While Orange did not see individual character classes or their abilities demonstrated, Orange came away with the understanding that all units could be comprised of a single class if they desired. Also, once a character achieved a certain point ranking, certain options became customizable, such as appearance and equipment/weaponry upgrades.
In all, Orange described an appealing game, and it's a logical progression from MMOs set in fantasy contexts. After all, there are, at least for narrative purposes, kingdoms and heads of state in those worlds too, and adventurers set off on individual quests and find combat there. Given a good enough story to set it up, what should preclude that kind of experience in the modern world?
Don't forget that since this is all coming out of a focus test it could be very pie-in-the-sky stuff, though certainly ideas that are tickling Sony's collective grey matter.