A Frag Without the Fest: If Chess Was a Shooter

First-person shooters are great and all. But they're no where near the size of real-world military conflicts.

In reality, they play more like isolated firefights than all-out war, according to CJ Heine, lead designer at Zipper Interactive.

"The scale has always been missing," he says.

For example, when you see tracer fire and hear gunshots in other games, it's usually simulated by the computer "to make the player feel like they're in a larger battle than they really are," says Heine.

So he and his team have built what they believe to be a better mousetrap; one that places a human command behind every bullet, air strike, and commotion taking place on screen.

"It's actual combat between real players," Heine explains, speaking of MAG, the upcoming multiplayer-only shooter for PlayStation 3. But not only are the game's actions authentic, the number of simultaneous players it accommodates is staggering: 256 to be exact, a figure that dwarfs the size of previous console shooters.

But my Modern Warfare 2 plays just fine. Why, then, would I want more numbers? What's in it for me, I ask the designer. Added purpose and broader scope comes the reply. "I think MAG is an evolution of the shooter," Heine responds. "Running with 256 players actually allows us to recreate the scale and intensity of widespread combat without relying on artificially placed sounds or effects."

Okay, but what about lag? Some games stutter with only 16 or 32 players online. Sounds like Sony will need a Google-size server farm to manage that many players for a single session. Either that or compromise the gameplay.

While the answer to enable more players would seem to be more hardware, Zipper Interactive says their "new server architecture" allows them to meet the demands of 256 players without the need of costly additional servers.

It's unclear exactly what they've done to ensure stability. And geographical latency is inevitable. But many early previewers have reported surprisingly smooth connections. "Whatever Zipper did with their servers, it's
working," said one beta tester.

There is no "I" in team
If you're one of those independent types or bratty tennis stars that hates team sports, MAG probably isn't for you. With so many players on screen at the same time, games would quickly spiral out of control without organization, making Unreal Tournament played in a tight corridor look like child's play.

To provide the much-needed structure, players are divided into 8-person squads, with 4 squads forming a platoon of 32 players, and 4 platoons forming a company of 128 players. Accordingly, group leaders are critical to the success of the team, says Heine-especially a company's Officer in Charge.

"In many ways, the OIC is similar to a platoon eader in that they cannot personally assign any objectives (like a squad leader)," he says. "But they do control powerful game-changing abilities that can turn the tide of a battle when used properly, such as altering the respawn rates of friendly or enemy forces, communicating the tactical abilities used by squad and platoon leaders, or preventing opposing tactics from being used."

Translation: In MAG, you're forced to work as a team. Since there's no computer-aided actions to guide you to victory, you'll live or die on the decisions made by your fellow gamers. And if your commanding officer is a douche, your team is screwed. It sounds bad, but it makes for some crazy good unity.

"Just watching the reactions in the beta over the last few months, each company has a vocal set of players, all declaring that their faction is the best or easiest to play with," says Heine. "It's great to see the players latching on and creating their own rivalries."

To advance the ranks into leadership roles and create your own company, you'll need to earn the trust of your peers by completing objectives, making valuable contributions, and earning experience points over time. This isn't to say you can't go on solo missions, such as sneaking behind enemy lines and sabotaging their supplies. You just can't be bohemian about it.

"Well-organized squads with good leadership and communication are going to make the difference between a win and a loss more often than the efforts of any one individual player," asserts Heine.

In the year 2025
Set 15 years in the future, MAG takes place in a fully globalized and diplomatic planet Earth.

But greed and utopia can never co-exist, so the demilitarized world quickly sees a rise in demand for enterprising mercenaries known as Private Military Companies to do its killing.

At first, these companies bade for contracts in a civil manner, much like a commercial firm would, explains Heine. At some point, however, "competitive tensions and minor conflicts escalated into full scale war," he adds. How convenient for you, Mr. or Ms. gamer.

With the world in turmoil, and weaponry in the hands of opposing private contractors, players will need to choose which company-otherwise known as factions-they wish to fight for before. For veterans, there's Valor Company, which outfits its troopers with standard-styled military gear. For James Bond lovers, there's Raven Industries, which relies on high-tech gadgetry to win its battles. And lastly, the S.V.E.R. company-a group of misfit militia-
men with a chip on their shoulder.

But not only do factions give the game a sense of individuality, according to Heine, they dictate how aggressive or defensive teams are in their attack. "Each faction has a unique visual style and reason for fighting, but the differences in weapons, equipment, and missions have the biggest impact on gameplay," he says. " Ultimately, factions create a sense of allegiance within MAG, which is rare for a shooter."

What exactly should you expect from the gameplay then? Look no further than SOCOM, Zipper's previous breakthrough series for PlayStation 2. "At the core, MAG and SOCOM are similar in that they're both squad-based military shooters," Heine admits. "Players already familiar with SOCOM will understand the importance of teamwork and have a set of skills, such as fire discipline, which translate over to MAG pretty well."

But as previously mentioned, it's a much bigger party this time-not to mention being a first-person shooter as opposed to SOCOM's third-person perspective. "MAG takes team based gameplay and elevates it," says Heine. "As seen in beta, most objectives are fiercely contested by full squads, and some level of teamwork is usually required to have any success with the objectives."

More specifically, you'll be destroying enemy bases, ordering commands on the fly with the d-pad, or engaging the front lines using standard first-person shooter controls. For a bird's-eye view of all 256 players on screen, you can hit the map button to survey individuals battles and assign new objectives or counterattacks.

Slower is better?
First-person shooters are traditionally known for their quickness. Turn a corner. Bust a cap in some guy's melon. Move on. If it wasn't already obvious, MAG is not that kind of game.

Your deftness with a firearm is still required, and headshots are still present. Only here you'll need to plan your attack, since you'll be commanding or working with upwards of 127 teammates as your opponents do the same.

Aware of how daunting that task may initial seem to some, Zipper has prepared concentrated modes to acclimatize new comers. "If players aren't quite ready to deal with this many players or levels of leadership, we have other gametypes for 64 or 128 players," Heine reassures.

The irony here is that MAG's huge numbers will either make or break the game for some. Since users dictate pace, as opposed to the game itself, MAG plays slower than most. To put it nicely, methodical. As a result, enthusiast gamers seemingly aren't jamming the pre-order lines to play once the game debuts next month.

"For a shooter-based console game just six weeks prior to launch, MAG's popularity numbers are a little lower than desired," says Scott Mucci of GamerMetrics, which tracks interest levels and behavior of some 46 million online gamers. In fairness, this could be because of a recently released juggernaut, Mucci adds.

"Fans of the shooter genre are most likely still focused on Modern Warfare 2," he offers, also noting that the highly anticipated Mass Effect 2 releases the same day.

Whatever the reasoning for the so-so anticipation, it's hard not to notice MAG's draw: filling spacious maps with 256 simultaneous players. MMO without the RPG. Or "massive action game"-take your pick.

Just don't blame me if you get stuck with a broken team.

MAG arrives Jan. 26 exclusively for PS3.

Blake Snow is a freelance writer from Crecente's neighboring state of Utah. His curious work has appeared on MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal, and GamePro among others. He is currently reading Game Over by David Sheff and thinks you should too.