MAG: First-Day Impressions of a Burgeoning War

War broke out on my Playstation 3 last night, slowly unfolding like a deadly blossom over the course of seven hours.

That's seven hours without break, or nearly a day's work playing the PS3's massively first-person shooter MAG and loving every minute of it.

But my drop into the persistent online war of MAG wasn't trouble free. It was, in the words of Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge, a cluster fuck.

MAG is a massively multiplayer online shooter. While plenty of attention has been brought to the massively bit of the game, with its ability to support 256-player matches, it's easy to forget the online bit. That means that if you can't get online, or if the servers go down, your copy of the game is useless.

Last night, just hours into the game's first-day launch, and my first experience with the game, that's exactly what happened.

After selecting which of the three factions I'd be fighting for and playing through the relatively short, relatively easy training mission, I tried to play the game and was promptly told I couldn't. It started with connection errors. Finally, I got a message saying that the servers would be down for at least another hour for a server-side patch.

It was a short, albeit stark, reminder that online gaming is pretty useless without that online bit.

But once I got into the game, wow.

The premise behind MAG is that you are a grunt in a global 2025 conflict, fighting for one of three private military corporations. Not really that creative, but the way the game unfolds for you and the rest of the people fighting and playing is.

The game has you earning experience points that level up your character, allowing you to unlock new weapons, new skills and new modes. Yes, it sounds like Modern Warfare, but it's much, much deeper.

When you start the game you can only play in a death match training mod called suppression, which pits you against 63 other members of your faction.

Earn enough points to level up and you get access to your first real battleground, Sabotage, which has you playing in 64-player matches against other factions as you try to protect or destroy assets.

The next mode unlocked by leveling is Acquisition and then Domination, both of which puts you in 128-player matches.

That may sound like a lot of people, but the players are broken down into platoons and squads. The key to a fun experience isn't finding 128 or even 64 like-minded, serious gamers, but finding enough to lock in a squad. Those are the people you will be chatting with, working with and fighting with.

That's one of the things about MAG, it can't really be played as a typical shooter. The objectives are complex and designed strategically to require genuine group efforts to complete them. Get in with a squad of guys who want to spend the whole time laughing about how they ran each other over with a tank, and you'll never win. Get in with a team who bark out orders and sniper positions and you're going to win. It's also going to be some of the most fun you'll have in a shooter.

I played last night, well this morning, until 2 a.m. or so, killing 130 people, and accruing enough experience points to be a "senior trooper" that is within striking distance of the 1,497 points required to hit level eight.

Once I unlock eight I get access to Domination which supports 256 players.

One of the things I like most about MAG is how its modes unfurl as you continue to play. In theory that means that by the time you hit the 256-player Domination modes, you'll have players who know how to play and how to cooperate. In theory.

There are plenty of other things I like about the game as well. The skill tree allows you to create what are essentially custom classes. The inclusion of upgradable healing and repair abilities adds a neat level of play to the game for those of you not as into running around shooting people.

The ability to airdrop into a map as you push forward, and be shot out of the air by enemies, is fantastic.

Mostly though, MAG feels to me like the proper marriage of World of Warcraft and, dare I say it, Counter-Strike. Sure it's no Counter-Strike, nothing is. But it's a very solid, well designed shooter.

A very, very important important thing to note: A microphone is an absolute must in MAG. If you don't play with a microphone you might as well not play MAG. Seriously.

Keep in mind, this is not our review. We'll be doing that next week, once we've had a chance to properly level up, check out all of the modes, the leadership bonuses and see how the servers hold up.

What are your thoughts on the game? What faction are you?