It's the year 2025 and a mandated world peace gives rise to three Private Military Corporations. The rise of the PMC also gives birth to the shadow war, a raging worldwide battle fought for profit and power rather than political ideologies.
The backdrop of PlayStation 3 exclusive MAG isn't weighed down with things like plot or character development. MAG is instead meant to be a technical wonder, a first-person shooter freed of a single-player campaign with battles featuring as many as 256 soldiers, peopled entirely by gamers.
But can that single hook, and the ability to level-up your character RPG-style make this never-ending battle worth fighting?
Solid Shooter: Before MAG can try to blow everyone's mind with the ability to play lag-free deathmatches and capture the flag with 255 other people, it needs to deliver the basics. The meat and potatoes of a first-person shooter is how fluidly it controls. MAG's controls have the sort of tight response I like in a console shooter. It also lets me tweak the turn speeds, which is a definite must for spinning around on running targets. Despite being of average skill at the game, I never felt it was the mechanics holding me back.
Skill Tree: As you play MAG you level up your character and earn skill points. These points than can be used to unlock new weapons, additions to the weapons you have and skills. That way, these nine skills areas can be enhanced to mix and match your own character class. For instance, my first time through I built up my marksman skills, but also dumped a lot into electronics and support. That meant I had the build out to be a sniper, but could also revive and heal other players and was better at detecting nearby threats. As you earn skill points, you also earn points that can eventually be used to respec your character. This role-playing aspect to the game means that you're going to want to work on perfecting and experimenting with your character's unique class, giving the game a very long shelf life.
Communicate or Die: All shooters want their players to communicate, but very few reward and punish as harshly as MAG. The game breaks players up into squads and platoons. Sticking with and talking to your squad, following the squad leader's orders doesn't just mean you'll last longer, it also means you get area buffs and more experience points. Stick to the squad leader and you'll find you reload faster, bleed slower, run quicker and survive in gas longer. Hit a fragmented order assignment and you'll get more experience points.
Command Structure: As you work up the levels of the game you eventually unlock the ability to become a squad leader. As previously mentioned, squad leaders can issue experience-boosting orders and buff-up the players by their side. They also have the ability to call in UAV recons, bombing runs, mortar barrages and artillery. Earn enough command points and you can become a platoon leader with a whole new set of buffs and on-demand tactical support. Finally, if you make Officer in Charge your soldiers slowly heal over time, are harder to kill and are stealthier. You can also have the ability to deliver game-winning maneuvers, like signal jamming or tactical strikes. This adds a whole new level to the gameplay and offers a mighty reward to those who follow and issue commands well.
Step Up: Despite the lack of any instruction, the game does find some other interesting ways to slowly get you used to MAG gameplay. The modes of the game unlock as you level up. As this happens the modes become more complex, expecting more teamwork and including more players. The same is true of the skills you unlock and the eventual ability to command.
Server Downtime: Servers go down for lots of reasons— overloads, maintenance, technical snafus. But when the game you paid to play can only be played online, it makes those downtimes unbearable. Fortunately, I only ran into unscheduled downtime twice, one was on the first day and lasted an hour, the second hit a week or so in and only seemed to impact me for 10 minutes or so.
Instruction-Free Zone: MAG is a deep game. A first-person shooter with a lot of important to know minutiae. But it's a game that has almost no instruction manual or guidance. The game's single training level shows you how to throw grenades and shoot people. It doesn't explain what a Fargo is. It doesn't tell you that your early skill points should always be invested in the ability to heal and revive others because you can score mammoth experience points. It doesn't explain anything really. I've played up to level 17 or so over the course of the week and I'm still confused about how to operate all of my newly acquired leadership skills. And what's that dog tag image on the left hand of the screen after every battle? No one I talk to seems to know.
Floating Dead: There are places in MAG where you can be shot down and lie floating in a pool of water. In these places, no matter how unconscious, but still very much alive you are, your teammates will not be able to revive you. They will, if you are the victim of a clever foe, in fact be shot dead trying to. Sure it's a glitch, but it's a map ruining one that needs fixing.
A Tricky Balancing Act: The driving concept behind MAG is that you are a part of one of three PMCs. That you can't just switch sides willy nilly. So that first decision you make when playing the game for the first time is a very important one. It's also one that is driven by the successes or imagined advantages of one team or another. Right now, it seems, S.V.E.R. has a slight advantage. Real or imagined, that advantage means that more people are joining that side, which could eventually throw the whole game out of whack.
MAG is my type of game. A first-person shooter that deftly infuses a bit of role-playing and a command structure over the cops and robbers experience of running around and killing people. It's my answer to World of Warcraft, not because it's a massively multiplayer online game or because it allows me to escape to a fantasy world, but because it rewards me for obsessively over-playing a game well into the night for days, weeks, and months at a time.
And once I cap out at level 60, I have the chance to start all over again as a new player in a different PMC, but with all of my medals and awards intact.
MAG certainly isn't a game for everyone, but its handling of massive online engagements with little lag is something all first-person shooter fans should experience. Add to that the myriad of upgrades and command positions and you have a fun little time-killer for strategy gamers. What would have pushed this game past average is a bit more attention to the look of the game and lot more time spent explaining how those constant battles you fight impact this persistent shadow war.
MAG was developed by Zipper Interactive and published by Sony Computer Entertainment America for the PS3 on Jan. 26. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played as RAVEN up to level 17, testing all modes multiple times. Respeced my character's skills once and played several maps as a squad commander.
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