Developer: Zipper Interactive
Release: Out now
Strength in numbers – that’s the theory. MAG, with its 128-a-side battles, should be the pinnacle of cooperative spirit, following algebra of the sort: collaboration times coordination equals victory. But it turns out coordination is a fragile thing in the hands of the internet. While other multiplayer team shooters distribute responsibility evenly among their players, MAG assigns squad leaders to organise and direct the jarheads to the most important objectives. Above them are platoon leaders. Above them a commander. The rest of the grunts live and die by their superiors’ competence – an ominous prospect.
The power of command is bestowed through a loose meritocracy – the higher echelons require a degree of success at the lower ranks. But the basic squad leadership is open to anyone who has endured to reach level 15 or above. It is this role which most affects the minute-to-minute experience of the battle. Sometimes you find yourself directed with keen strategic thought, your unit working the sightlines, medics and engineers industriously repairing the team’s resources of flesh and metal. At other points, chaos reigns – the group disperses in ineffectual clusters, the commanders remain incommunicado, or designate targets which at best yield pointless pyrrhic victories and at worst funnel you to the same bottleneck to die again and again for no greater purpose.
MAG’s poster boy game type sees 256 players come together in a single gigantic battlefield, albeit divided into smaller contiguous hotspots. Attackers work their way in from every angle, detonating peripheral objectives that permit them to spawn closer to the enemies’ central fortifications. 128 defenders dig-in or push back, repairing anti-aircraft weapons which deny attackers the ability to parachute reinforcements into the heartland. The grandeur of MAG’s numbers is combined with the prospect of player growth within one of the game’s three warring factions, not only unlocking new kit but bestowing the right to command.
Occasionally, you get a glimpse of this epic scale as the squads surge upon the final objective, but MAG all too often fails to communicate the size of the battle or your significance in it. Only part of this problem can be blamed upon incompetent superiors; the game itself lacks a coherence to its ideas, or even the structure of its levels, which the player struggles to intuit. Being so large and dispersed, the sprawling battlefields reject clear defensive lines in favour of scrappy, muddled affairs in which attackers bundle in from all angles, and defenders respawn right in the thick of it. It doesn’t help that these environments are glum, washed out industrial desolations in sepia and grey; even the jungle levels are cast in ashen hues.
Commanders have one carrot at their disposal: designating a target gives an XP boost to those fighting around it, so even individualists insistent on levelling have some reason to participate in teamwork. And there’s every reason to chase XP given the woeful starting kit you are presented: MAG’s injudicious solution to creating an enticing later reward is to kneecap beginners with weaponry that reloads slowly, kicks wildly, and is wholly inaccurate. But things do even out. Even though combat never ceases to feel unwieldy and underpowered, by the mid teens you have enough XP to max out at least one loadout; by the level 60 cap you have every choice at your disposal.
The game itself will bed down too as players get used to the poorly enunciated demands of each level, and Zipper Interactive patch out the game’s fair number of glitches, oddities and inconveniences. Whether enough players will buy headsets to guarantee an efficient force made up of strangers is another matter. But with its robust clan support MAG still offers a cooperative experience on a rare scale for bands of dedicated players willing to weather the unnecessary confusions and ungenerous structure of the early game. For the rest, MAG rarely deals out the empowerment and clarity of purpose that other team shooters, like the forthcoming Battlefield: Bad Company 2, offer from the get go. It’s not quite ‘welcome to the suck’, but gamers may wonder if MAG’s a battle worth fighting.