For me, the primary value of a first-person shooter has never been its campaign mode — I’m a multiplayer guy, drawn to the thrill of obliterating your friend or some guy halfway across the world in battle. It doesn’t really matter who it is; it’s just more fun competing against a real person.
MAG, available exclusively for PlayStation 3 and only featuring online multiplayer gameplay, has you competing against lots of real people, and despite the fact that it’s an FPS stripped down to the most basic of elements, it has a surprisingly lasting fun factor. The game’s two major selling points — its massive field of players that can include up to 256 competitors during one battle and its constantly updatable and advancing character specs — make for an engaging effort from Zipper Interactive.
The game’s storyline — blunt and inelegant as it is — provides the framework for a constantly shifting global war between three private militaries vying for world domination. You can choose to join S.V.E.R., a Middle Eastern and Russian team; Valor, consisting of the British and North Americans; or Raven, a team made up of Eastern Europeans. Once you select a faction, you’re stuck with it until you delete your current character and create a new one.
Despite the fact that this setup allows for the game's real-time competition between all three forces to take place, it feels like more of a vague necessity than anything inspired. There’s some mumbo-jumbo tale about securing fuel reserves and stealing prototypes, but the whole concept is pretty flimsy.
Fortunately, the gameplay doesn’t need a brilliant plot to make it eminently playable and quite a lot of fun.
Initially, players must select from only two game modes and one fairly useless training demo. The first game mode is Suppression, which pits a player against members of his or her own faction in a war game. Two teams of 32 fight, with the only real objective being to achieve more kills. A status bar at the top of the screen shows who is roughly ahead, but it doesn't reveal the actual number of kills needed to achieve victory.
The other initial option is Sabotage, in which two teams of 32 from opposing factions fight for control of three locations. The defending team is charged with guarding two satellites, and if the attackers gain control of both, a third location is unlocked and must be defended.
Two other game modes are unlocked when a player gains enough experience points. These two other modes are Acquisition — two teams of 64 fight for control of vehicle prototypes — and Domination — two teams of 128 fight for control of eight different locations on a very large map.
Players earn experience points for a number of actions — kills and assists being the most obvious, but not necessarily the most lucrative. Kills earn five points, assists earn three, but healing a fallen teammate can earn twice as much. A progressively higher number of experience points is needed to advance to the next level, and each level up gives the player a point used to equip their character with new weapons or skills.
As a new player, it becomes quickly obvious that the advanced weapons of the more experienced players around you are a must-have — a realization that usually comes while lying face-down dead in the dirt, waiting for a teammate to heal you or a respawn.
The gameplay of MAG is undeniably fast-paced and often frenzied — the sheer amount of players practically guarantees that. It definitely takes time to orient oneself to the different modes of play and the different maps, of which there are three for each game mode (other than Suppression). Still, after some time, the controls and objectives are fairly intuitive and provide a large palette for a player to control his or her own desired type of game on. Once a player has reached level 15, he or she has the option to take on leadership positions within a squad.
While the expansive nature of the game allows for a not-quickly expiring level of newness, it also does reveal some of its flaws — a major one being that despite the fact that the game is irrevocably team-based, most players aren’t. While not a fault of the game per se, the fact is that most people want to simply rack up as many kills on their own as possible. The remarkably small number of players using headsets means that there is often little communication among squad members, which only adds to the game’s apparent chaos.