Wednesday, September 30, 2009

FEATURE - MAG Beta impressions.


In late August, I was able to slip into the MAG Beta to try my hand at some hugely multiplayer shooter shenanigans. I spent between twenty and thirty hours with this incomplete iteration of Zipper Interactive's technically ambitious shooter, before I set it aside with intentions to return to it later.

Not because I felt a pressing desire to return to it later - but another ten or fifteen hours would probably have benefited this article (which I've been putting off for some time). First, let's talk massiveness.

The maps are gigantic - as gigantic as they need to be to spread out two hundred and fifty six players to a point where there are no insane bottlenecks, and shooting gallery hell is a very rare occurrence. Each PMC (faction) is made up of several squads, and each squad has its own objective (chosen by players in leadership roles) - as a result, more often than not your small squad will be facing off against another small squad over a small objective. What makes it "massive" is that there are a ton of other small squads pursuing their own small objectives all across the huge maps.

This is a double-edged sword. It's a good idea - and victory will always go to the side with well-organized, obedient squads with a commander worth listening to - but at this point in MAG's lifespan, you aren't playing with a group of hardcore, reliable players who take everything very seriously and want to get the job done. You're playing with anyone who was lucky enough to get into the Beta - and the MAG Beta has its share of prepubescent vitriol-spewers and team-killing griefers. The result is that everyone just goes off and plays Lone Soldier - a tactic that only really serves the sniper specialization.

For clarification, that's the good side of the double-edged sword - there is a system in place to guide players, which has a side effect of ensuring many smaller firefights, but no giant clusterfucks of bullet hell (a common concern after MAG's announcement). The bad side is that you're on a map with two hundred and fifty six other players who you'll very likely never see. In the distance you may hear explosions and gunfire, but not once during my time with MAG was I given the impression of how large the events going on around me were.

So there's that. MAG is designed to ensure that you have very few opportunities to notice how massive Zipper's Massive Action Game actually is. Let's move on...

One of the maps.
(Right-click, open in new window to enlarge.

Gameplay.
Nothing to complain about, here. If you have a worthy commander barking orders - and you follow them - you'll end up losing hours of time to MAG. All the guns feel as they should, and you'll be rewarded with a role to fill no matter what play style you choose.

I waffled back and forth on my build. First I was a sniper - then I realized I had spent points where I shouldn't have and scrapped my character for an assault class. That felt fine, but I didn't feel it gave me any sort of real identity on the field, so I abandoned assault rifles for heavy weapons. An LMG was great in close-quarters firefights, racking up huge kill streaks, but I found I missed my sneaky sniper. In the end, I stuck with my fourth "re-roll" until I unlocked the .50 caliber rifle - very satisfying.

The ease of slipping into MAG and having some fun is no doubt due to Zipper's long experience with online shooters, which shows in the solid mechanics of every item and attack option. What is seriously impressive is the lag situation - which is to say, the complete lack thereof.

If you aim at an enemy's head and pull the trigger, you will kill him, end of story. Not once did I feel I lost a kill to the ether of latency, and I never saw an enemy skipping around the world, writhing and unkillable due to his smaller bandwidth. In terms of the technology, in terms of how it plays, there's very little to complain about with MAG.

Presentation. Given what MAG has to do, I don't think any of us were expecting it to be a visual spectacle - and it isn't - but what's on display is functional, and works well. Every building and piece of cover feels correct - it's easy to slip in to its world and quickly suspend disbelief - even if it doesn't precisely fill one awe awe at the real-world fidelity of the graphics. Perhaps I'm selling it short - let me put it this way: MAG's graphics aren't just good enough, they are precisely good enough.

If there is music, I never noticed it. Gunfire sounds rather correct, and the HUD is easy to quickly understand (go towards the flashy thing - red dots are enemies.) What's lacking in the presentation is a real sense of the game's identity. I loathe the word "generic," but it applies so perfectly to MAG's world I refuse to look up a suitable synonym.

What makes MAG stand out? You could easily cite the amount of players on a single map, but that's only news because it's on a console instead of the PC. No, I'm afraid there is nothing about MAG that really sets it apart from other online shooters.

It is almost uniquely similar to everything. MAG doesn't invite you into a strange world you'd like to explore (Halo) or offer a history-bending trip back in time (any WWII shooter ever). It doesn't astound with its graphics (Call of Duty 4) or - aside from the squad leader functions - bring anything really new to the online first-person shooter genre.

It's samey. It's so ho-hum, in fact, that I never could bring myself to go back to it for another ten or fifteen hours. I just didn't care to.

I think MAG will find its audience - the same people who mastered Warhawk and kept its servers humming years after its release - but I can't say I found its offering particularly compelling. Let's hope they put out a demo, so you can judge for yourself.

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