At E3 2008 the industry laughed at Sony and Zipper Interactive when they announced plans to bring a 256-player shooter to the PlayStation 3. Openly laughed at them. Up to that point, the PlayStation Network struggled to do just about anything, and multiplatform games' online systems on the PSN usually couldn't match what Xbox Live was capable of. It was hard to imagine the PlayStation Network being able to support such high numbers of players, even if the hardware wouldn't have a problem pulling it off. It seemed like an idea that wasn't going to go anywhere, and many, including myself, expected MAG to be subject to endless delays, if it ever released at all. Now, only a few months from the original date, it has arrived, and should silence most of the laughter.
MAG's loose story takes place in 2025, when three private military companies have replaced most of the world's armies. Seryi Volk Executive Response/S.V.E.R., Raven Industries, and the Valor Company each fight against each other in a "Shadow War" over the world's remaining oil supplies. Since there's no story mode or campaign, this isn't all that important, and serves as little more than a backdrop and excuse for gamers to join in a large-scale three-front war. When it comes down to it, the choice is really only important when it comes to playing with friends, since each side is essentially the same, save for differing character models and voiceover work.
While the different factions aren't really different, the choice is extremely important. Once you make a character it's the only character you can play as, and you're only able to fight alongside members of the same faction. This means that finding out that a friend is a member of a different faction essentially means that you'll not be able to play with each other. This seemingly arbitrary decision is based on the importance of the previously mentioned Shadow War, which is actually more than fluff for the story. It's an important choice for any player, since the faction doing the best will be awarded "contracts," which give the members more experience for points earned during play for completing objectives, healing teammates, and killing opponents.
The experience earned is essential to the gameplay, as it helps shape the character's skills and abilities. Considering you're only allowed one character, focusing and growing is, obviously, pretty important. Each level earns the player skill points to put into a number of different trees, being able to upgrade weapons and earn the ability to heal or resurrect opponents. It's simple, and feels as though it could have been expanded a bit to make the progression smoother, but it definitely makes everything feel a lot more fleshed out. Though, for as important as the experience is, and for as important as earning contracts and feeling connected to a faction is, it still feels as though the sacrifice of only being able to be a part of one isn't worthwhile when playing with friends is the other option. There are a number of different ways Zipper Interactive can fix this issue, by either allowing players to have more characters or giving the option of going outside of their faction as a mercenary, ignoring the bonuses of the Shadow War, but no matter what it's something that should be addressed.
The reason that I'm so adamant that this is something that needs to be changed is because, on the whole, MAG is a good game. A very good game. It's more reminiscent of Killzone 2's multiplayer than it is Modern Warfare's in terms of both quality and style, but it does its job of being an incredibly capable shooter, enhanced dramatically by the scale. While playing with over a hundred people doesn't really feel much different than playing with a few dozen thanks to some clever work on Zipper's part, there's no doubt that the sheer size of battles gives the game a unique feel. Each group of soldiers is given a different objective, usually involving taking a base or blowing it up, keeping the large, persistent battle moving at all times. Teamwork is, as expected, paramount, something often made difficult due to the lack of a blue-tooth headset bundle. Zipper goes out of their way to support teamwork by giving additional experience for helping out squadmates, allotting more experience to the act of resurrecting a fallen ally than killing a foe. It's a strange move, but a good one, and the resulting product is a worthwhile experience for anyone looking for something more than most shooters offer.
Worries that the scale would work against the game end up mostly meaningless, and there are only small instances of lag and issues with the massive battles. Arrows above character's heads indicating friend or foe can become muddled due to the amount of characters on screen at any time, meaning an enemy in the foreground can often be mistaken for an ally in the background. It's also not uncommon to respawn and die because of the chaos, though it doesn't end up happening too often. Other problems are with the controls, which take some getting used to. Even after a few games they still remain clunky, and it can be hard to get to the inventory object you want when you need it. This means unnecessary deaths in moments of action, bringing the adrenaline-fueled combat to a halt at times.
Even with those few issues, though, it's simply fun to play. There's nothing remarkable about the product, and there are a number of minor issues that prove frustrating to deal with, but the game is, without a doubt, a success. With something like MAG, which heavily relies on the concept alone, that's all that's really necessary. The product works, it does what it set out to do, and while it likely isn't going to win over anyone already entrenched in Modern Warfare or Battlefield: Bad Company 2. There's no doubt that the developers have silenced the laughter, and created something unique, even if it doesn't always feel that way.