Two-hundred and fifty-six player online battles. That's the promise Zipper Interactive are making with their bold new multiplayer FPS MAG. Its a promise they'd really better live up to, if for no other reason than the fact that MAG stands for Massive Action Game, a title which would be a tad hard to explain if it ended up playing like anything less. Happily for Zipper, not to mention the rest of us, our time spent with the recent beta version has gone a long way towards proving they're well set to deliver on their grand promise - while crafting a damn fine shooter at the same time.
The story behind the massive battles you'll be taking part in is set amidst a bitter conflict between three private military corporations all competing with each other for the same government contracts. Each of the three sides have their own unique look, feel and back story. Raven, based in South America, are the high-tech special ops force while Valor are your more traditional military veterans working out of Alaska. Finally we have the Russian based S.V.E.R. whose urban guerrilla style warfare comes complete with hoodies, hockey masks and homemade equipment. While the overall status of the three warring factions is largely immaterial as you play those interested in such things will be able to follow their faction's progress via a nifty sounding persistent metagame that promises to play out on the game's official website.
Back to the game itself and anyone worrying that such a massive numbers of people occupying the same map will result in little more than gun fuelled chaos can be reassured by the way Zipper have cleverly opted to manage the numbers. Rather than simply setting you loose into a densely populated map overflowing with enemies and team-mates MAG breaks things down to make it easier to follow. To start with you'll join an eight player squad taking part in small skirmishes aiming to complete an objective or two, the game then scales up smoothly as squads converge for larger objectives. A few sets of increasingly grand objectives later and you're part of a battle the size of which you've not experienced before and you can see what all the fuss is about.
Impressive head count aside one of the more interesting ideas in MAG is the introduction of player held leadership roles. Not only does each eight player squad have a designated leader but each platoon (made up of four squads, therefore thirty-two players) has one too while there's an OIC (Officer In Charge) sat at the top of the pile in charge of the whole thing.
Before you're given the chance to become a squad or platoon leader, not to mention an OIC, you'll need to have levelled sufficiently far up the game's ranking ladder, only then will the option to apply for a leadership role becomes available prior to each battle. Should you be among the chosen few when the game starts you'll gain the ability to set FRAGO (fragmentary order) objectives. These will then be used to guide the players under your control directly to primary and secondary objectives on the map. You'll also be given access to a number of special skills including the ability to call in tactical support and apply strategic manoeuvres such as blockades. There's also a 3D tactical map that you'll be able to interact with (the rest of the players will get it in view-only mode) allowing you to set objectives et al with ease.
From the point of view of players working under these leaders there's added incentive (over and above the feeling of satisfaction you'll experience from working as part of a team) to comply with these orders as you receive extra experience points for working towards and completing FRAGO orders. Experience points not only help you move up the ranking towards the chance to be in command yourself, but also unlock new weapons and improve your skills across the game's three classes (medic, assault and engineer).
From a purely technical point of view our time with the beta has gone a long way to quelling any lingering doubts about the plausibility of such large scale battles. Matches with vast numbers of players happily played out with no apparent glitches or lag and while the larger picture is, to a degree, hidden from you when played as a mere grunt there was a pleasing sense of scale which helped you feel like a small part of a larger war, even if you couldn't actually see it some of the time.
There doesn't seem to be any danger of Zipper dropping the ball when it comes to the gameplay side of things either (considering their history with the SOCOM games that's perhaps hardly surprising), as an FPS MAG is looking more than promising with the action holding up well to continued play. Controls feel tight and responsive while weapons respond and sound pretty much as you'd expect. As the battle progresses and objectives are won and lost the game's spawn points are in a constant state of flux depending on the current situation, to ensure you're never left starting far from the action should you bite the bullet. While most of the time you'll be returning to the fray from bunkers and the like now and then you'll find yourself aboard APCs, helicopters or even parachuting in along with loads of other players hoping you make it to the ground before you're picked off by gunfire from enemy snipers.
The one potential fly in the in the otherwise clear ointment is how much the finished MAG experience depends on who the matchmaking decrees you fight alongside, or perhaps more importantly, who's in charge of you. In this respect the limited feature set of the beta was never designed to give a true impression, focusing more on proving the multiplayer technology than answering specific gameplay questions. Personally my experiences were largely positive and the players I found myself teamed with for the most part all wanted to play the game properly, as an objective orientated squad. There were however times when I found myself less lucky and these were the games where the sheer scope of MAG turned into something of a curse as I wandered around largely squadless trying to be of use where I could.
Additionally, it does take a few games to get the hang of how you're expected to play, until that point I was no doubt just as frustrating to my more experienced squad mates as I later found others to be to me. Key to minimising this would seem to be the quality of the squad leader you end up playing under. Find yourself playing for a leader with a microphone and a good sense of tactics and you'll find your experience that much more rewarding, having to rely on your squad to organise themselves and you run the risk of being left on your own as they scarper off with their own agenda.
Obviously this element of personal freedom is part of what gives the game its spark and anyone playing it as a solo shooter (either by choice or bad luck in the squad mates lottery) will still be able to enjoy the experience although it's currently noticeably harder to feel as involved in proceedings that way. However, the fact remains, as it often does with multiplayer only games, that ultimately your playing experience is directly affected by those playing around you.
However, such reservations are best left to a review as until then it is impossible to accurately judge just how the good folks at Zipper Interactive aim to manage these things. At its current beta stage MAG looks highly impressive, it hits its targets from a tech point of view with ease and provides, in the right company, an absorbing shooter experience with engaging tactical overtones. Unfortunately there are still a few months to go until its release early next year, but progress so far has us hugely interesting.