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MAG: Massive Action Game (PlayStation 3) artwork

MAG: Massive Action Game (PlayStation 3) review

"As the battles progress, they prove to be too large to happen the same way every time, but also orderly enough not to be complete chaos. While you're not directly influencing the battle elsewhere all the time, you are still aware of and often depend on the other players there to complete the missions. Whether you rise to become a leader, or a good soldier."

In the year 2025, the world's major powers have signed the Millenium Peace Accords, bringing an end (again) to large scale armed struggles between nations. But old habits die hard, and various private military corporations (PMCs) see a large increase in the market for professional soldiers. Most notably their major clients become the large power-conglomerates themselves - the battle now being fought for control over resources and information.

This is the "shadow war", the secret battle between the super-powers happening under the guise of humanitarian and peace-keeping operations the PMCs conduct on their behalf. But eventually the PMCs break out in full armed struggle against each other, suppressing the others to gain supremacy on the various markets they offer their services.

Regardless of your political views or motivations, then, it is here you begin the game - as a mercenary about to be recruited by one of the PMCs. After hearing out each of the military corporations' propaganda appeals, you will choose between: Raven Industries, a group of mercenaries based in Vienna. Valor Company Inc., a refuge for war-veterans based in Alaska. And S.V.E.R., an umbrella organisation for mercenaries of a perhaps more shady background, based in Tchechenya. You will then follow your PMC as you rise through the ranks until the level cap.

The differences are largely cosmetic - each of the PMCs have a selection of modern weapons, and their own moody sound-theme. The European Raven having a clean electronic theme. SVER a rock-theme (made by Apocalyptica). And Valor having a theme that could be mistaken for a slow tune heard through a dry breeze in the (old) American mid-west.

While I don't want to dwell too much on the wrapping, this way of selecting and forcing the player to choose a PMC for their (entire) first playthrough makes it more than just a skin-change. It makes each of the PMCs distinct - you have your own "home" maps, while the weapons are characteristic. And I have to admit that even though I played all the sides in the different phases of the beta, there's one side that I prefer, purely for sentimental reasons. A sense of (virtual) loyalty, I suppose, and a motivation to do your best to make your PMC of choice win the fat contracts. I'm sure others feel the same way since it has already helped create very different and distinct playing styles between the PMCs, that very minor weapon differences cannot account for.

MAG is an online only first person war-game for up to 256 players. 256 players is not just a gimmick, and it was not (as many seem to think) a technical reason for choosing 256 players. It's a matter of scope and order. Eight people make up a squad. Four squads make a platoon. And four platoons battle four other platoons on the largest maps.

The map-layouts also mirror this setup to avoid chaos. Each platoon starts in a particular quadrant of the map, and each pair of squads have their starting area and objectives. Beyond that, the squad-leaders choose their targets at will. Until the winner of the game is decided between the players who can best cross over to the other sectors, and cooperate with their team-mates and the other squad-leaders, to take the right objectives at the right time.

The missions, for the same reason, advance in relatively orderly phases. You take sets of objectives with various strategies, and push the defenders back to the next front, before eventually meeting up with the other platoons at the center of the map.

For the gameplay, the scale means that instead of having scripted events outside your control taking place somewhere on the horizon, you can send troops to the difficult parts of the battle, and drop air-strikes off in the distance to assist struggling squad-leaders to advance the mission. A good platoon-leader could perhaps sacrifice their own advance by sending troops to help other platoons. To ultimately have more bodies at the objectives that have to be taken to win the game. On the more local scale, a squad-commander must decide between holding critical objectives, or setting up fronts somewhere more strategic.

As the battles progress, they prove to be too large to happen the same way every time, but also orderly enough not to be complete chaos. While you're not directly influencing the battle elsewhere all the time, you are still aware of and often depend on the other players there to complete the missions. Whether you rise to become a leader, or a good soldier.

Still, every battle is still fought out in first person. On the ground with boots. And the game would be a huge flop if the first person perspective did not work, or if it was not easy to pick up and play. It is, and it works. Within a few minutes, you're in the game and know the general mechanics of the game enough to contribute to the team, failure or victory. There's nothing holding you back in the game in case you're not really an fps-player (like me), or lack "twitch-skills".

Still, the depth of the game ensures that as you play it more, you understand the game-flow better. And the way your play the game changes and improves - much more than any new abilities or weapons make you stronger. In fact, you choose a specialisation as opposed to a class, with weaknesses as well as strengths. How well you play this specialisation to your advantage isn't really determined on beforehand by the game-mechanics, and goes a long way to explain the appeal of the game, and how dynamic it really is.

In the same way, the importance of the teamplay aspect never disappears, it simply becomes more and more essential as the battles become tougher.

Battlefield control is easily achieved from first person via the hud and the mini-map, as well the tactical map. Making the large overview on the map helpful, but not critical for understanding the game-flow. It's not a coincidence that this clash between outside overview and first person is linked together seamlessly - all the elements have been carefully designed like this, and it shows. From pulling down airstrikes via first person easily, or using the CNI - the gps-like map. The symbols recur, and need very little extra explanation.

The game's user-interface is interesting in different ways. Particularly the sound production is, since it really helps you orient yourself. In full surround sound, giving you the ability to spot the direction of incoming airstrikes as well as the rough direction of the gunfire, and where it hits. The same goes for engine sounds of vehicles, and steps from other soldiers depending on the surface they walk on. All happening from sounds made by other players, not by scripts or background noise. It's easy to overlook this during a game, and just immediately take in what you need and dismiss the rest - which really attests to how well it works.

Some negatives exist, I suppose - there are individually distinct sounds that are placed well and change dependent on where they're triggered. But certain specific sounds only exist in first person, such as pain-screams, slamming of car-doors, and barking out orders via the d-pad system - like requesting backup or a medic, or placing new objectives. But this is perhaps a question of scale as well - too many sounds and too much "world consistency" would be very disorienting.

You would suspect that the result of that kind of minimalistic approach would cause lots of silent gaps. But that was not a problem, again thanks to the scope. The silent moments are precious, and helps you better locate softer sounds. Another nice touch is how the gunfire dulls out while you are looking through a scope, locking out anything but the improved visual feedback - at the cost of a wider view and sound. The game is littered with these things that are both tactical and game-mechanical strokes of genius.

The downmixing to stereo is also quite good. And not having a surround system will not make you an inferior player, since sound is well complemented by the visual feedback. Your HUD softly lights up in a circle around your crosshairs, giving you the general direction of gunfire. And indicates if gunfire is headed directly in your direction (which you also hear clearly different from other sounds). Damage you sustain is highlighted in red sectors, giving you the ability to see where the fire comes from very quickly. At least unless it's fired from a silenced gun, or a low profile weapon from reasonably far distances.

And locating enemies (and escaping detection) is often dependent on sound and your distance to the target - since targets show up on the mini-map for some time if they are spotted when firing a weapon. Anyone detected this way also is broadcast to your team-mates in about the same way as through the SOP system in Metal Gear Online - even if the "System" is not quite as reliable or high-tech in this version of 2025. Still - firing your weapon will generally highlight you to every surrounding enemy for a short time, so make sure the first shot hits, and avoid running near opponents. Walking and standing still will make you fade away, save for a visual confirmation.

Graphically, the game is not quite as immediately impressive, but the visual effects are as equally functional and as deliberately created as the sound. And it's not offensive to the eye from any kind of perspective, and you need no technical insight into 3d graphics to be impressed by the longest view-distances in an online game to date. The scale is huge, and there's no static wallpaper trick to it. It's there in the game, because you're supposed to use it.

For example, the dynamic shadows cast by enormous rotating dishes have a tactical advantage if you use them for cover, since you are less visible. Coupling this to the feedback you have as a player, the lighting density in your surroundings is something you see in first person, and not just by the shadow on the ground near you. If you stand in a well-lit area, the surfaces are brighter and the distance has more glare. If you stand in a shadow, the lines are clearer and with more contrast. Meaning you don't have to look down on your arms to check if you're in cover or not.

The lighting system is also used for giving the home-maps of the different PMCs their distinct environmental feel. Along with their characteristic uniform styles this gives each PMC a home-field advantage, and makes the attackers stand out. The game is also curiously devoid of straight angles (unless that makes sense, such as on concrete corners), which I personally find very pleasing, over flat surfaces with fake depth that only looks right from certain angles.

It is the same with the graphics overall - the impression close up might not be very glossy at first. But if you raise your head and look around, it's quite easy to forget that, even simply dismiss it. When you walk through a dusty area and feel your mouth drying, then the art-direction and creative design of the maps is successful, it's as simple as that.

That being said - there's no doubt that tactical functionality of the gameplay clearly won over aesthetical excellence in this case. Still, the way the different gameplay elements tie together, from overview to first person and the local squad as part of the larger battle - that really is notable. Not for how everything stands out, but for how well it meshes as a whole and still makes every moment in the game distinct and unique. Frankly, let us all wish for this kind attention to both detail and overall design in all game-development.

As far as online games are concerned - this is it.


There are two things, however, that make or break this game, and which has not been seen how well will work yet.

The first problem is Sony's first party developers and their strange and unusual interest in destroying the premise their games are made on, by blindly obeying "community input". In this case, for MAG, the question is how much should be done to make particular game-technical strategies work, as well as how much should be done to prevent them from being used. You can talk about strategy and Sun Tzu all day, for example - but unless measures are taken to remove game-mechanical strategies that exploit lag, or grind particular abilities, then it will all be for naught - as any strategy will be turned on it's head by this particular playing style. The same would be for a super-weapon that trumps all other weapons. You can pretend to develop strategies against it, but it dominates the entire game quickly enough, and in the process removing the dynamic of a good battle.

Achieving balance here is of course not simply solved by making every weapon and technique equally useless either, as this will make you feel underpowered when going into battle. And that quickly removes any fun from the game, and perhaps elevating different strategies again that never were intended to be so effective. The same would also happen if every weapon and ability were too powerful, since this would reduce all strategy in the game to spotting the other guy first, and hitting the fire-button.

"MAG fans in full war-gear."

It might seem very strange for me to bring this up, as the maps, and the balance between the equipment kits and different weapons and their various use on different ranges in MAG are all exceptionally well balanced. And when the amount of effective and different roles you can play in the game are done so well that they give completely different types of players, with widely different amount of skill at playing first person shooter games almost equal opportunity at being successful towards the overall success of the mission in their own way. Whether it is as technician, sniper, medic, rapid assault - or any variant and combination you can create with the tier-based skill-tree. For example, you could choose field-support abilities and act passively at medium range with powerful weapons. Or choose close range direct action with a low profile weapon. Or, go fully offensive. All depending on your preferred role, you can choose and make your character distinct from the others.

So the different teams you can make up this way might not make up an endless list, but it still is quite varied and interesting, giving them different strengths and weaknesses. It really should satisfy all needs.

But the truth is that a small but very vocal part of the community often argues for making specific weapons and abilities stronger, so they should be allowed to ignore the rules the game has set up and win with their playing style of choice in any situation. Killzone 2 developers Guerilla Games fell for this with Killzone 2, and spent half a year vainly trying to balance the game again. It did not work.

The second issue, which is completely essential for an online only title, is the server side performance, and the client match-making system. If this does not work, the game is simply not worth anything. You need to connect to the internet to play the game (except on weekdays between 12am and 14pm GMT, when the war is down for maintenance).

In other words, we are dependent on Zipper and Sony for providing us with servers scaled well above the amount of players playing on average during all hours of the day. And we are dependent on differently placed regional servers, and match-making that discriminate clients to avoid having visual and gameplay breakage in the game because of lag.

After a little over a week with the full game, and many weeks with the beta, I have seen how the game can work when everything, within reason, is in order on the server side as well as with the other clients in the game. Then there is no visible lag, and the hit-detection is flawless. The framerate is stable even when you're suddenly faced with somewhere between 64 and 256 players converging on your position, also when the players in the same game are from different regions. (See the picture above for an extreme example: there are no smoke and mirror tricks used to facilitate the game-world updates).

But then again, occasionally things are not working so well at all. Then we have some visual breakage, and certain clients might take over two seconds to register properly on the server - giving them the usual tactical advantage that so far has plagued more or less all console shooters. With skipping animations, upset hit-detection, and so on. MAG does not automatically escape issues like these, dedicated servers or not, like any other online game.

While the game has played well for the most part so far since the launch, thanks to the well made matchmaking and regional servers - there is always the danger that Sony or Zipper will decide that "measures" need to be taken, or that "priorities" will have to be shifted. Is it worth the whining on the official forums that ten more seconds of matchmaking will cause, for example - if it makes the 20 minute matches play flawlessly? And what of kicking people from the game when they are not registering on the servers properly? Or giving people who lag the "rubber-band effect", as it's known as, so they will experience the lag themselves, instead of displaying it to the rest of the 255 players, and making the gameplay quality overall suffer?

From a gameplay perspective, these are very easy questions to answer - no amount of whining from people on sketchy wifi should under any circumstance change this at the cost of the vast majority of the players. Yet, from a different perspective, it might be "necessary" to accommodate particularly loud members of the community if they cannot play the game on their "broadband" connection. It might even be desirable, from a certain point of view, to avoid appearing to lock out customers: would sales suffer, and would the Playstation Network end up being less massively popular? "Not really free after all"? I can vividly imagine the fear on the faces of the marketing department's employees.

In other words, scoring this game, as brilliant as it truly is, is a difficult problem. Since the overall impression and playability of the game depends in large part on future (and continued) network support from Sony, and intelligent community support from Zipper.

This is what Community Manager Jeremy Dunham had to say about this. You can decide what it means yourself:

"(...)the aim is to make the game playable first, not to get as many folks as possible. We can always add servers to accomodate more people. But not being able to play the game would be worst case scenario, so playability and not population is first in our priority list."

And while I'd like to put stock in personal assurances - a good experience while playing the game more or less completely depends on continuing server support, and the continuing conscious concern that Zipper has so far shown when it comes to how the game plays.

Was that to change, then the game will not be known on the one hand for it's technical breakthrough, and on the other for it's fantastic marriage of high level strategy and close first person gameplay. But instead for it's magnificent failure.


Update, 14th of February.

Since launch, it has become obvious that Sony, contrary to what Sr. Community Manager Jeremy Dunham assured me personally of, does not intend to provide a large enough server space for this game to actually function optimally. Instead, they have decided to make compromises, which in turn lessens the experience considerably.

In terms of gameplay, fixes that should have been incorporated have been ignored, in favour of "fan-made" suggestions that people who have not studied game-design will come up with - suggestions which may sound good without being seen in action, but which make the game lose the solid core gameplay that this game certainly had.

In other words, thanks to lack of priorities and clear thought, Zipper favours meta-gaming exploits such as bunny-jumping (controls must not feel clunky) and lag-switching (everyone must be allowed in on the servers within three seconds wait).

And so the game suffers the same fate as several other Sony exclusives. Where lack of support, and too much waffling about, creates a game that is far from what the game-designers intended. But where you can see, very clearly, that the designers really had the right idea in the first place.


Update, 19th of March 2011.
Since last time, the game has had a number of additions, and advanced to version 2.1. The price has been lowered, and the game has been made available as a downloadable title on the PSN. A few new weapons have been added along with the reasonably (read: severely underpriced) add-on modes - Escalation and Interdiction.

The skill-system underwent a serious overhaul - it somewhat more closely resembles the original system, and now forces you to pick one career over another. While the re-spec costs are low enough that you can pick new upgrades fairly often, if you wish.

Recently unknown changes have also been made to the game on the server-side - and one can only hope this means Zipper and Sony have finally acknowledged the need to filter clients and renege the requirement that all players should be able to connect to all other players. Simply for the sake of aesthetics; the game looks like shit when individual players lag too much, just like any other online game.

M.A.G., or "Massive Action Game", is an online only war game for up to 256 players. There is no local server option (and the game only allows parties of 8 to join the same game). There is no subscription fee or external sign up procedures outside the PSN. The game was tested for too many hours during the beta phases, and played for a week after the retail release ungodly amounts of hours since. The picture was taken by e_santaclara on the official MAG forums.


fleinn's avatar
Community review by fleinn (February 03, 2010)

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If you enjoyed this MAG: Massive Action Game review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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jiggs posted February 04, 2010:

massive review for a massive game. this is one game i'm interested in playing, but it will take me a couple sittings to absorb all the information you've provided! i applaud you for writing all that.
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fleinn posted February 05, 2010:

..yeah. It turned out to be a very strange review. :/ More like a critical commentary. But I don't know if it works as a review.
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zippdementia posted February 05, 2010:

I personally think it's a little long. I'm also confused that I don't see any serious addressing of the issue that always plagues co-op online games (and in fact an issue I've heard from other sources plagues MAG): the lack of player co-operation. Players just run around like it's deathmatch-derby and no-one has any concept of "team play."
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zigfried posted February 05, 2010:

To Zipp:
Lack of player cooperation is usually only an issue if cooperation is required to advance further in the game (I do not count winning a squad-on-squad battle as "advancement"), and if the game lacks appropriate incentives or regulations to inspire and enforce that necessary cooperation. Otherwise, it's a case of "the players create the community" and if you don't like the community, it's hard to blame the game, much like it's hard to blame phpbb for a particular message board being populated by lamers.

That doesn't mean such things don't belong in a review of someone's game experience, but I think it's a bit early to pass judgement one way or the other on MAG's community.

To fleinn:
I thought this was a fascinating look at MAG. I really liked the more editorial approach you took; for a game like this, I can't imagine any other approach being anywhere close to effective.

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EmP posted February 05, 2010:

I'll mirror Zig on this; I read the entire thing and it didn't feel as long as it perhaps should. I enjoyed the approuch.
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aschultz posted February 05, 2010:

I have to admit this is my second time through and I still cut out near the end. That said, I find it enjoyable. This may just reflect on my being tired, but if you're interested in general "does the writing work" feedback, overall I think you've done well--speaking as someone who wouldn't play the game.
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fleinn posted February 06, 2010:

Thanks, zigfried and Emp. But I also think it's a bit too long, lol.

I could make the comment about the future support much shorter. And tie the thing about co-operation into the other bit about the classes, and so on, maybe..

The problem I have with reviewing the game as if it's more or less successful when things work, and you win.. is that it's not really about the game. I could explain that it's easier to enjoy the game if you make use of the hud-controls, or a mic, and when you have squad-leaders that do something useful. But it's like saying: "playing football is fun if everyone plays team". Instead it's more close to mention something about how simple the rules are, and that the game can be interesting anyway.

So I thought using the structure of the maps and the squads to paint a picture of some sort, of how deliberately made all of this is. And that the reason you're disappointed if you lose, is that you tend to grasp why you lost. Not that you simply didn't get the game, or wasn't "skilled" enough..
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zippdementia posted February 08, 2010:

Okay, I've tried giving this a read through a couple more times and I just can't make it. The writing isn't bad at all, that's not the problem. I think it's just lacking the proper hooks. MAG was considered one of the games to look out for this year. It seems like you may have been better served by opening up with a bit more pizzaz and a little less technicality. Maybe get the reader involved in an instance of combat or delve immediately into some of MAG's cooler features that blew you away so much you gotta talk about em' right now!

With a review this long, you need some sort of approach that's gonna carry the audience with you.
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Suskie posted February 08, 2010:

I can sympathize with what you were trying to do here, Fleinn (reviewing Mass Effect 2 was difficult for me, because there was far more I wanted to talk about than I had space for), but the trouble with going all-out and detailing every aspect of the game is that you lose your readers' attention. I'm glad some of the people here weren't bothered by this review's length, but like Zipp, I have yet to finish it. It's not poorly written by any means, but you need to be a truly talented and charismatic writer to hold my interest for so long.
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fleinn posted February 09, 2010:

lol. Yeah. I made a few changes, so I can at least read through it myself without having a break half-way. But if I had started writing it now, I think I would have just created a small story about the game-flow, and then not said anything else.

I've done that with other reviews - lied a bit, and created a true enough scenario that describes the game better to someone who hasn't played it - and felt guilty about it afterwards. But it's probably a good idea when reviewing this game. But it's difficult to find the right.. scope... :/ the game is expansive that way, after all.

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