MAG Preview - August 17th 2009

Zipper Interactive are best known for their SOCOM series, but have wowed audiences lately with demonstrations of 256-player controlled carnage in their latest effort, MAG. We take a look at how it's shaping up.

MAG is one heck of an ambitious project. While Zipper Interactive have all sorts of experience in this sector, attempting to swell their previous maximum player capacity by a multiple of eight is never going to be straightforward. In development for three years already, some of the plans and ideas the developers have come up with to ensure that things go smoothly are nothing short of ingenious. Certainly there is nothing else like MAG either out now or indeed planned for release in the next couple of years.

First of all, MAG is multiplayer only. There is a training mode included which will allow you to get used to the basics before being thrown into the action, but suffice to say the game will live or die by how it performs and holds up on the PlayStation Network's servers. Zipper and Sony are using dedicated servers to ensure the action runs as smoothly as possible, and aficionados of the PSN will know that this is generally an effective tactic for keeping high player numbers and lag-free gaming coexisting happily. In this day and age we should certainly begin to see higher capacity multiplayer gaming, especially when you bear in mind the numbers PC games have generally been capable of online for the best part of a decade. But latency isn't the only problem that may throw a spanner in Zipper's works.

The battlefields hardly look sparse.

With 256 players running around, the game could get a little chaotic. If it was just a mass-carnage battle with 128 players on each team all doing the same thing, we would be worried right now. As it is, not only is there only one game type which supports the full complement of players (undoubtedly the focus in MAG, but it's not the only option on offer), but the infrastructure of the game has been built in such a way that you are almost playing an eight player team game for much of the map. The squad system, whereby every player is assigned to an eight-man team, allows 32 such groups to work independently of one another. Sure, your squad will come up against others as you attack an objective and they defend it. You will also cooperate with other squads in your platoon. By and large, however, the squads will only converge in any great numbers for the last, glorious objective on the battlefield. You can imagine the sort of epic gameplay crescendo this creates. Should one squad fail in their task to capture a control point, the Platoon Commander or the OIC (Officer In Charge) may want to reassign another squad to help out; they can strengthen areas of weakness on the battlefield and assign resources dynamically.

Indeed, the command structure is just as impressive as the squad system in MAG. Each 8-man squad has its own leader. Each platoon, made up of 32 players (so four squads), also has its own commander. Finally, each army, which in Domination mode is made up of 128 players (so four platoons and sixteen squads!), has an Officer In Charge. You don't have to be up for a command position, assigned at the start of a game or when a previous commander drops out. Players 'opt-in' at the beginning, and leaders are picked based on their rank, combat experience, and when they last held the same post. If you display distinction as a grunt, you can thus be handed a squad command position. Command your men well, completing objectives assigned to you, making good use of the tactical map, and you may rise to the position of Platoon Commander in a future mission. This process continues all the way up to OIC. All the best players won't have a monopoly over command positions though, as they will be spread out based on how frequently certain players have previously been employed in that position.

Team play is undoubtedly MAG's focus.

Voice chat isn't the easiest thing to do on PS3, but in your squad, between soldiers, there is a private channel. The squad leader also has a private channel to other squad leaders within your faction, and a separate line to his Platoon Commander. The Platoon Commander has a wire to all the Squad Commanders underneath them, other Platoon Commanders, and the OIC, and it's like this that an army can be ordered around. Just how easy it will be to move between these multiple channels remains to be seen, though we imagine silent orders will be the preferred route for most gamers. Using context sensitive commands, you can point at a bridge, or a bunker, and ask certain people to defend it. As the OIC, you may ask a Platoon Commander to focus their attention on it, and so the order filters down and is delegated to the army. Even a Squad Commander can do their own thing and order each member of their team around, but having general army orders pop-up for crucial objectives or tasks will create a real sense of urgency and team camaraderie. In fact, the mere presence of each player in a commanding role boosts the abilities of those near them. In this way, it will be just as important for leading players to fight alongside their team as to stay back and give orders.

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