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MAG

MAG boasts an impressive number of players that can be online, together at the same time taking part in one match. That number is 256, to be specific, and that is simultaneously MAG‘s strength and weakness. It’s an amazing feat of technical wizardry and was wisely touted as the game’s biggest selling point. In an arms race of who can host the biggest fray, MAG might be an unqualified success, but in terms of quality, it might have to settle for the bronze.

It’s important to remember that MAG—an acronym for the appropriately-named Massive Action Game—is entirely online. There is no single-player campaign whatsoever, but strangely enough there is the vague outline of a story. In the near-future three huge private military contractors (PMCs) are fighting shadow-wars over the world. Players can choose any of the three: Valor, Raven, and SVER and customize their soldier accordingly.

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Be warned that there’s only one character slot available, so players must either start over or purchase another character slot. Granted the extra character slots aren’t very expensive, but it feels stingy to limit players to one single slot. Even so, the factions don’t have many differences other than slightly different weaponry and a unique look. Players can then custom-fit their character with what weaponry and clothing they want that’s available by default.

The only game modes unlocked from the beginning is the tutorial and Suppression. MAG‘s tutorial only goes over the most rudimentary aspects of the game, such as aiming and firing. Suppression is basically team deathmatch with 32 players on each side. MAG doesn’t throw newbies into its massive firefights, but rather strings them along until they have enough experience to both unlock the 256-man matches and have the know-how to actually play them.

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Suppression is where new players are going to cut their teeth, and the beginning is easily the most grueling part of the game. Prepare to feel inadequate—a lot. At level one, players are hardly a match for anyone with experience and the unlocked weaponry to match. Expect to be sniped, ambushed, and killed by unknown assailants frequently. It’s all about trying to rack up a few measly kills and get enough experience to pass onto the next level.

Once leveled up, players can put a point in the branching skill tree that will give them a little boost with things like sprinting-endurance, reload time, and other combat skills that’ll come in handy. With enough experience points new clothing and weapons can be bought (or sold), giving players a more unique-looking soldier to play as. The leveling-system is rewarding, if a bit unforgiving, and you can see a definite improvement in performance as new levels are acquired. Sabotage is unlocked at level four and is essentially attack/defend. Players will either defend several satellite uplinks or attack them, initiating a seesawing back-and-forth for control. Once the two uplinks have been successfully attacked and controlled, a third is revealed and both teams race towards it for one final showdown.

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Acquisition mode introduces vehicles into the battles. The attacking team must steal two vehicles from the defending one and drive them to an extraction point. Defenders repeal the onslaught, but once a vehicle is stolen there’s always the option of blowing it lest it fall into the enemy’s hands. The number of total players is increased to 128, and this is where things start to get a little chaotic. The vehicles don’t handle very well, they’re imprecise and sluggish to maneuver with.

At level eight, Domination is unlocked. This mode is MAG‘s biggest selling point: 256 players, 128 to each side. Domination is like Sabotage on a much larger scale. Bases must be attacked and defended with multiple objectives in between. Walls must be either breached or reinforced, based secured or overrun, all while bombing runs and skirmishes are occurring right outside. And amazingly enough, there is no lag in Domination despite its impressive size. MAG truly delivers a unique, total-war experience with Domination. It really manages to capture the frenzy of war while still being fun to play.

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Still, there are some presentational problems. Since so much effort went into the game being able to handle so many players online at once, the graphics took a bit of hit and while they’re certainly not bad, they fall well short of the expectations placed on current-gen consoles. The maps don’t help to give the bland look of the game, from the graphics to the look of the character models, much of a boost either. They’re huge, but they all fall into generic categories like a base in the middle of a jungle. MAG lacks personality, and you’d have a tough time picking it out of a lineup. There’s also too much visual clutter as well. The HUD is jammed with multicolored arrows, highlighted objectives, score-keeping, and so much other stuff that it’s hard to concentrate on any of it, let alone look out for where the next enemy soldier is coming from.

The size of the map is also a weak point as well. Between the point where the player spawns and where they finally get into the fray is a long, tedious sprint through the generic environment. It doesn’t sound like much of a big deal, but factor in all the times the player gets killed, has to wait twenty seconds to respawn, and do the whole over again and the time adds up pretty quickly. It’s not a deal-breaker, but more expedient means of getting into the battle would’ve been greatly appreciated.

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A key to success in MAG is cooperation. Lone wolves are simply going to get slaughtered, end of story. Players on each team are divided into squads, headed by players that have reached level fifteen and presumably have enough insight to lead other players to their objectives. This keeps things from devolving into complete chaos, and it’s usually wise to stick with the rest of the squad should there be a need for a medic.

MAG rewards the patient and dedicated. Its tactical gameplay will definitely appeal to the hardcore—as will Domination’s unparalleled number of players fighting at once. This isn’t a game players can just jump into. There are some pretty big learning curves to overcome before MAG starts to feel rewarding. There’s certainly some fun to be had once the initial frustration of getting killed as a newbie passes, but there’s a bar to entry that may be too high for some.

7 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in March 2010.

Gentle persuasion

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