When Sony revealed MAG - no-one's referring to it as Massive Action Game any more, it seems - at E3 last year, its promise of 256-player online modern warfare raised a few eyebrows. Not that we didn't believe it; we did, however, wonder how it could possibly hang together. Even in MMOs, you rarely get that many people in a single conflict, and when it does happen (in EVE Online, say) precious few understand what's going on, or can perceive it through the juddering lag. Surely a multiplayer FPS on that scale could only go one of two ways: complex, tactical and dry, or sheer bloody chaos.
Zipper Interactive knows better. After 12 games in 13 years, most of them in Sony's quietly huge SOCOM series (racking up 10 million sales to date), it should. And just because it has a history in military training software doesn't mean it doesn't understand the meaning of fun.
MAG is fun. In fact, it's massive fun. It's fast and loose, free-flowing, improvisational, spectacular, structured without being too rigid; it accommodates lone wolves, team players and power-trippers alike, and makes it easy for players themselves to direct the action. You'd expect it to be intimidating, but it actually feels like the FPS for everybody. Even after just one 20-minute, 128-player match, it's hard to shake the feeling that, one day, all multiplayer shooters will be made in its image.
In a way, the concept is very simple. Zipper takes that scary number of players, breaks it down into something friendly and familiar - squads of eight facing off in 16-player struggles for an objective or two - and then builds it up again. 16-player skirmishes segue smoothly into 32-player firefights as squads converge. Then 32 players become 64 as attackers and defenders move on from subsidiary to primary objectives. Then you look over a hill, or a building, and see the mirror image of the battle you're fighting on the other side of the map. Then it happens again.
"If you're talking sheer chaos, in terms of, if you drop 256 players into a village square like an arena, that's going to be unmitigated," says creative director Ed Byrne. "So what we wanted to do is build that intensity and use that flow to direct players from small encounters to larger, and to basically make sure that squads link up actually more like a realistic military operation."
Orchestrating battles on this scale involves a light touch, he explains. You need to direct the fight through careful level design, but also leave players freedom to spread out. "It's through level design and through the flow from beginning to end of the map as you go through the objectives that we mitigate the chaos. The other [method] is simply allowing players to have some freedom on where to go, so if a player is basically overwhelmed by the amount of combat that he's seeing, he can not only retreat backwards but he can go laterally and join the areas that are happening on either side of him."
There'll be a benefit to sticking with your squad, however. 64- or 128-man armies are divided into eight-man squads and 32-strong platoons, and each of these is assigned a leader, with the OIC (Officer In Charge) sitting at the top. Squad and platoon leaders have special skills, ranging from team buffs to tactical support (artillery strikes, A10 strafing runs - big bangs, basically) to powerful strategic manoeuvres like satellite sweeps or blockades.
Perhaps more importantly, they can set FRAGO (fragmentary orders) objectives. These clearly direct players to primary and secondary objectives on the map: disable this anti-air gun so we can call in airstrikes, take over this bunker so the enemy can't use it as a spawn point, steal this experimental vehicle to win the game. You get double the experience points for focusing on FRAGO objectives, and big bonuses for actually completing them, so your character ranks up faster. Ranking up unlocks weapons, develops your skills in the three class disciplines - medic, engineer and assault - and, eventually, grants access to those command roles. It's a virtuous circle that doesn't force organised play, but rewards it at every level.
"Part of the fantasy of scale on one end of the spectrum is being a soldier, being an operative in that large battle," says Byrne. "But for many players the fantasy on the other end of the spectrum is being in charge. And we wanted to make sure that when we dealt with scale, we weren't simply, again, just dropping people into an arena and having them fight each other. We wanted the fantasy fulfilment to be on the leadership side as well, for the admittedly, probably smaller number of players who want to be OICs - to give them the opportunity to participate on a more strategic level."
Even OICs are warriors on the ground, however. There's a neat 3D tactical map that every player can view, but only commanders can interact with, setting objectives and deploying assets. But there's no separate, high-level RTS-style view of the action. "We didn't want them basically to get stuck in there like they're playing a map," says Byrne. "So OICs and platoon leaders and squad leaders are all able to, and encouraged to, basically be in the field fighting, and then juggle their duties behind the gun and behind the interface in terms of their play-style."
And with play-style Zipper's watchword, again, is freedom. The three classes aren't strictly defined, so you can build a hybrid character if you want; and you've always got the opportunity to switch between three loadouts when respawning. These are your standard assault trooper with good healing abilities (you heal yourself and others by firing a cloud of health from a sort of first-aid gun, the most science-fiction element in this otherwise sensible near-future scenario); a sniper-scout with a self-heal; and a heavy assault loadout with machinegun, rocket launcher and "repair gun" for equipment and installations, but no player healing.
Spawn points are pushed backwards and forwards with the frontlines of battle, and are wonderfully dynamic. Some are just bunkers, but others might be an APC or helicopter for insertion behind enemy lines (and use as defensive firing platforms). Or there's what will surely be MAG's visual signature, the paratrooper drop; waves of dozens of respawning players, guiding themselves down from the sky into the thick of battle, and if they're really unlucky, being picked off by snipers before they get boots on the ground. Die, and there's a "bleedout" grace period before you respawn, during which a friendly player can bring you back to life, although you can always opt out of this if you feel like switching roles.
Unlike other large-scale multiplayer shooters - the Battlefield series and Enemy Territory: Quake Wars spring to mind - MAG surprisingly eschews player-controlled vehicles beyond those APCs. "Vehicles, especially fast vehicles with long ranges, require a lot of space. What we wanted to do was make sure our maps were densely populated, were massive, but weren't of a scale where players were running a lot to get into combat, or shooting from a very large distance."
It's a very smart decision. MAG's scale is all about people, not space. It's about seeing dozens of players by your side, dozens more in the distance, and hearing the widespread rattle of gunfire and the distant (or not-so-distant) screen-shaking thunder of airstrikes. Above all, it's about knowing that not one piece of this staggering spectacle, on a par with the grandest Call of Duty set-piece, is scripted or AI-directed. Every bullet, every explosion, every scrambling figure is the action of a real live player.
The maps, then, are large but not too open, throwing players together as much as possible; they're a logical extension of the map design for a standard shooter ("We realised what makes a good multiplayer map makes a good MAG map," Byrne says). They're mostly military complexes. MAG's scenario is a three-way conflict between three private military corporations (PMCs) as they seek to gain advantages over each other in the struggle for government contracts. This will play out in a persistent metagame that players can track from the MAG website.
The three factions differ in style more than anything. Raven, whose futuristic bunkers are found in humid South American hills, are a sleek, high-tech, special-ops operation, all black carbon fibre armour and meticulous hygiene. Valor are grizzled, manly war veterans with a traditional military look, toughing it out in Alaska. S.V.E.R. (pronounced "sever") are edgy, aggressive guerrilla fighters with hoodies, hockey masks and improvised, ramshackle equipment, daubing graffiti all over the abandoned Russian installations they call home.
These environments are drawn in remarkable detail, considering the immense technical demands of running a 256-player battler at a solid 30 frames per second. MAG isn't quite Call of Duty 4 or Killzone 2 in the beauty-pageant stakes, and it has an understated look. But it's sharp, the level of detail is convincing, and abundant use of light-scattering fog and smoke engenders an impressively gritty, war-zone feel. Zipper's coding achievement is quietly immense.
"I think that you might have seen people achieve simply the scale but without the graphical fidelity, or you might have seen people achieve the fidelity but with horrific lag," says Byrne, explaining why we haven't seen the likes of MAG before. "It's daunting, not only in surmounting the obstacle of how do we possibly get that many players and have it run at 30 frames a second, but even once you accomplish that, the inevitable is how do we make it look good, and how on earth do we make it fun?
"I think the trifecta of those obstacles has been something that not many developers have been in a position to overcome. At Zipper we're in a lucky position in that PlayStation 3's actually an amazing piece of kit - we've leveraged the technology to the fullest that we can right now, everything's running on SPUs, the Blu-ray actually allows us to put a lot of content on levels, so we can have a lot of fidelity in graphical environments just from technology alone."
It's nice of Byrne to defer credit to his publishing, platform-holding paymasters. But there's plenty in MAG Sony can't take credit for. The superb tuning and tactile punch of the weapons; the expert finesse of the map design; the relentless pace of the battles; the perfectly-balanced tightrope-walk between order and chaos, between tactical primacy and player freedom. With alpha coming to a close, news of a public beta expected soon and release towards the end of the year, MAG looks fighting-fit already, and PS3 could soon have a multiplayer shooter that will be the envy of all.
MAG is due out exclusively for PS3 in autumn 2009.