First-party exclusives are polarising beasts by nature, but Zipper Interactive's ambitious MMOFPS will likely prove more divisive than most. Some will dive in and find a game of uncommon depth and freedom, a richly designed long-term commitment that doesn't just recreate the boom-bang-a-bang of large-scale military conflict, but fosters the loyalty and fraternal co-dependence that holds armies together as well. Others, however, may find its epic 256-man battles too hardcore. To paraphrase Obi-Wan, both will be right. From a certain point of view.
This isn't to say that the quality of the game is in doubt. On the basis of the open beta, which runs until Monday 11th January, Zipper Interactive has created a muscular and intuitive shooter. Where other serious-minded soldier sims bury their nuances under elitist acronyms and arcane structures, everything about MAG is immediate, obvious and inviting.
It not only looks like a mainstream deathmatch-driven FPS, it feels like one too. Maps are varied without feeling artificial, and if you're getting pounded from one direction there are always other routes. Natural cover is abundant, and while it would be useful to be able to enter the decoratively mangled buildings for sniping or defensive purposes, it's not essential.
Nor do you feel the absence of vehicles. This is close-quarters troop-based combat - objectives and spawn points are close enough to get back into the fray within seconds - so adding wheels into the equation wouldn't add much (although the retail game will make some use of them). Movement is fast, if a little floaty for a game with such a weighty military style, and control is slick and arcadey. There are some minor balancing issues, with players pulling off instant headshots with heavy machine guns from 300ft or lobbing grenades superhuman distances, but on the whole it has a wonderful pick-up-and-play simplicity.
Two modes are available in the beta. Sabotage pits platoons of 32 players, divided into four eight-man squads, against each other in a battle to control two key installations. Domination, unlocked once you acquire enough XP to reach level 10, is the main attraction, throwing the full 256 players into battle with eight targets to fight over at the start.
Skirmishes are small and traditional in both scale and structure to start off. You'll be part of a small force focused on one of the targets. Nearby, other members of your faction will be doing the same. Once the battle conditions have been met - usually with the attackers seizing control of all the targets at the same time - then the conflict evolves and the targets are fewer, so more players are pitched in together.
The pace of the game does tug the action towards a typical run-and-gun approach in these initial battles, however, as opposed to the methodical militarism of ArmA and its kin, which may lead players astray. As players dash from spawn point to flashpoint, cracking off headshots, lobbing grenades and performing physically unlikely acrobatic leaps, there's little to illustrate the more sober teamwork-driven strategy that the game truly requires. The hype about the number of players in the game also means that the lack of vast, crowded battlefields may be jarring.
But if you can make your peace with the game's occasionally ambiguous place on the sliding scale of FPS play, then something genuinely thrilling remains: the speed and action of a Modern Warfare, but with the scope and depth of a SOCOM. It's hard not to be excited by that prospect, and when the pieces fall into place the result is undeniably invigorating.
Find yourself within a well-organised squad, with a smart leader, and the game comes alive as you move and strike with purpose beyond your own score. The knowledge that other squads are doing the same is rather abstract to begin with - you may occasionally get a chance to look over at the other objectives and see them scuttling around - but as objectives fall into place and the war escalates, it's brutally seductive. Those aren't just players on the same server, they're members of the same faction, and you start to develop an innate kinship with them that pays off when forces converge.
The downside is that all of this enjoyment relies to an unprecedented degree on the people with whom you're playing. Bad players can screw up a typical Capture the Flag match in any other game and be booted with no lasting damage, but in MAG's persistent, interlinked warzone the failure of one squad can bring everybody down.
Getting strangers to co-operate online is a lot like herding cats, and it's notable that the only game to really succeed in this Grail quest has been Left 4 Dead, a game that scaled everything back to the bare minimum: four players on a strictly defined path. By creating open-plan environments that can accommodate any strategy, MAG also leaves the way open for those with no strategy at all. Leadership seems to be a vague concept, not helped by the PS3 community's continued aversion to voice chat.
Some of my leaders during the beta have left a bit to be desired, too. You can put yourself forward for a leadership role once you crest level 15, enabling status perks to those who stay close and calling in special support functions, but the only words I heard out of one leader all match were "sniper was bad", while another gave an inspiring pep talk about the intricacies of the map and the danger of sniper points before proceeding to, well, hurl us at the same brick-wall defences over and over. Another was more interested in talking to his friend about hot sauce and bongwater than in giving any direction to our slapdash assault.
Such complaints are true of most team-based FPS games, but where MAG differs is in its reliance on mutually beneficial performance. You can lone-wolf it, of course, and I often found more success as a solo sniper creeping around the outskirts of battles than trotting dutifully behind the pack, but that rather defeats the object. There are dozens of games like that already.
MAG needs to show that it's something more, especially since you need all targets to be captured for the battle to reach the tantalising carrot of 256-man warfare. It only takes one squad to fail for things to come undone for the whole platoon. In Sabotage, whenever I found myself on a dependable team, actually capable of taking and holding an objective, chances were that the squad tackling the other installation failed to even get close. The timer ticks down, the game ends in a loss. The sense of elation when it works is immense, but frustrating doesn't begin to cover it when it doesn't.
Extrapolate that to the full battlefield where there are 127 human variables with the potential to muck things up, before you even factor in the 128 enemies actively trying to stop you, and you begin to see the mountain that MAG is boldly attempting to conquer. But of course, this is just a beta trial, and the first few days of one at that, so there's little point trying to draw any long-term conclusions regarding player behaviour. You can form your own clan relatively early, so hopefully as more players congeal into coordinated groups these problems will dissipate.
From beta experience, that's going to be the obstacle MAG must overcome if it's to fulfill its enormous potential. Judged purely from a software point of view, there's little doubt that Zipper has come up with something quietly remarkable. There's virtually no lag even with dozens of players on one map, and the only glitch I found was an occasional hiccup where one player's prone form would suddenly start sliding around the map.
If everyone takes it seriously and performs properly, it's conceivable that MAG could revolutionise online console FPS play. But that's a big "if", and it's the community that will not only define the experience but make or break it. The task before Sony, then, is arguably not one of promotion but of education. Treat it like any other FPS launch and the result will be a damp squib. Get people in the right frame of mind, however, and MAG could be explosive.
MAG is due out exclusively for PS3 at the end of January, with retailers agreeing on the 29th ahead of an official announcement.