Version tested: PlayStation 3
In videogames, bigger has always equalled better. Marketing men spray ever-greater numbers at us like schoolboys competing to see who can pee furthest up a wall. 'Wonder at how many colours a Mega Drive can display!' they say. 'Marvel at how many minutes of cut-scene you can store on a PlayStation disc!' 'Quiver at the number of polygons that now comprise Lara Croft's cleavage!'
The inference is that quality always stays abreast of ambition; that the bigger, faster and more numerous the virtual things we have to play with, the happier we will be. As a result, it's numbers which fuel the fires of the console hardware cycles. And it's numbers which justify gaming's interminable sequels - explaining in neat accountant's rows why it is that we need another Gran Turismo, even when in the hands, the difference can be imperceptible.
More recently, however, there's been a move away from obsessing about figures. Nintendo's Wii and Microsoft's Natal are arguably technological sidesteps, focusing not on multiplying the underlying numbers but on changing the way we interact with them. And as gaming hardware has begun to languish, so developers have been forced to focus their ambitions elsewhere.
Why the shift? It's financial, for sure. As the boundaries of what's possible in a videogame have widened, so the costs of meeting this potential have become unaffordable. But also, there's the realisation that bigger doesn't always equal better; that, while the promise of battles featuring 256 players make for fantastic headlines and excitable playground whispers, today's players are more concerned with quality than bulk. Gamers, perhaps more than anyone, know that size matters only superficially. It's what you do with it that counts.
It's a distinction that Zipper Interactive, developer of the world's largest-scale first-person shooter, has clearly kept in mind. While most press attention has been focused on MAG's unprecedented scope, in play it fast becomes clear that the game's value is not in merely delivering a giant war-game that maintains a solid 30 frames per second, but in what the developer did next.
Not that you'll perceive the cleverness at first, however. As you enter your first 256-player battle, a tiny camouflaged cog in the fearsome machinery of war, there appears to be little rhyme or reason to the battlefield. Bodies scarper over hills, through bushes and in and out of buildings with no apparent tactical cohesion.
Dive into the throng and, to begin with, you too will act like a headless chicken, applying your default Modern Warfare lone wolf tactics to the sprawling battlefield and floundering in a wash of bullets, blood and confusion. Stand atop a hill looking down on the action and you'll observe little more than a sea of insects in a scramble for territory, one that's mostly devoid of logic or strategy.
This initial feeling is exacerbated by the fact that, played as a straight shooter, MAG is undeniably disappointing. Combat feels light and skittish in the hands, while weapons lack the kickback and weightiness of the genre's current leaders. In order to make a game of such technical ambition run smoothly and without lag, texture and detail have been reined in. The drab, muted environments, dull lighting and poor particle effects do little to make MAG's locations inviting, enjoyable places with which to familiarise oneself.
Spawns work on set timers, so when you die you'll need to wait for the next wave of reinsertions, meaning there's more downtime after death than in most shooters. Your soldier's health doesn't auto-replenish, a perfectly valid design choice, but a nod to realism that feels at odds with the game's otherwise breezy style.
Friendly fire in a game of such dense population is initially a frustration, particularly as it can be difficult to separate friend from foe in the throng of battle. And without a kill cam, the irritation of being sniped from an unknown source will antagonise those who have been used to facing their killers in Modern Warfare 2 these past few months.
These shortcomings never fully disappear but you do soon acclimatise to the game's pace and approach and, once you stop focusing on the minutiae of the gunplay, a bigger, more impressive picture emerges. Zipper has borrowed the principles of Modern Warfare's superlative MMO-style meta-game so that every kill earns your character experience. At each level-up you earn skill points which can be spent on improving your abilities and hardware.
The character progression is well pitched and, once you're roped in, it's almost impossible to break loose. Unlike in Infinity Ward's games, graft in MAG offers more discernible rewards than merely bigger guns. Rather it is what's used to break the game community into a hierarchy, with those who have reached a high enough level able to assume leadership roles within a simple yet effective command structure.
It's here that MAG's brilliance is revealed. Each game is broken down into several smaller matches, all of which run concurrently on different, interlinked areas of the game map. Players are assigned to eight-man squads, four of which comprise a platoon of 32 players. Four platoons then make up each side of 128 players. If you've reached a high enough level you can apply to become a squadron leader and, if appointed the role for a match, you are free to designate objectives through a simple point-and-click interface.
Why should you want to follow 14-year-old Chad from Nebraska's orders? Because doing so will earn you bonus FRAGO (fragmentary orders) experience points, which are necessary to progress your own soldier's career. Obey orders and you'll level up faster. Moreover, squad and platoon leaders have special skills, such as health buffs, that will be active providing you keep close to them.
Want to play lone wolf? Fine. But the road to victory will be that much longer, and there's always the chance that your commanding office will get sick of your dissenting ass and boot you out the squad.
It's a brilliant piece of system design, as rewards for compliance are built into the game structure, removing any sense of bossiness from the squadron leader role yet adequately rewarding sides which work together. Additionally, while there's always one central objective, there are multiple ways to achieve it - giving those players who want to lead the chance to feel like their choices affect the outcome of a battle.
As leader it's your choice whether to remove enemy air support so you can unlock a new spawn point deeper into the map, or focus on removing roadblocks to let vehicles through. And that choice can mean the difference between victory and defeat in the greater war.
Outside of combat, the game enjoys functional presentation that does little to celebrate or promote its underlying inventiveness. The interface for unlocking new skills is clunky and awkward to navigate, while menus are ugly and derivative.
When you first start the game you must decide, Steel Battalion-style, which of the game's three rival factions you're going to conscript with: the smart, black ops-style Raven, the ragtag terrorist-chic SVER or the orthodox US military Valor. The choice of faction is mostly a cosmetic one, without much difference in skills or tactical ability between the three. Even so, the option to customise your character's outfit based on their current level as in an RPG is as compelling in this context as it's ever been.
MAG, a purely multiplayer game, is designed to grow and settle with time. As such, the texture and tone of the experience will change over the coming weeks and months. In this first week ahead of release, everyone is learning, working their way up through the lower levels. There are relatively few people who have unlocked, for example, both the injector gun and the resuscitate skill to be able to use it on teammates. But in a week or two, as the community's skill base has broadened, so the tactical scope of entire armies will have deepened.
As with Planetside, to the casual onlooker MAG will look like a dumb free-for-all - a disappointment heightened by the mediocre FPS aspects to the experience. But invest time and the game opens up. It provides a unique and compelling vision for how multiplayer games of this size can use smart, informed system design to funnel and focus their players into easygoing yet rewarding strategy.
Despite the game's successes, there are times where the approach fails. In the Sabotage game mode especially, tussling to capture and defend one or two locations creates awkward, tiresome bottlenecks. But in general, MAG breaks impressive new ground and Zipper's ambitions have been met.
Its downfall is perhaps in failing to clothe its ingenuity in ways that will secure it the size of community it deserves, and in failing to match up to the heavyweights of the genre in terms of its basic gunplay. These drawbacks seem likely to reduce the game's population to a core of devotees, a future at odds with its everyman name.
The irony then, is that the game which can accommodate the greatest numbers of players in the history of the medium will be best enjoyed by a dedicated few. For those players, at least, numbers really aren't everything
7 / 10