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The MAG Factor

The tech challenges behind the first 256-player console action game.

Quietly going about its business in a closed beta phase, Zipper Interactive's MAG is one of the most intriguing games Digital Foundry has taken a look at recently, and an important milestone in the evolution of online console gaming.

Sure, massively multiplayer games are nothing new, and MAG's support for 256 players is probably small beer up against some of the behemoth MMOs available for PC. But this isn't a relatively snail-paced role-playing game we're dealing with here. MAG's real innovation is in the fact that it can handle those 256 gamers in a fast-paced action environment where minimal latency is crucial. It aims to surpass the quality of the peer-to-peer multiplayer experience found in most console titles, and it's set to do so with a series of incredibly vast arenas teeming with human players.

I've played it, and the result from a technical perspective is pretty astonishing. MAG works, and it is quite unlike any other console shooter. Based on what I've experienced, it has its strengths, it has its weaknesses, but in a genre where familiarity breeds contempt, Zipper's core technology is clearly providing a gameplay experience not found elsewhere. In a somewhat over-populated market sector, this is important.

However, the usual Digital Foundry tech analysis can only go so far, because it's clear that the real technical achievement isn't located in the 3GB of client-side code and data you're invited to download when you enrol into the closed beta. All the real magic is happening in the US on the dedicated servers.

So there'll be two sides to this particular piece. We can - and will - give you the basic technical facts behind what we see in terms of frames and pixels in the MAG beta client, but more importantly, we spoke to the people that count at Zipper Interactive and SCEA to get a flavour of what's happening server-side in California.

After creating your character, MAG gameplay kicks off in epic style, with bird's eye view of the gameplay arena into which you'll spawn. The first thing you'll notice is the sheer population of the game. The spawn points are obviously busy, and are typically located near to strategically important flashpoints on the map. It's particularly tempting simply to sit back and watch the action play out on the battlefield in front of you. However, once you've selected your loadout of weapons and equipment, you're essentially thrust into the thick of it.

Initially it is a very daunting experience. MAG players are divided up into squads of eight, and in-game voice comms are limited to those players, but the action on-screen can feature a multitude of players, some aligned to your faction and some that aren't. There is an overwhelming sense of feeling small and insignificant in the overall scheme of things.

Never has teamplay been such an important factor as it is here. Squads need to communicate closely in order to survive, and squad leaders need to coordinate with the other teams in the same faction to stand any real chance of success up against similarly organised opposition. The first instinct is to get stuck in as a lone wolf, but it doesn't work. The best way to get the most out of the game it to read up on its intricacies with a good guide and attempt to form a friends-based squad.

As you might expect, the more you play, the more experience you earn, meaning promotions, more equipment and more specialised loadouts.

So, from a technical perspective, what can we expect from MAG? Vast playing areas and 256 gamers is going to require a pretty serious engine to run it all. First impressions on the MAG beta are that while the artistic style is somewhat traditional, the technical accomplishment on the visuals is more than respectable - we have native 720p, we have classic 2x multisampling anti-aliasing (relatively rare on PS3 titles), and Zipper has opted for image consistency over frame-rate by employing triple-buffered v-sync.

Apologies for the presence of the somewhat inane in-game chat, but this is MAG performance in here and now during its closed beta phase.

Similar to Sucker Punch's inFamous, MAG runs with no frame-rate cap. While a 30FPS average is seen across the whole six minutes of video above, frame-rate can drop into the teens, but conversely, it can exceed 30FPS too - sometimes even reaching 60FPS (sky views, for example). Texture quality and filtering are excellent, by and large, which is perhaps surprising bearing in mind the sheer size of the levels.

"This is our first entry on the PS3 and represents a completely new engine for Zipper," says the firm's technical director, Jason Tartaglia. "While it is largely a forward renderer, it does employ some of the techniques used by fully deferred renderers including separate light and normal buffers which provide us with a good blend of performance and fidelity. Probably the single most important aspect of the current engine is that over 90 per cent of it runs on the SPUs. This has allowed us to parallelise all of the other game processes during the rendering of our frames."

"We keep our resolution standards higher than most other games of this kind," adds art director Russ Phillips. "The way we stream our game content allow us to do this. We also have a great system for applying a detail texture to each material so as the player gets very close to the side of a building you don't see a mushy mess - you see a nice pitted or scratched-up metal. Lastly, we really felt that consolidating thousands of textures at miscellaneous resolutions down to a few hundred with higher quality was the answer. With this streaming technology we're allowed to create materials with a theme for one scene, then stream those out and a new theme in as you move into a new area of the game."