Here's the unfortunate truth about MAG: Plenty of players simply do not care about teamwork
- An elegant command structure, user-friendly command system, and XP rewards for following orders provide real motivation to work together; doing so successfully can provide a thrilling feeling of beating impossible odds
- Barebones matchmaking and game-selection make each match a crapshoot; until more players learn the importance of teamwork, the game experience will continue to be uneven and unpredictable.
MAG is a manifesto on the importance of working together, and when everything clicks, it's exhilarating. The difficulty is finding 127 other players who realise that the game simply cannot be won without teamwork.
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Let me be clear: Matches simply cannot be won except by teams who are willing to work together, follow orders, and communicate. The maps are too large, the objectives too many. Lone-wolf players may rack up more kills, but a team of loners will lose the big matches every time. As a result, playing alongside such players can prove enormously frustrating.
This means the game experience can be seriously uneven, and aside from playing exclusively with teammates you know you can trust, you never know what kind of experience you're going to get. This uncertainty isn't helped by the fact that MAG offers very limited choices in game type (you get four options, ranging from basic deathmatch up to the massive, half-hour Domination games) and no choice of map whatsoever once you've picked your game type. Furthermore, the auto-matchmaking procedure -- the only way to join a game aside from partying up with friends or clan members -- seems astonishingly random, lumping together players of vastly different skills with no apparent reason.
If this unpredictability were MAG's only flaw, though, it would be easily dismissed; the positive experiences would more than make up for the negative ones. Unfortunately, the game suffers from some poorly thought-out design choices elsewhere. For example, the three different factions offer fairly different game experiences due to the fact that each map is set up for a specific faction to take a specific role. With the maps being so huge, starting at one end can lead to a dramatically different game than starting at the other. But the only ways to switch factions once you've created your character are to either reach level 60 and sacrifice your purchased gear to start over in another faction, or delete your character entirely. This seems like an enormous waste of two-thirds of the game.
The game also makes some odd choices when it comes to upgrading your gear. It is possible, for instance, to waste your precious skill points (you get exactly one for each level-up) buying gear you can't equip -- a fact the game neglects to tell you before your purchase. Details of upgrades ought to be much more clear. Fortunately, the game allows periodic "respecs" in which you can essentially trade back all your gear and try a new upgrade path. But these are rare, and without better explanations of the different gear it's entirely possible you'll make even more mistakes the next time around.
The maps also have their share of unpleasant design choices, most especially the abundance of invisible walls that always seem to block off the very best sniper roosts. Some of the maps also have frustratingly complex layouts, which is a bit of a disappointment given the sensible and organic level design of the SOCOM series that put MAG developer Zipper on the map. And it's clear that some prettiness was sacrificed for the sake of the massive scale; building interiors in particular look surprisingly barren of detail.
But of course, pretty isn't what MAG is about. It's about warfare on a huge scale, with a sensible chain of command in place to manage that scale. To this end, the fundamentals are solid: responsive weapons, user-friendly controls, a sensible objective structure, and powerful servers that keep lag to a minimum (a delightful change from the launch of SOCOM: Confrontation).
So when everything clicks just right, that click is deafening; a good match here is very, very good, and good matches show up just often enough at this early stage to make the rest worthwhile. Given that the game's been out barely a week as of this writing, I'm confident that the currently uneven experience will stabilise, as players find their individual roles, commanders grow more comfortable with their abilities, and the obnoxious one-man-army types return to their more traditional shooters. At the moment, MAG requires patience, a willingness to go in and get your ass handed to you while you and your teammates all figure out this whole large-scale war thing. But as the dust settles and more players begin to realize that this isn't just Modern Warfare with more bodies, those moments where everything comes together should become more common. When that happens, you'll see the game MAG is meant to be.
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