A Frag Without The Fest: If Chess Was A Shooter

First-person shooters are great and all. But they're no where near the size of real-world military conflicts.

In reality, they play more like isolated firefights than all-out war, according to CJ Heine, lead designer at Zipper Interactive.

"The scale has always been missing," he says.

For example, when you see tracer fire and hear gunshots in other games, it's usually simulated by the computer "to make the player feel like they're in a larger battle than they really are," says Heine.

So he and his team have built what they believe to be a better mousetrap; one that places a human command behind every bullet, air strike, and commotion taking place on screen.

"It's actual combat between real players," Heine explains, speaking of MAG, the upcoming multiplayer-only shooter for PlayStation 3. But not only are the game's actions authentic, the number of simultaneous players it accommodates is staggering: 256 to be exact, a figure that dwarfs the size of previous console shooters.

But my Modern Warfare 2 plays just fine. Why, then, would I want more numbers? What's in it for me, I ask the designer. Added purpose and broader scope comes the reply. "I think MAG is an evolution of the shooter," Heine responds. "Running with 256 players actually allows us to recreate the scale and intensity of widespread combat without relying on artificially placed sounds or effects."

OK, but what about lag? Some games stutter with only 16 or 32 players online. Sounds like Sony will need a Google-size server farm to manage that many players for a single session. Either that or compromise the gameplay.

While the answer to enable more players would seem to be more hardware, Zipper Interactive says their "new server architecture" allows them to meet the demands of 256 players without the need of costly additional servers.

It's unclear exactly what they've done to ensure stability. And geographical latency is inevitable. But many early previewers have reported surprisingly smooth connections. "Whatever Zipper did with their servers, it's working," said one beta tester.

There is no "I" in team If you're one of those independent types or bratty tennis stars that hates team sports, MAG probably isn't for you. With so many players on screen at the same time, games would quickly spiral out of control without organisation, making Unreal Tournament played in a tight corridor look like child's play.

To provide the much-needed structure, players are divided into eight-person squads, with four squads forming a platoon of 32 players, and four platoons forming a company of 128 players. Accordingly, group leaders are critical to the success of the team, says Heine-especially a company's Officer in Charge.

"In many ways, the OIC is similar to a platoon leader in that they cannot personally assign any objectives (like a squad leader)," he says. "But they do control powerful game-changing abilities that can turn the tide of a battle when used properly, such as altering the respawn rates of friendly or enemy forces, communicating the tactical abilities used by squad and platoon leaders, or preventing opposing tactics from being used."

Translation: In MAG, you're forced to work as a team. Since there's no computer-aided actions to guide you to victory, you'll live or die on the decisions made by your fellow gamers. And if your commanding officer is a douche, your team is screwed. It sounds bad, but it makes for some crazy good unity.

"Just watching the reactions in the beta over the last few months, each company has a vocal set of players, all declaring that their faction is the best or easiest to play with," says Heine. "It's great to see the players latching on and creating their own rivalries."

To advance the ranks into leadership roles and create your own company, you'll need to earn the trust of your peers by completing objectives, making valuable contributions, and earning experience points over time. This isn't to say you can go on solo missions, such as sneaking behind enemy lines and sabotaging their supplies. You just can't be bohemian about it.

"Well-organised squads with good leadership and communication are going to make the difference between a win and a loss more often than the efforts of any one individual player," asserts Heine.

In the year 2025 Set 15 years in the future, MAG takes place in a fully globalised and diplomatic planet Earth.

But greed and utopia can never co-exist, so the demilitarised world quickly sees a rise in demand for enterprising mercenaries known as Private Military Companies to do its killing.

At first, these companies bade for contracts in a civil manner, much like a commercial firm would, explains Heine. At some point, however, "competitive tensions and minor conflicts escalated into full scale war," he adds. How convenient for you, Mr. or Ms. gamer.

With the world in turmoil, and weaponry in the hands of opposing private contractors, players will need to choose which company-otherwise known as factions-they wish to fight for before. For veterans, there's Valor Company, which outfits its troopers with standard-styled military gear. For James Bond lovers, there's Raven Industries, which relies on high-tech gadgetry to win its battles. And lastly, the S.V.E.R. company - a group of misfit militia - men with a chip on their shoulder.

But not only do factions give the game a sense of individuality, according to Heine, they dictate how aggressive or defensive teams are in their attack. "Each faction has a unique visual style and reason for fighting, but the differences in weapons, equipment, and missions have the biggest impact on gameplay," he says. " Ultimately, factions create a sense of allegiance within MAG, which is rare for a shooter."

What exactly should you expect from the gameplay then? Look no further than SOCOM, Zipper's previous breakthrough series for PlayStation 2. "At the core, MAG and SOCOM are similar in that they're both squad-based military shooters," Heine admits. "Players already familiar with SOCOM will understand the importance of teamwork and have a set of skills, such as fire discipline, which translate over to MAG pretty well."

But as previously mentioned, it's a much bigger party this time-not to mention being a first-person shooter as opposed to SOCOM's third-person perspective. "MAG takes team based gameplay and elevates it," says Heine. "As seen in beta, most objectives are fiercely contested by full squads, and some level of teamwork is usually required to have any success with the objectives."

More specifically, you'll be destroying enemy bases, ordering commands on the fly with the d-pad, or engaging the front lines using standard first-person shooter controls. For a bird's-eye view of all 256 players on screen, you can hit the map button to survey individuals battles and assign new objectives our counterattacks.

Slower is better? First-person shooters are traditionally known for their quickness. Turn a corner. Bust a cap in some guy's melon. Move on. If it wasn't already obvious, MAG is not that kind of game.

Your deftness with a firearm is still required, and headshots are still present. Only here you'll need to plan your attack, since you'll be commanding or working with upwards of 127 teammates as your opponents do the same.

Aware of how daunting that task may initial seem to some, Zipper has prepared concentrated modes to acclimatise new comers. "If players aren't quite ready to deal with this many players or levels of leadership, we have other gametypes for 64 or 128 players," Heine reassures.

The irony here is that MAG's huge numbers will either make or break the game for some. Since users dictate pace, as opposed to the game itself, MAG plays slower than most. To put it nicely, methodical. As a result, enthusiast gamers seemingly aren't jamming the pre-order lines to play once the game debuts next month.

"For a shooter-based console game just six weeks prior to launch, MAG's popularity numbers are a little lower than desired," says Scott Mucci of GamerMetrics, which tracks interest levels and behaviour of some 46 million online gamers. In fairness, this could be because of a recently released juggernaut, Mucci adds.

"Fans of the shooter genre are most likely still focused on Modern Warfare 2," he offers, also noting that the highly anticipated Mass Effect 2 releases the same day.

Whatever the reasoning for the so-so anticipation, it's hard not to notice MAG's draw: filling spacious maps with 256 simultaneous players. MMO without the RPG. Or "massive action game"-take your pick.

Just don't blame me if you get stuck with a broken team.

MAG arrives Jan. 26 exclusively for PS3. The game is rated "Teen" and retails for $US40.

Blake Snow is a freelance writer from Crecente's neighbouring state of Utah. His curious work has appeared on MSNBC, the Wall Street Journal, and GamePro among others. He is currently reading Game Over by David Sheff and thinks you should too.


Comments

    I cant wait for the open beta next week, assuming that we get it down under.

    This sounds awesome, too bad it's not on 360. However I reckon it's best suited for the PS3's superior capabilities. MAG will be a contender for GOTY if the lag is negligible, the player base is decent and the squad combat works. Which it will, if you don't get dicks. On Live that would most likely happen, all the kids from MW2 would ruin the game.

    I really like the sound of this working together business, hopefully people will go for it. It will be so different to normal FPSs where even though you may have 64 players it can seem fairly solo, like the other players are just there to make more things happen on screen and give more targets for you to point a gun at.

    if only this was coming for the PC. This would be a real game changer!

    It sounds good but does it have destructable levels? Thats what I think makes a shooting game more realistic because alot of them dont, only Bad Company and Red Faction. It looks cool, I cant wait to try it. I heard it has its own pay subscription though.... :S

      There was a vague rumour of a possible pay-to-play, but I haven't heard anything about that in like a year and a half... I'd be shocked if that happened.

      And as far as I've seen, no destructible environments. But come on, 256 players! Think of the lag generated by telling each one of those consoles the status of each building on the (quite big) map area at all times. You can't have everything!

    This sounds amazing. My first thought when I heard about it a while back was "That's gotta be bad for lag", but if they can sort it out (Please, dedicated servers in Australia), it should be fantastic.

    I have no doubt that the 360 or PC could handle this just as well, but it gives me another reason to use my PS3, and from what I understand, Zipper will be given more freedom in terms of server structure than they would with the 360.

    Working together sounds great - I hope it works as advertised. There aren't too many games that really deliver on team based combat - one of the few I can think of is L4D.

    I'm really looking forward to seeing this in action. The potential for this kind of game has always been there with Battlefield, but it's really taking it to the next step.

      Actually, Zipper have said on a few occasions that they couldn't do this game on any other platform. Not even PC, because they'd have to account for differing hardware setups.

      And the system is arranged so that you get more points by following orders, even dumb ones, than you do by rambo-ing through. What's more, the orders are issued by guys more experienced with the game than you, so they're more likely to be meaningful. They've done their homework on how to make this many players co-exist happily.

        I don't know... I've encountered some real d*cks who have maxed out prestige mode on COD4 and highly ranked on MW2 as well. Just because they're "experienced" doesn't mean they're any better to play with. Just means they probably play too much :P

          But see, that's the thing - they give way more points to the squad leaders for getting things done too, so it's in their best interests to give you good orders. Each tier of leadership you go up means that your own success is tied to more of your teammates following orders successfully, so it is counterproductive to be a knob to your teammates - it's not worth the effort.

          It may still happen, but it's much less likely. In COD, the combination of killstreaks, camp-friendly maps and better unlockable weapons adds up to more experienced guys chewing noobs up and spitting them out - in MAG, each noob is assigned to a more skilled squad leader, who will have to keep the new guy scoring in order to do well himself. It's designed so that guys who like being douchebags won't be rewarded for their attitude.

    Yes, SVER FTW! :)

    Played in a couple of the beta rounds, and didn't notice any lag at all (playing in Australia against Americans, Brits & people from all over Europe). Unless something catastrophically messes with the net before it's released (say, a big filter ;) then this will work and work well.

    Also, I dig SVER because it's a faction you don't see in games too much...more eastern-European/Indian region make up with a freedom fighter vibe, as opposed to the regular marine type forces.

    i was in the first beta round. i was playing with nearly all americans but there was no noticeable lag. i loved the sniper rifles. they are very powerful as a sniper rifle should be, and they are a nice 1 shot kill. it was sweet! it is an awesome game and i cant wait till it drops. this is a launch buy for me. as for goty, nah i doubt it. its an online only game and they never do too well in the goty category. my 2010 goty pick is god of war 3. sony are finally starting to bring out some shit hot exclusives. 2010 is gonna be a damn good year for us. we already have 3 awesome exclusives listed and 2 of them are brand new ip. gow3, mag and heavy rain. the 360 can have its halo and gears. we have a real varied range of exclusives that really shine.
    i bought a 360 pretty much just for their exclusives and i just cant get into them.
    PS3 FTW!

    How did they manage 256 without lag? I bet most game devs will want to know this

    all i know is, beta here i come! its a 2gb download, more info here.

    http://blog.us.playstation.com/2009/12/mag-is-gold-beta-for-everyone-soon/

    The games that use the PS3 to its fullest seem to be wicked sick!

    This sounds great, especially if they can get the unity working, and remove the 'run in gunning' concept that most people work with in FPS games. Not that its their fault, with instant respawns, or even short delays and no penalties for deaths this is how FPS games play.

    However I think the platoon leader 'abilities' sounds a little cheesy. I personally would have tried to keep things kind of realistic but with a game twist. For instance perhaps enemies spotted by one group of soldiers would show on radar to other players, but only if the player was within range of their commander, simulating the concept of a group reporting recon information which is then passed on to platoon leaders.

    Having callouts in FPS games that are actually used properly would be good to. Things like 'enemy spotted' or 'need backupm.' Makes me wish I had a PS3.

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