crest_raven.jpg[“The Blue Key” is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch exclusive column from Connor Cleary that explores the wide arena of gamer culture – where it's been, where it is now, and where it might be going. In this piece, he takes a look at the mixed-bag MMOFPS MAG and Zipper's attempt to reinvent the title.]

In January of this year, Zipper Interactive released the ambitious PlayStation 3 exclusive multiplayer action title MAG to mixed reviews. Some applauded the teamwork mechanics and the epic scale – up to 256 players in a single battle, while some focused on the fairly numerous negative points.

These included obvious compromises to technological limitations imposed by squeezing so many players into a single game; the top-heavy leveling system that puts new players at a maddening disadvantage; unbalanced level designs that often give one team a huge advantage; and a surprising number of glitches that weren't patched before launch despite a lengthy beta-testing cycle.

Despite the many valid complaints, MAG still managed to get scores ranging from decent to excellent across the board; according to Metacritic it received a Metascore of 76 (out of 100) from their compiled critical reviews, and an 8.3 out of 10 from Metacritic users.

Keeping Your Community Happy and Healthy

Even though MAG feels like a fairly generic game on the surface, it does have a hard-to-pinpoint appeal that keeps me coming back for more. Somewhere between the Stonewall and Steamroll matches that occur so frequently, you occasionally get a Superbowl-esque struggle of epic proportions, and win or lose, you feel like a stadium full of people should be cheering for you and your squad. It's exhilarating.

But one of the complaints I kept hearing from other players, a few months after launch, was the lack of variety. On one of three factions – or “PMCs” – you have roughly 22 starting positions spread over 12 maps and 4 game types.

Many players felt like this wasn't enough, especially considering the fact that MAG has no single-player experience whatsoever. The total number of players online at any given time took a sharp downturn a couple months after launch, and many players wondered what was going to become of their $60 purchase if the community abandoned it.

When word got around that a brand new game-type was in the works, many players shared my feeling that the new DLC should be free. Free DLC would undoubtedly reinvigorate the community while helping to maintain an active core of players, the thinking went.

Granted, at that point Zipper had already released a few small additions that were free to download – new armor types, flashbang grenades, and a few slightly-altered weapons – but this was nothing too groundbreaking or exciting. So in June, when the “Interdiction” game-type debuted on the PlayStation Store for $9.99, the server numbers plummeted and have yet to recover since.

I think the community felt betrayed. The players knew instinctively that the continued success of the game was entirely tied to the happiness and continued loyalty of the online community. If the servers went silent, Zipper would not be selling any more copies of MAG.

crest_sver.jpgThe Attempted Resurrection

On September 30th 2010, Zipper released a huge update in the form of MAG 2.0. This update got some things so right and some things so very wrong. The back-end game mechanics were completely reinvented, for the better in some ways, but also in other that merely exacerbated pre-existing problems.

Having the option to specialize in various combat roles has always been one of MAG's strong suits. A player who might not be the best shooter can still be a huge help to their squad by specializing in field support, such as repair and medic roles, while a player who has gotten good at sneaking around can turn themselves into Solid Snake with increased stealth, motion sensors, etc.

This aspect of the game has been made far more complex in the best way. You can now go far deeper into any of these roles than was originally possible, plus take advantage of new specialization options like vehicle and explosives expert. This has added far greater complexity to the game's teamwork element, and a far greater necessity to having variation in your squad.

However, this also means that the best fighters will become vastly overpowered by the time they reach level 70. Start with three levels of increased health, knife damage, movement speed, stamina recovery, weapon-swap speed, add in decreased reload time and explosives arming and throw in stealth equipment and/or a motion sensor and you've got an unstoppable beast – the bane of low-level players. It is somewhat unavoidable that an MMOFPS with persistent character levels and bonuses would be a little top-heavy, but MAG 2.0 took a game that was already noticeably top-heavy and pushed the problem to a new level.

Next, the double-edged sword “Clan Deploy.” This new feature allows clan leaders and officers to fill entire 128-man armies in a single game with only clan members, whereas previously you could only create groups of up to 8 people and fill a single squad in a match.

This is great when you want to be sure that your team is going to work together – it's no surprise that clans are far more cooperative than groups of random strangers – however, it also exacerbates the already too-frequent occurrence of a severe skill disparity between the two armies. If one side is filled with clan members, and the other is a random jumble of players, you're almost certainly looking at a Stonewall or Steamroll.

Shifting to another positive note, MAG 2.0 separated the acquisition of weapons from the acquisition of skills. Equipment is now obtainable based on character level and “Currency Points," which means your hard-earned skill points are spent on persistent buffs rather than weapons you may never use. Players also have vastly increased flexibility in the various equipment set-ups they can create, making them a more dynamic asset to their team.

The last addition, as far as I'm concerned, is the most brilliant thing Zipper has done yet with MAG. In an attempt to stoke dwindling enthusiasm for the game, Zipper often threw “Double XP Weekends,” and every time they did there was a noticeable jump in the server-numbers. So Zipper learned from this experience and added the permanent “Happy Hour” feature to the game. This means you get double-experience for the first hour you spend online every day. This feature definitely has the potential to resurrect a slowly dying fan-base, and ensure regular play-time investment from casual fans.

crest_valor.jpgMAG 2.0 felt like getting a new game, but all of the excitement associated with that was marred by severe technical difficulties. I hopped on regularly for several days after the patch only to find that I was lucky if I got to play through a single full match without my PS3 freezing.

When a freeze happens, you have no choice but to do a hard shutdown of your system with the power button. Even if you were one of the lucky ones who didn't freeze, it wasn't uncommon for half of your team to freeze and drop out, leaving you severely outnumbered. On one occasion my system froze three matches in a row. After this happened, I was fed up and I quit playing, unsure whether I ever wanted to play again.

Too Little Too Late?

On October 13th, Zipper released patch 2.01 which they claimed (note entirely truthfully) has fixed all the freezing issues. Granted, the game is significantly more stable, but even so, I have a feeling the damage is already done. MAG has a history of being quite glitchy, and I wouldn't be surprised if many other players had the same “last straw” experience.

Unlike a game with a strong single-player experience, where the company already has my money and probably wouldn't worry much to lose a few online players, the continued sale of MAG absolutely depends on the happiness of its community.

MAG was an interesting experiment in exploring a new type of game, but despite the many good moves by Zipper, there may have been one too many wrong turns for some gamers. Only time will tell what the impact of the recently debuted and highly anticipated “Escalation” game-type will be, since it's the first game type to include battles between all three factions.

Given the current state of MAG, I cannot recommend that anyone run out and buy it at full price. However, if you already own a copy, then 2.01 -- and a further 2.02 crash fix -- definitely makes it worth giving MAG another shot. And who knows? Maybe Zipper can turn it around and make it worth recommending to friends again some day soon.

[UPDATE: This column had previously stated it was necessary to purchase the game's DLC in order to earn its Platinum trophy.

Zipper community specialist Chris Roper says: "This is false. No DLC for the PlayStation 3 increases the requirements to earn the Platinum trophy associated with said game. You’d need to earn the DLC trophies to show a 100% trophy percentage in your games list, but the Platinum is still awarded when you acquire all of the base game’s trophies."]