After eight hours of working my way up the Valor ranks and unlocking the 256-player Domination mode, my first order of business was to pull up the map screen to get a sense of what I was stepping into. I was fully expecting to see a flurry of movement over a large area, but the sheer amount of activity still surprised me. Clusters of blue dots swarmed around red objectives across a massive map in a singular effort to take down an enemy facility. It's then that I realized how rewarding MAG could be when people are working together, and how much it can fall apart when they're focused on individual achievements. For fans of highly-organized tactical shooters, playing with 127 like-minded teammates is an experience no FPS to date has offered. Those who would rather work on their personal kill to death ratio are making things harder for themselves as well as bringing down the experience for hundreds of other gamers
The most impressive aspect of MAG is how well it fulfills its promise of 256-player online gameplay. Lag rears its head from time to time, but no more than in multiplayer FPS games of a much smaller scale. It's organized in a smart manner, giving squad leaders and commanding officers easy access to the various orders they can issue. Once you're eligible for a squad leader position, it only takes a couple button presses to paint an air strike location or point your team toward a specific objective.
Your character improves as you work your way up through the ranks, earning skill points to unlock new abilities and weapons. Unlike Modern Warfare 2, you aren't limited to a set number of perks or upgrades at one time. Because of this, players of a higher level have an absurd advantage over those just starting out, with dozens of upgrades and abilities to give them an edge.
Many multiplayer FPS titles give you plenty of XP simply for participating in matches, but you must earn your stripes in MAG. Perform poorly in a match and you'll have spent a good half hour earning next to nothing. This works in MAG's favor, however, as commanders and squad leaders must to earn the ability to apply for the position through playing well rather than simply playing often. Its mechanics and controls don't hold your hand either, they're just as skill-based as the ranking system. Don't expect auto-aim or any other form of assistance to help you when that Raven commando is charging you with guns blazing, it's all up to you and your reflexes.
Playing a game with over 200 people sounds overwhelming, but the gameplay is compartmentalized into local skirmishes. Your 128-person team is split into four platoons, with each platoon being home to four eight-player squads. Each team of eight is responsible for tackling a particular objective that contributes to the overall endgame (i.e. "Destroy the S.V.E.R. facility"). Whether you're securing cooling towers or taking down anti-aircraft guns, each squad acts as a small but vital part of the overall mission. You may not get the full scope of the battle at first, but a quick glance at the map screen will show you just how many things are happening at once.
Choosing which faction to align yourself with is a much bigger decision in MAG than in other titles of its kind. When you select Raven, Valor, or S.V.E.R. at the outset of the game, you're pledging your alliance to them unconditionally for the foreseeable future. Raven features high-tech, almost futuristic weaponry, S.V.E.R. is more of a ragtag insurgent force, and Valor falls in the middle in terms of abilities and weaponry. If your faction is performing extremely well in one game type, they're granted the contract for it, resulting in XP bonuses and other rewards. Be sure that you and your friends are on the same page when you pick your side, because you won't be able to play together if you belong to different factions.
How much fun you have in MAG is directly tied to the people you're playing with. If you're with a squad where everyone is communicating intelligently with each other, it can be a blast. Unfortunately, anyone who has ever played an online FPS knows that these sessions are the exception rather than the rule. Even on the rare occasion that you're with a strategic, team-focused squad, there's no guarantee the other squads on your side are doing the same. Your squad could be doing everything right in an effort to win the match, but if every other squad is filled with run-and-gun idiots off doing their own thing, it won’t matter. A 30-minute match can seem like an eternity if your team isn't working together and you have no forward spawn points. When this is the case, the game devolves into a tiresome "run for a while, get shot, wait for respawn, and repeat" sequence the majority of the match.
Visual and audio sacrifices were clearly made to accommodate 256 players to the point that the entire experience lacks the visceral impact that its peers offer. Rockets explode into unimpressive puffs of smoke with hardly a sound effect, and revived players go from lying to standing with no transitional animation.
MAG’s player count is an impressive technical achievement, but the game world feels oddly mechanical. Outside of the high player count, the uninspired world fails to stand out from the pack. If every gameplay mechanic were kept intact and shrunk down to a 16- or 32-player game, MAG would be an experience as generic as its title.