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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It's suddenly very quiet. I'm lying prone in the high grass with a scoped ATAC 2000, ready to pop up and nail any enemies foolish enough to try to come and clear my charges from their AA battery. We've been lucky so far: Only a couple minutes in and we've already taken down their bunkers, forcing them to spawn all the way back in their main base. If we can successfully keep the bad guys away from the AA, our drop planes will be free to buzz the battlefield -- meaning we'll be able to parachute onto the middle of the map rather than slogging in from the distant edge.
But it's now unpleasantly quiet around here, meaning either the enemy hasn't noticed that the icon for their AA is suddenly flashing blue and red -- which is, let's face it, unlikely -- or they're preparing a stealthy and/or well-coordinated attack to clear those charges... or at the very least, repair the damage once they go off. And possibly take back their bunkers as well. This would be bad.
Then all hell breaks loose, and a wave of red dots is suddenly swarming on the mini-map: They've chosen Option B, and they've done a really good job of setting up a surprise attack. I'd admire the enemy commander's skill if I had the time, but suddenly I'm down, with no living medic within saving distance, and I'll be damned: They managed to get to the charges just in time. This does not bode well for the rest of the match.
This kind of thing happens a lot in MAG, though. Not the too-quiet part -- battlefields of 64, 128, or 256 players tend to generate a fair amount of noise. I mean the all-hell-breaking-loose part, the tide-turning part, the part where a large team, working well together and staying in constant communication, demolishes a less organized opposition. Being a part of that (hell, even seeing it from the other side, sometimes) is exciting. Actually orchestrating such a thing is exhilarating. It's clear that this is the kind of experience MAG was designed for: these moments where leadership, teamwork, and skill come together as an unstoppable force.
Too bad it rarely happens.
That's not for MAG's lack of trying. The game does a fantastic job of making the tools of leadership and communication simple, accessible, and manageable. Commanders can easily hop into a wonderfully detailed overhead map to designate targets, call in tactical strikes, and keep an eye on the position of any enemy within sight of teammates or recon vehicles. A leader can select any feature on the map and the game will immediately send out orders to everyone in the squad, dropping a nice, big, flashing icon on everyone's heads-up display. (If you're more of a hands-on leader, you can do the same thing on the ground just by aiming at a target and fiddling with the d-pad.) As motivation for following orders, your squad earns double experience while within range of your target, points which players use to upgrade weapons, unlock new abilities, and level up toward a command of their own. The game also awards generous XP for team-based support roles like healing, reviving, and repairing; in fact, you earn twice as many points for resurrecting a teammate as you do for executing an opponent.
So the game is actually quite elegantly set up to encourage teamwork, to reward both leaders and grunts for working toward mission objectives, and draw teams together in mutually beneficial relationships. But here's the unfortunate truth about MAG: Plenty of players simply do not care. They're happy to run around, beef up their kill counts, die in a blaze of glory, and do it again.
That wouldn't be a problem, except for this: More than any other team-based game I've ever played, the quality of any one player's experience is tightly and directly related to the commitment of his or her teammates. End up with a clueless, inexperienced, or just completely apathetic squad leader and you'll be miserable, vainly trying to hold your own in a field of hundreds while an organised enemy mows through your ranks. (It certainly doesn't help that the game offers almost nothing in the way of training for commanding officers.)
Get stuck with teammates who don't follow the squad leader's guidance and it's the same story: a handful of experienced players trying to do the right thing, while everyone else runs around in circles or -- more commonly -- hangs within 10 feet of their starting location and tries to snipe the enemy. And if you think it's bad being on a team with a bunch of run-and-gun lone wolves, try being their commander. I have had more frustrating game experiences than I had watching my squad wander around aimlessly, blatantly ignoring my orders as squad leader but not many.
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