Boasting an impressive feat of being able to play with up to 255 other players at the same time, MAG always looked impressive, at least in theory. Whether or not the gameplay would live up to the technical ability, however, was a different matter entirely.
The premise of MAG involves three Private Military Corporations vying over territory and contracts in what is known as the Shadow War. When a PMC gains control of a territory, they earn bonuses (nothing too unbalancing, stuff like getting five-percent extra experience) that act as an incentive, however small, to gaining control of territories.
When you first begin the game, you choose what PMC you wish you join: the anarchistic and low-tech S.V.E.R., the high-tech, inexperienced Raven, or the traditional military commandos of Valor. Equipment and skills are pretty much similar, meaning that whatever PMC you decide to join is pretty much up to what you want to do. And you had better make the right choice, because there's no changing factions (until you reach the maximum level, anyway), and you can only have one character. It's a little disappointing, but likely meant to inspire camaraderie in your fellow team members.
The first thing one realizes quickly while playing MAG is that it's not your typical online first-person shooter. Yeah, you run around and you shoot guys, fighting for locations and objectives, but the game is not about being an army of one, like other FPS titles. Sure, you can run in and try to capture the objective by yourself. You might even live for a little while before a small army of soldiers comes to destroy you.
What you need to realize is this is a game about armies, and armies work together to survive. To compensate with the fact that putting 256 players in an arena will typically result in mad chaos, MAG gives a support structure to provide order to the battlefield. Each level of command confers different abilities to those in the roles, and each has different responsibilities. For example, the lowest level of command is the squad leader. Their most important ability is that which allows them to specify objectives for their squad, such as defending a resupply point. As you go higher, however, more abilities are conferred, such as being able to call in airstrikes to litter the chosen area with explosives, perhaps weakening an enemy foothold before the troops rush in to capture it.
Objectives marked by officers of rank gain extra experience for those defending them, as well as giving the army some semblance of structure and cohesion. As you rise in ranks you gain greater battlefield-wide abilities, such as the ability to call in air strikes and attacks. Also, just by virtue of being near someone of rank, bonuses are conferred to players such as quicker reload speeds and improved damage resistance. Positions of power require you to gain a few levels before you can apply for them, and even then it's not guaranteed: you just tick a box saying you want to take a particular position, and hope that you get the rank.
When you first start the game, you're allowed to do a training run and a simple 32-vs-32 team deathmatch against your own faction to earn experience. As you level up, however, you unlock additional modes of play that allow you to fight over an increasing number of objectives. While each mode (four in total) have primary objectives for you to follow, generally there'll be secondary objectives that you either want to defend or destroy to make your fight easier. Taking out AA turrets, for example, will allow you and your team to get dropped in via chopper or plane closer to the battlefield, cutting down the amount of time you need to take to get back to the fight.
It's easy to see that in a game with this many players fighting at once, it's the players that really determine whether or not the game is going to be fun. Even more so in MAG because there are a severely limited number of maps to play on: one for each faction, in each mode. So if you're SVER and defending your location in Sabotage, for example, you're always going to be seeing the same run-down buildings and setting-sun sky. Valor has a different map, and so does Raven, but that's the only three maps you're going to see for Sabotage, so things can get a little repetitive.
But MAG isn't just about the maps you play on; it's about the people you play with, and those moments in battle, when you and your squad are working in tandem, and things are going perfectly. The mini-skirmishes that occur around the map, as each group fights for their own objectives. Not every person will be the same; with leveling up comes skill points that can be used to heal, do more damage, repair broken objectives, and increase your overall effectiveness in battle. And when groups of players with various skills are able to work successfully towards an objective, it can be an impressive thing. When 128 players on a single team are doing it, layer after layer of command doing its job, it's an amazing thing. Knowing that every shot you hear fired, every explosion you hear…explode, everything is not just some war-time ambient soundtrack, but actually happening on your very battlefield, that just makes things even better.
MAG is not for everyone. If you don't like a multiplayer-only console shooter, this probably isn't going to change your mind (though it might). Still, for what it means to do, it does very well. Delivering excellent multiplayer, squad-based gameplay with little to no lag (even with the full roster of participants playing), MAG is definitely for the fan of the online shooter.