Crispy Gamer

E3 2009: The Five: MAG

The Skinny: Zipper Interactive (the team behind the popular SOCOM series) takes squad-based tactical shooting to the furthest possible conclusion -- a massively multiplayer game that hosts up to 256 players. Here's what you need to know about MAG:

1. There's really only one way to keep soldiers in line -- tie them together with the chain of command. That's how MAG keeps its massive battlefields from devolving into chaos. Players who stay in the game earn ranks, eventually giving them the power to command squads, platoons and eventually an entire company. Those who don't want the responsibility can turn down promotions and stick to the trenches.

E3 2009: The Five: MAG

2. Once somebody is in charge, how the heck are they going to get their squad to follow orders? Half the half-baked online players won't even have their headsets on, right? MAG's solution to the communication problem is clever. Squad leaders set targets for their team. These goals show up as big, on-screen icons. Even a stoned grunt can follow these instructions.

3. Sometimes a big, shiny arrow just isn't enough. Experience points are the final variable in MAG's teamwork formula. Players who score frags within a certain distance of their goal will earn extra XP. Those who successfully plant a bomb or defend a base will earn massive experience rewards as well.

E3 2009: The Five: MAG

4. If anything, the MAG heads-up-display feels overcrowded with alerts, call signs and icons. That's because there's a lot of information to digest in the heat of battle. MAG takes the utilitarian approach to the HUD -- a welcome antidote to recent games that aim for the clean, immersive and hyperreal without regard for usability.

5. Still, the question remains: Can a massively online shooter work? MAG shows some innovative thinking when it comes to voice chat and command, but it'll be the servers that make or break the game. Luckily, MAG will undergo a public beta -- the perfect opportunity to learn whether Zipper Interactive's storied networking innovations are enough to conquer the enemy of all online gamers -- lag.

The Verdict: Massive battles are fun, so long as lag and other players don't cause massive headaches.

This preview is based on a hands-on demo of the game at E3 2009.