mag 2Sony’s MAG is a very different kind of shooting game. When you step into the virtual battlefield of the persistent Shadow War in MAG, there are as many as 128 human-controlled enemy characters who will shoot you dead in a very short amount of time.

All told, 256 players can engage in first-person multiplayer-only combat in MAG, which launches today as an exclusive PlayStation 3 title. Sony’s Zipper Interactive game studio has been working on it for years, and it’s exciting to see a next-generation online game finally hit the market.

I played the final version of the game last night. In some ways, it is a very traditional shooting game experience, not unlike the massively popular Modern Warfare 2. While Activision Blizzard’s Modern Warfare 2 looks better, Sony is betting that the larger number of players in MAG will lead to a more interesting and organized battle experience. I played in games with 32 players on a side. Squads were organized into four teams with eight players each. Each squad has a commander who reports to a platoon leader, and so on. Hence, while Modern Warfare 2 is capped at 18 players, MAG allows you to have an entire command structure.

The PlayStation Network worked just fine while I played for a few short rounds. The stability of a network with so many players is what holds everyone else from trying such massive, fast-action onine games. But Sony is confident it can keep up with the network strain, no matter how big MAG (which originally meant Massive Action Game) becomes.

mag 1As I noted in our preview story, MAG is an experiment in group psychology. A player can be a lone wolf, but the test is whether more organized play will result in a tactical advantage. So far, playing with a headset is helpful. In one round, my team kept shouting to each other for someone to take out a sniper on a distant roof. Eventually, one of our own snipers complied and took the enemy out. Also, players who take on the role of medics can heal you as you bleed to death on the battlefield.

This game is a flagship title for Zipper Interactive, the Redmond, Wash.-based game studio owned by Sony and the maker of the SOCOM: US Navy Seals series of combat games. It’s also important for Sony to show that it can create games for its PlayStation Network that are superior in ways to games on Microsoft’s Xbox Live online game service for the Xbox 360.

The MAG game is set in 2025, where there is official “world peace” between nations but private corporations wage war against each other in the global economy. There are three different private corporate armies you can choose to play. Valor Company is comprised of former U.S. and U.K. special forces soldiers. SVER (pronounced “sever”) has soldiers from the downtrodden states of Asia and Eastern Europe. While the Raven Industries faction has high-tech Western European gear but is the least battle hardened.

Seth Luisi, design director at Sony, told us in the fall that one of the technological tricks it has learned is cool. It’s hard to track so many moving objects at once; but each character only sees a few things moving around at a time, so the game itself only updates data on moving objects that are within a given character’s view point.

I had to download a big update for the game before I started. But I created my own character within minutes. There are 10 different character faces you can choose from. Then I went through a short training course and then jumped right into a game.

It’s truly impressive when you move into an overhead view of the battlefield and see all of the blue or red dots moving around, each of them an individual soldier played by a real human. I used a Freetalk Everyman universal serial bus headset for Skype so that I could listen and talk during the online play. The sound quality was surprisingly good for an online game. I could hear my cohorts talk, though there was no one in command in the rounds I played.

With MAG, the battles can take on a much larger scale and even require organized strategy. For instance, players need to capture certain strongpoints on a map in order to move closer to victory. They can fire artillery barrages at the enemy, prompting air strikes against the artillery from the other side. But the air strikes won’t be effective unless the infantry advances and takes out the other side’s antiaircraft missiles. If the infantry advances far enough, then reinforcements can spawn closer to the action and make resupply easier. These actions require so much strategy that it means that the soldiers and the squads that they belong to have to be guided by smart human commanders.

The character outfits are customizable. You can decorate your character and it shows up inside the game. You can create five “loadouts,” or collections of gear that your soldier can use in different combat situations. You can create a loadout for a medic, for instance, or a sniper. You can arm yourself for close combat, electronics hacking, marksmanship, heavy support, or explosives — whatever you want.

If you choose heavy weaponry, you have more firepower, but you’ll move slower. You get to spend a fixed number of points tricking out the character; that equalizes the game since everybody gets equal treatment. This is all fairly standard in multiplayer combat. If you work your way up to level 15, you can become a squad leader, who can be in charge of eight soldiers at a time. As a squad leader, you can assign objectives to your players and give them a leadership bonus in the fighting when you are near them. You can gain double experience points if you fight as a group. That’s one of the things the game designers have done to avoid a free-for-all Lord of the Flies environment.

At 350 leadership points, you can become a platoon leader, in charge of four squads, or 32 soldiers. The highest rank is Officer in Charge, who can lead 128 soldiers. In the beta, there were six maps available, but in the final game, there are five play modes and 15 maps. You can also take time to train while offline in the final game.

There are vehicles in the game which you can control, such as an armored personnel carrier. If you move the vehicle around on the map, it can become a mobile spawn point, which means it’s the place where soldiers respawn after they die.

Your character advances based on experience points. If you level up enough, you can create your own clan, a kind of virtual posse of players who fight together. You can unlock goodies that help you fight better, such as a gun grip that gives you better aim. At any given time during the action, you can look up stats on which side is winning and who has the most kills.

I’ve been playing a lot of Modern Warfare 2 multiplayer lately. So my shooting skills are probably more advanced than the average neophyte. By the third game that I played on MAG, I managed to get eight kills and die only nine times. We’ll see if I can actually get much better. Leveling up is fast; after just a few rounds, I was ranked at No. 3 in the game’s hierarchy of experience.

I’d like to hear some feedback about how this game experience evolves as players level up and become high-ranking commanders. For now, kudos to Sony for doing a game that no one else has been willing to do.