I’ve said a few years ago that the future of gaming on the go, would be with augmented reality (AR) and back then, I had offered up some fine examples of games with great potential but little essence.
Now, but comes along Ingress, which brings along great promise.
Ingress is a massively multiplayer AR game where everyone with an Android smartphone could theoretically be your friend, or enemy. The premise is simple, some “portals” have been detected by some “scanners” and they can be conquered by either one of two factions by deploying resonators around them. The resonators “filter” something called Exotic Matter (XM) providing energy for the scanners to deploy items like portal shields, XMP bursters or resonators, which in turn gives the player experience points (AP) in order for him/her to level up and be able to deploy higher level items.
Portals can be anywhere given certain criteria as depicted here. Essentially, regardless of which city or town you live in around the world, you should be able to discover new portals rather easily, I’ve found so far that every church or library that I have submitted has been accepted, same thing for statues and other sculptures. Not accepted are municipal entities like water pumping stations or gated community entrances.
In Montreal, I’ve discovered various artifacts that I had no idea existed, for example a brass statue of a man with a laptop which is located around the corner from my office. In a way if you’re a tourist, you’ll want to play Ingress in whatever city you’re visiting.
That is pretty much all there is to the game. Plain, simple, vanilla.
Okay, maybe not THAT simple. The game is slightly more complex than I made it seem above. In fact it can be rather complex. For example, to maximize your AP gain at any given time, you’ll want to make combinations. Combinations mean that you’ll destroy the enemy resonators, capture the portal on your own, then create a link with another portal and lastly, make a field.
Portals can have up to 8 resonators, all the resonators must be from the same faction and there’s a specific amount of resonators that one player can deploy on one given resonator. For example, level one players can only deploy level one items so, beginning with an unclaimed portal (a gray portal) the level one guy is allowed to deploy 8 level one resonators and fill the portal to capacity, however, a level two player can deploy level one and two items BUT a portal can only have FOUR level two portals deployed at one time by one player which narrows down the possibilities and somewhat over-complicates the game.
This gets worse as you level up. At level 5 for example, I can only deploy TWO level 5 resonators per portal, but up to four level 4 resonators, which leaves two open resonators and lots of questions like, “WHY?”
Why ruin an otherwise perfectly good AR game?
Well, Google (the game developer) claims it’s to enrich the gaming experience by forcing people to meet in places and collaborate. While I understand this, I don’t quite agree. I’ve been playing for about three months now and apart from the people I’ve invited to the game myself, have not met anyone that plays the game in real life, there’s no real need.
What’s interesting about the game though is the way we discover, or rediscover areas of the town we had forgotten. Statues and other artifacts are rampant, and some go forgotten but not with Ingress. I’ve found two sculptures near my house that I had no idea even existed!
What about the game-play?
Well, calling Ingress a proper AR game is a bit of a stretch, there’s no use of the camera in real time so there’s no real AR other than what you imagine you see on the scanner map. The scanner map is poorly executed simply because of the lack of precision of some smartphones’ GPS systems. Often I’m standing right next to my buddy who also plays Ingress and our scanners show us as being across the street from each other.
Gameplay is slow as snails, ruling out any drive by sniping or quick captures. The scanners are slow to react and often you’ll find yourself within scanner range of a portal, ready to it (which doesn’t really do anything except give you random items) and as you press the button without moving, the scanner will “hic-up” and take you out of scanner range leaving you hanging like a feathered chicken on a damp November morning.
And then there’s the lack of depth.
Within one month of playing Ingress you’ve pretty much seen it all. They add items regularly but are now only up to about 10 items or so plus the weekly news video capsule we all get eventually. All of the people I know have 5-6 unwatched weekly news video capsules in our items list. What’s worse is that some items can be used against your own faction, I’ve witnessed one example where a virus was used by the Enlightened against an Enlightened portal which turned it into a Resistance portal.
And then there are the errors in the maps.
One of the criteria for new portals submission is that they must be accessible 24/7, or at least you’d expect that to be a criteria. Yet I have two examples of portals that are on private property with only partial access for short periods of time, one of which is on private property defended by a fence, security system and basically in a restricted area and to access it a gamer would need to actually break the law.
Other portals are mislabeled, misplaced or duplicated. Why are there two portals for the McCord Museum? Why does it see the JFK bust on the wrong side of the road? How can there by four portals in a minuscule area? It’s just silly.
I’m not saying the game is terrible, but it’s definitely flawed and that is probably the reason why it’s still in closed beta.
I’ve only tested Ingress on two phones: the Samsung S3 and HTC One. While it runs well on both, be prepared to take a hit on your battery. I’ve also tried it on a tablet but it’s obviously limited by the lack of 3G/LTE access and GPS on my specific model (Lenovo K1) so I didn’t get to test it for long enough to make a proper assessment.
All phones I’ve tried it on get egg boilingly warm as the game runs. It is a phenomenon that is widely reported in the game’s forums, and is to be expected. You should’ve seen how warm the S3 gets when playing the Iron Man 2 game…
How could the game be improved?
Implement a proper AR, using the GPS, camera and gyroscope allow the players to see portals, resonators, XM and items in real time. Develop more items, tweak the requirements for the amount of resonators deployed per level, improve battery usage, make the GPS more precise. That’s just off the top of my head, and I’m sure we can all agree on more improvements.
Ingress is still in closed beta (invitation only) but there are plenty of videos out there that show what it looks like. For now, and I hate giving a score to a closed beta version, all it deserves is a 6.5/10 at best. I’ve said the future is AR gaming, this is not it though. It’s not a bad game, but it’s not on par of something you’d expect from Google (Niantic Labs is the game developer but the game is mostly all Google.)
The not bad
-Can be fun at the beginning
-Allows you to discover or rediscover statues and other artifacts
-Great for tourists
-Scanner (GPS) is about as precise as any prediction by Nostradamus
-Hits your battery with a hammer then sets your phone on fire
-Leveling up actually diminishes your capacity to deploy high-level resonators.