Wednesday 19 December 2018

Review: Google's Ingress makes every day a glorious battle

World Map during Jarvis Shards event
World Map during Jarvis Shards event
Game screen showing The Enlightened portal

Frank Whelan

Companies have been trying to crack the augmented reality game for some time, but it looks like Google's Niantic Labs may be the ones to finally deliver an immersive experience.

Featuring a science fiction back story and a continuous open narrative, Ingress places the player in the middle of a global war. Available on Android and iOS, the game is installed on your mobile device and uses your location and Google Maps data to generate the game.

"Exotic Matter" (XM) is leaking into the world from alien parts unknown, resulting in two opposing ideologies. The first order of business is to choose a side: The Enlightened or the Resistance. The Enlightened believe they can use the XM to bring about the next stage of human evolution, while The Resistance believe they're trying to preserve humanity's freedom.

I'm not sure what it says about Ireland, but while The Resistance are winning the global fight, the island is firmly in the grips of The Enlightened. Must be that Isle of Saints and Scholars legacy rubbing off, the place is mad for enlightenment.

Portals are the key to the game, generated on real world landmarks and places of interest. Each faction tries to control and then defend these portals. A green glow for The Enlightened, blue for The Resistance and grey when unclaimed.

Once a faction captures a portal, they can defend it by placing various "resonators" and upgrade it using "mods." In order to capture the portal, the opposing side needs to first destroy the resonators.

My first ten minutes playing the game were horribly confusing. There's a lot going on and because so many elements are location based, you can't instantly perform all the actions. Sitting in the offices, the nearest portal was just out of reach, so the game was little more than a cool futuristic map overlay.

The revelation came once I booted the game up at home. Local landmarks of little or no importance were now portals and oddest of all, they were actually captured. Dublin City was a hive of activity, somewhat daunting to a new player, but once I found the game continuing out in the suburbs, I was hooked.

All of the players are humans, so you begin questioning who is in the game. Is there an enemy agent in my office? Is my neighbour an unknown ally? The game actually inspired me to take a ramble around the housing estate to find a nearby portal in a flowerbed.

This morning, my bus ride to work was a non-stop battle and it became clear that the bus routes are the real front lines of the cyber carnage. Portals with a number of bus routes were built-up fortresses, while some slightly further away from the roads were still unclaimed. Along the route I hacked portals, built resonators and took a beating. The Irish Times building actually destroyed my scanner when I tried to hack it, but nobody on the bus realised the comedy value.

The game really promotes teamwork. In order to properly defend a portal, eight players need to work together to place the most powerful resonators. Likewise, a co-ordinated attack is the only way to effectively shift an enemy stronghold.

Usernames help put a face (albeit anonymous) to players. I now consider a "MissyH" to be my Dublin nemesis and "RobotApeThreat" to be a jolly good chap.

Game screen showing The Enlightened portal
Game screen showing The Enlightened portal

So far I haven't got to grips with the storyline elements, but they're there for players who want full role-playing immersion. The developers have taken a multimedia approach to narrative, with emails, in-game notifiers and videos filling in the gaps.

Special events called "Anomalies" occur from time to time and allow Niantic Labs to mark keypoints in an area's game. Anomalies see players try to control clusters of portals over a designated time, with the outcome affecting the game narrative.

The iOS release took place on the 14th of July, so the game is still young enough to jump right in without feeling out of your depth, although I would recommend following the tutorials straight away.  I'm only a day in, but the real world element and human combatants make this game fun and possibly extremely addictive.


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