Ingress is Google's new MMO augmented reality game, built on the mysterious Niantic Project. The world is filled with mythology and backstory, and the game itself is surprisingly deep for a mobile offering. We spent yesterday playing, and we've got impressions for you. A couple days ago, when the game was first released in closed-beta, we gave an overview of it
, and we have to say, it has some issues, but it doesn't disappoint in real-life play.
First off, it needs to be mentioned that playing this game is a severe burden on your phone's battery (at least if you play for extended periods.) In testing
yesterday, we played for about 4 hours, and needed to stop to charge up twice (as you can see in the image on the right). The combination of a nearly constantly-on screen, and constantly polling GPS, and constant data stream can do that to a phone battery. So, if you're planning on playing for an extended time, try to off-load the work to a tablet, or bring an extra battery.
As we said, the game comes with a pretty in-depth story, but as yet the majority of that you'll have to gather through the Niantic Project website, because the game doesn't do a lot to give you context. The training mission explains that there are beings called Shapers, who are coming through Portals, and Portals are also spots to gain Exotic Matter (XM) and resources. The first trouble with the game is that the lack of context makes for a somewhat random decision to either join the Resistance or the Enlightenment, to either fight the Shapers, or work with them, respectively. It would help for more info on who the Shapers are or what they are doing before making that decision, because the decision does seem to be permanent.
The game has the futuristic TRON-like UI with dark backgrounds and blue outlines. The game itself looks nice, but it can be a bit awkward at first if you're not used to reading maps blind. The in-game maps don't have street names, so if you're in an unfamiliar area, you may find it odd to follow where you need to go, but over time you get used to it.
One thing that is odd is that there are no links in the game to all of the web content that Google has put together. There is no mention of or link to the Niantic Project website, or any of the backstory elements. There is no mention of the web based Intel site, which allows you to get a broader view of the game. And, there are no links to the Google Groups dedicated to helping build the community of the factions around the world. The only pieces of the story that come within the game seem to be from picking up documents at Portal sites, but this doesn't add much.
The sound is surprisingly good, although mostly it just adds to the ambiance of it. There is something quite nice about playing this game at night. You almost start to feel like a real covert operative, especially with the running Comm feed with broadcasts coming from around the world. Although the Comm feed can be filtered to just show your faction, and broadcasts within a certain radius.
The menus are easy to navigate, and offer easy access to resources you've picked up, a running total of how much of the world is under control by the Resistance and Enlightenment, and settings. There is also a "Recruit" section, although right now it doesn't look like Google is giving out invites to active players. The most interesting section is the "Mission" section, which right now it only has the training missions, but it is an area that could quite easily be updated with story-based missions as the game progresses.
Even in just 4 hours of playing we can see the evolution that will happen in the gameplay over time, and it looks to be quite impressive. The early game is all about claiming Portals for your faction, and creating new Portals. While there will be a ton of Portals already created in major metropolitan areas, but even just getting into the suburbs the Portals become fewer. But, a nice option is that users can suggest new Portals by snapping a picture, and using the new option in the Android Share menu for Ingress to e-mail the new location for approval.
Claiming a new Portal is as simple as placing a single Resonator on it, but the more Resonators, the more difficult it will be for the opposing faction to steal, because you need to destroy all Resonators and place your own to steal a Portal. Early in the game, this can be relatively easy, but the game still encourages cooperation.
To fully control a Portal, and be able to link Portals together, each Portal needs eight Resonators. Given the relative scarcity of resources, this is far easier to do if you wander around with friends. For example, on a lone mission, we were able to capture many Portals in downtown Boston, but could only make a few links. And, links are more time consuming because each you need a Portal Key for each Portal you are linking to, meaning that you would have to travel back and forth if you're alone. However, around MIT in Cambridge (where we assume a group of engineering students
played together), by the end of yesterday almost all the Portals in the area had been linked.
So, the first section of the game, which may well be done by the time many of you get an invite to the game, is to travel around, gather resources, capture Portal sites, and link them up, because the area/population covered by linked Portals adds to your faction's control total. After that is done, the game moves into the second stage, which is all about maintaining Portals, building up Portals, and attacking and stealing opposing Portals. Again this can be done to a certain extent by lone agents, but obviously, if you gather in a group, it is much easier to steal Portals from the opposition. So, the game starts with the gathering, and progresses into a much more strategy-based game, where you have to be careful how you build up Portals, and what you consider to be key locations that deserve the best load-outs.
Overall, the gameplay works well, but the big issue is the same that you'll find with GPS in any big city: accuracy. Walking around in the Financial District of Boston, surrounded by tall buildings, the GPS signal would bounce around and make it difficult to interact with a Portal, because your location on the map will continually shift and move. In more open areas, it isn't an issue, but if you're trying to take over a denser area, it may require a good amount of patience and walking back and forth.
This could have easily been a game that ended after stage one, and just be a mobile gathering mission, like many AR games, but this game is trying (and succeeding) to be more. The game gives you the reason to wander around an area, but beyond that you can learn about the area that you are in, because each Portal is a famous spot. On our testing run, we saw most of the spots on the Boston Freedom Trail, and some extras like the "birthplace of the telephone", art installations, and quality places for food and lodging. The game can be quite a tour guide.
The game is solid, and looks like it has the potential to keep evolving. It is ambitious, which is key, but it needs a bit more organization. Right now, a lot of the web resources are too separate from the game itself, which means players have to actively seek out the story behind the game, and the story is some of the best stuff. If you're planning to play Ingress, please make sure you check through the online bits.
We can't really call this a game review, both because of the limited time to test, and because the game is in such early stages. MMOs take time, players, and community to take off. This early in beta, Ingress has a small but dedicated user-base (including us), and the game really hits on many points. We can't wait to see what plans Google has moving forward.