If you've been paying attention to the news cycle lately, you've probably heard that Google—by way of the obscure "Niantic Labs"—released a game of some kind. You saw a trailer that depicted people discovering hidden energy fields within statues, landmarks, and artistic sculptures. You had no idea what was going on. You signed up for an invite anyway, because like any other weird Google product, you want in regardless of what it is. Well, I got my invite a couple days ago, and I'm happy to tell you, it's absolutely worth it.
To say that Ingress is amazing would be an understatement. While it seems like a relatively simple concept, and perhaps even downright common to players of MMORPGs, it's something that could only be done by Google, and goes far beyond simply a game. The point of Ingress is to get you out of the house and exploring your city. It's trying to get you to interact with strangers who have similar interests, and ultimately, to embrace creativity and curiosity. And it does so without being boring, or forcing you to do a lot of reading or homework. All Ingress does is get you to go places. From there, it's up to you.
From here on out, there will be spoilers. Now, there's not much in the way of plot that I've discovered yet, but for me, part of the fun was the whole "What the hell is going on?" factor. If you watched the trailer video, were utterly confused by what you were watching and wanted to, like the people in the video, discover this parallel world by hitting the streets with your phone in hand, proceed carefully.
A Word On 'Augmented Reality'
To begin with, I want to talk about the definition of "augmented reality." It seems that developers of all shapes and sizes can sometimes lose sight of what AR is supposed to mean. Here's what it's not: putting some cartoony overlays on top of a camera feed for no reason. The word "augment" means to "make something greater by adding to it." Some things do this very well. Others don't do much beyond make things float over your camera feed. This is lame.
I'm going to come back to this point at the end of the review, because I think an argument could be made that Ingress does more to improve upon the world you're looking at without using a superfluous overlay on a camera feed than most apps that do.
'You Just Have To Know Where To Look And Know What You're Seeing'
Left: An unclaimed portal. Center: Action screen for interacting with a portal. Right: A Resistance portal with one L1 resonator.
Once you start up Ingress for the first time, you'll be taken through a series of training exercises. You'll learn a number of things, but here are the basics: there are portals scattered around the world. Your job is to find them and 'hack' them. You do this by getting within range of said portal, selecting it, and tapping 'hack' in the options. Most actions are achieved via this same menu and similarly require you to be near your target.
Once the initial hacking is done, you can acquire a variety of items, including a Portal Key (more on that in a bit), resonators, and a few other things we'll get to later. Resonators are the big ones. You need to equip each portal with eight resonators in order to connect it to others. The point of the game is to create "fields" out of three or more portals your faction controls that form the perimeter of an area under your protection.
It seems a little daunting at first, but the training exercises will walk you through it all. Once you're in-game and ready to get started, there will also be some people around to help. Speaking of which...
'I Know There Are Others Out There'
Part of the appeal of this game is that it is entirely social. You're not just playing with a group of your friends, or people in your neighborhood. This is a single, world-wide game where everyone is participating. If you've ever spent any time with an MMO, you're probably familiar with this concept, though even there, more often than not, you're separated by different servers. Here, if you've opened up Ingress, you're on with everyone.
The slider allows you to set your range, though the practicality of certain levels is debatable.
The chat function is actually rather odd and somewhat difficult to use. There is a sliding scale that allows you to view messages on a local (20km), regional (200km), or global (infinite) range. Additionally, you can broadcast to everyone playing the game, or just your faction (more on that in a bit, again). The advantage here is that you can work together with people from all over your city, state, or country. The downside is you can never really be entirely sure who you're talking to.
Coordination is certainly possible, though between the low volume of users in some areas, and the fact that some people may never see your message if they're not looking at the right range, it's a bit of a crapshoot. Direct messaging would go a long way here, though, understandably, Google hasn't really made it very easy to find out more information about your fellow agents.
Or your enemies.
'I Must Be Prepared To Work With Them, Or Fight Them'
Remember when I mentioned that you can limit your interactions to members of just your faction? Well, I suppose I should mention, there are two factions in this game: the Resistance and the Enlightened. You see, these portals are being opened by someone or something. This entity or group of invaders have been designated as 'Shapers', and they're trying to enter our world. The Enlightened want to help them. They believe that the Shapers will bring mankind into a new, more evolved era. The Resistance believes the Shapers are attempting to invade and fight to save humanity. The choice of which side to join is up to you.
Before you begin playing, you have to choose one side or the other. I'd say "choose carefully", but there's really not much distinction between the two in practical terms. You're just picking teams. The game seemed to be weighted a bit towards the Resistance when I first started, based on 'mind units' claimed (this is the amount of the population under the protection/control of fields owned by a faction). When I began, the split was roughly 66%/33% in favor of the Resistance, but has since leveled out to 52%48% in favor of the same. This doesn't indicate the strength of your team, but it does seem to imply you shouldn't spend too much time worrying you chose the "wrong" team. Just choose based on which narrative you prefer.
Once you've selected your faction, the game is on. While exploring your city, you will inevitably come across three types of portals: friendly portals you can build on, enemy portals you can attack, and unclaimed portals you can add to your side. Hacking portals is the primary way to acquire the items you'll need in order to attack, claim, and reinforce your strongholds. You can hack any portal, though the likelihood you'll get anything good out of it will be determined by who owns it (for example, a Resistance-owned portal will yield better items for Resistance players than for Enlightened players).
You'll use XMP bursters to attack enemy resonators as you attempt to destroy them. Once all resonators are removed from a portal, it can be claimed for your own faction. You can also attack portals to break links, thus freeing mind units for your own side. This is a constant, never-ending battle, and the better you coordinate with your team, the more likely you are to succeed. Keeping in mind the way units are rationed, as well as the fact that most actions require you to physically visit portals, means this could become an unrealistic time suck if you attempt to go at it alone. This is a collaborative effort, so don't focus just on your own portals. Instead, look for opportunities to reinforce the portals of others and aid your fellow freedom fighters/crusaders.
From the web-based Intel screen, you can track portal activity, interact with other players, view global scores, enter passcodes and (in the future) invite others to play.
There is also one very important element to the game that you'll probably want to be aware of: the web-based counterpart of the game found here. This map is the only way to find portals outside of your immediate vicinity (though it's terribly slow and sometimes fails to show nodes I know exist). Additionally, you can communicate via chat here, as well as enter passcodes to acquire power ups. If you want to play this game beyond occasionally pulling out your phone once every week or two, this will be essential to keep up with everything that goes on.
As an added bonus, you'll also receive email alerts letting you know when portals you've personally claimed are under attack. This morning, for example, I was notified that one of my resonators was destroyed by a player named Daniel. Be warned, Daniel: we will not be ousted so easily!
'This All Leads To Niantic...'
There's more to the story than the game, though. In case you forgot or didn't notice, there have been weird leaks, likely intended as part of a viral marketing campaign, flowing out steadily for a while. Most of them can be found on an interactive timeline at the Niantic Project. It's not over, either. Every day, new videos, images, and audio files surface that add a bit of texture to the story. The mystery isn't quite solved yet, though. In fact, it's not even entirely clear where this is going. What is clear is that the timeline on the site ends on November 30th.
To be honest, it doesn't seem like you really need to pay attention to this site in order to enjoy the game aspect of Ingress. It's simply more of the story. The lore, if you prefer. As with any good MMO, there's always more to the story that you can dive into if you really want to, but it's not necessary if you don't.
'Not All Mysteries Are Solvable, But The Joy Comes In The Pursuit.'
Underneath all the weird videos, strange clues, the futuristic-sounding terminology, and the overwhelming sense of worldwide, underground cyber war, there's actually a very simple premise to Ingress: exploration. Among the legally-mandated source credits hidden in the "About" pages no one ever cares about is a reference to HMdb.org. Otherwise known as the Historical Marker Database. This trove of information, as well as a number of other sources, to be sure, are the foundation of portal locations.
Every portal is tied to some kind of landmark. They aren't randomly assigned, nor are they irrelevant to the theme of the game. Most locations have some form of artistic or historical significance. Statues, museums, historical buildings, plus some post offices or other public office buildings rounding out the set. You have to go to portal locations in order to play the game, and most of those locations are chosen to be somewhere that you can explore further, if your curiosity so leads you. And, let's face it, this game is for no one if not the curious.
This portal (left) corresponds to Dean's Store. This place has been around for over 100 years in my town and I never knew.
I'm hesitant to call this an educational game. Ingress, by itself, won't teach you anything. It does, however, set you up for adventures. From that perspective, it makes complete sense why this conspiracy-laden, sci-fi techno-mystery story would bear any connection to Field Trip, the app Google released a couple months ago as a light-hearted way to find cool new things in your town. The net result is the same: getting you out of the house and finding new things. Indulging curiosity. Finding something awesome. Living life.
Of course, as speculated, Google's not entirely without gain here. You can submit your own potential portal locations. Snap a photo of a candidate for a new place of interest, make sure GPS data is included, add a description and send it off. Apparently, a team will review the submissions and, if approved, new portals will appear in 2-3 weeks. Yes, you can be pretty sure that Google's using that data to improve other products, like Maps or Google Now.
Honestly, though, I think that's great. Your opinion may vary, of course, and if you're not comfortable with Google using data about your activity for other products, I'd suggest staying away from this game. Form your own Resistance. Though, that kind of goes without saying. If you do want to play this game (and we've certainly heard plenty of people clamoring for invites), may I kindly recommend giving it 100%. This isn't a casual game. If you want that, I'll point you to Angry Birds Star Wars.
This brings me back to my earlier point about 'augmented reality'. Yes, this game doesn't use the camera to overlay stuff on the real world. It does something better. It adds something to your real life that goes beyond the gyroscope. Ingress is an experience. The whole point is to go out and find some portals, then, once you've established your presence, take a look at the real world. Enjoy some artwork, explore a museum. Get inspired. Interact with people. Make new friends, even. After all. You're fighting for the fate of human creativity and thought, here. May as well make use of that wonderful mind of yours and share it with others.
If you haven't signed up for an invite yet, you can do so here.