If you’re at all plugged into the world of social networking and/or Android, you’ve almost certainly heard of Google’s latest experiment: the invite-only and Android exclusive meta-game, Ingress. Thanks to a fierce marketing campaign including multiple tie-in websites and heavy promotion on Google+, the buzz about Ingress is incredibly strong; especially considering most people don’t even know what it’s about.
While Ingress manages to stand on its own as a well put together and genuinely intriguing game concept, that’s only half the story. The real brilliance behind Ingress is the game’s true purpose, and how Google will leverage its players to do real world research without even realizing it.
Ingress is a rather complex game, operating at scale which is difficult to appreciate until you actually get your hands on it.
But to put it in the most basic terms, there are “Portals” scattered all over the world which need to be captured and defended by one of two factions. Once captured, the Portals are linked to other faction-held points to create a perimeter called a “Field”. The Fields, or more accurately the area they cover, are really the end goal of Ingress; as the only real scoring the game does is calculate how many people on the planet are covered by each faction’s Fields. Essentially, the more surface area of the Earth your faction covers, the higher their score.
Linking together distant Portals to create ever larger Fields is a necessity, which will more than likely require you to ally yourself with other faction members. To that end, Ingress includes a simplistic chat mechanism (something along the lines of IRC) which lets you talk with other faction members at varying distances; you can chose to only speak with allies that are in a 20 kilometer radius, or open yourself up to everyone on the planet.
Planning your strategy when literally the entire planet is your battleground is a bit much to handle on your mobile device, so Google has provided a web-based counterpart to Ingress that allows you to search for and analyze Portals all over the world. With the web tool, you can locate Portals, figure out where the enemy faction is concentrating their efforts, and locate your allies.
These are all functions which, currently, are not possible in the Android application. When playing Ingress on Android, you are only able to see portals which are within a few hundred meters of your current position, which makes finding them fairly frustrating if you aren’t in a metropolitan area.
Conversely, you can only search for a few Portals on the web; to actually interact with them you’ll need to pack up your Android device and venture out into the real world. Playing Ingress effectively really requires you to use both your mobile device and a computer, which may be a bit too much of a time investment for some people.
Form Over Function
From a technical standpoint, Ingress is a simple but very visually appealing game. Its user interface and eerie ambient audio are very reminiscent of Introversion Software’s excellent DEFCON, where the game UI manages to be simultaneously simplistic and undeniably high-tech. Think of the way computer hacking is portrayed in Hollywood films, and you should have a pretty good idea of how Ingress looks and feels.
Unfortunately, while the sleek and futuristic look of Ingress is certainly captivating and impressive the first time you play, it quickly looses its luster. Ingress uses things like superfluous loading animations which clearly do nothing more than make the software appear more complex than it actually is. It’s the kind of thing that instantly gets your friends interested when they look over your shoulder, but becomes infuriating when you sit through it every time the game starts.
After a few days of playing, you’ll likely find yourself wishing for a more conventional user experience that was focused on usability rather than something so stylistic. Not to say it’s impossible for the current user interface to become more natural, but there is certainly some work to be done.
Audio is pretty minimal, just some bleeps and bloops when you select items in the menus, though there is a fairly significant amount of high quality voice acting that introduces the game and walks you through a series of training missions.