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Ingress (Android) artwork

Ingress (Android) review

"Who needs a walking simulator when you can actually walk?"

July 2016 was the only time I ever felt like a hipster. It was then that Pokemon Go took over the world, and suddenly massive hordes of people were roaming the streets with their noses buried in their phones, looking for the next place of interest. And meanwhile, there was I watching all the n00bs. Oh, you're heading off the main road to hit that Pokegym? Yeah, I knew it was there. That cluster of stops that you've turned into a disgusting campsite? Already hit it up. Heading for that park you never knew existed? You can thank me for it, I'm the reason Pokemon are there in the first place. For while most of the world had just discovered Niantic's take on Alternate Reality Gaming, I had been playing their former game, Ingress, for years.

If you have played Pokemon Go, a lot of Ingress will seem familiar to you. But if not, the idea behind it is to turn real-world locations into a game. Your phone screen is essentially a zoomed-in street map without any labels. But where churches, post offices, parks, historical markers, murals, statues, or other communal places of interest are in real life, a "portal" exists on the map. And the game's purpose is to control and link these portals together for your team. Doing so costs energy, which can be recharged by walking near little energy pellets on your map. And these pellets are based on cell phone activity from 2012 or so, which means walking around popular (and somewhat old) locations is the best way to keep yourself charged. Yep, walking. That's the whole point of Niantic's games. You are supposed to walk around and see what exciting places exist in your neighborhood.

So you walk to a portal. If it's neutral, you place 8 resonators on it to claim it for your team. If it's part of the opposing team, you can attack it to drain the resonator energy to zero and turn it neutral. If it's already on your side, you can upgrade the resonators (to level 8), recharge them, or add defensive items. But the key is to link your team portals together. Get three of them to form a triangle, and you gain "MU" for your team, with the amount gained based on the area covered and the real-world population density. And no matter what, you can "hack" the portal to gain items, either a basic hack or an extended one in which you play a quick memory-based minigame. Of course, everything gains you experience to level you up (up to level 16), and lots of statistics are tracked to earn you medals (at 5 different tiers) based on distance walked or portals captured or whatever.

Does this sound fun? In the traditional gaming sense, no, not really. But then again, it's not a traditional game. There's supposedly a story (the portals are secret energy thingies entering our dimension, and the two teams either believe it to be a threat or a benefit to humanity), but no one actually cares about it and it doesn't come up in the game itself. There's no real skill involved, other than the memory minigame or slight timing involved when launching your attacks. Sure, the goal is to create these links between portals, but while the actual MU stats are tracked both regionally and worldwide the numbers don't mean anything. But again, the purpose isn't really to play a game. It's to get you to go take a walk and see what interesting places are in your community. And while some people do drive around to play it (for reasons I cannot fathom), that's really the impetus behind it. I played because I like walking around and it gave me something to do while walking. And all those stats in my game going up simply meant that I was enjoying the fresh air a lot. The fact that the portals tried to be at interesting places was an added bonus too, as it gave me an excuse to go walking in places I never would have gone, or never would have known about.

So next question: does it do a good job of keeping your interest while walking around? Uh... mostly. Of course, the big problem (and one also charged against Pokemon Go) is that if you live in an area without culturally interesting locations, there's nothing to do. That park I referenced in the intro? There was a portal at the entrance (that was only there because I submitted it to Niantic), and then a 15 minute walk to the next possible portal. And of course, rural areas have nothing. At least Pokemon Go has the possibility of Pokemon showing up in these areas, but in Ingress there's nothing. It's unfortunate, but also necessary. The purpose of these games is to mirror the real world, not just create fake markers every 100 yards or so. So of course suburban or rural folks will get shafted relative to downtown or college campus residents. But unlike Pokemon Go, the other major problem is one of stagnation. If your team is dominant in an area, there is literally nothing to do but hack portals. All the portals are upgraded to the maximum level and fully linked to their neighbors, making the game kinda boring. For many, one of the most challenging medals to get is to capture a portal and have it stay on your team for 150 straight days. I never had to worry about it; there was no one on the other team to attack it!

But if those two issues aren't a factor, it's not bad. The linking system requires planning to maximize your effectiveness, and it's quite satisfying to walk all over pulling off several nested triangles. There are even people out there who work together to generate massive fields stretching across the ocean or across the country, or to create art with different triangles. Finding new locations is pretty cool, even if some of the portals are long out of date or the fact that the occasional Arby's sign somehow slipped past the reviewers and got marked as culturally relevant. There's also a cool idea called missions, where players can submit a string of portals you have to visit that are thematically linked, whereupon you get a special badge. Some are really neat and showed real effort, like "visit all historical markers in our small town!" or "take our guided tour of sculptures on our college campus!" Unfortunately, the community decided that making large art pieces out of dozens of these badges was more fun, and they are now swamped with "do 25 quick and pointless missions in the right order to get your art", and it's harder to find the good ones. Oh well... But hey, if you like those art pieces, then there's plenty for you to do too!

I do wish that they did more with their premise though. If the amount of MUs controlled by your team gave you a bonus for hacking or something, that would be cool. And while the community has mostly done a good job adding in portals and keeping them relevant, it'd be nice to see some of them highlighted. It's a bit weird for the story to say mysterious energy is coming from works of art and architecture, but then in the actual game you see that there's no difference between the Eiffel Tower and Random Picnic Shelter at Local Park. I personally think it'd be cool to have certain portals be super-portals that provide extra bonus or incentive to capture, but maybe that's just me.

Ultimately, though, Ingress has one serious problem, and that's Pokemon Go. With Ingress, there's portals and nothing else, and you do the same thing at each portal. But there's hundreds of different Pokemon to catch that aren't all at the stops, there's gyms, there's trading, there's battling, there's managing your Pokemon collection, etc. And, naturally, it's Pokemon, literally the largest brand in the world, compared to an original IP with no real story or characters of note. Which means the userbase has shrunk dramatically since 2016. I checked out a nearby half-mile radius at a location with many portals and I know is popular with Go players. In the past WEEK, only 18 people played here (there's a nice helpful stalker tool online...). Even checking out downtown of a major US city, with literally hundreds of portals, I saw only 17 people playing on a typical weekday.

I'd get up on my soapbox and rant about how all you young whippersnappers with your shiny Pokeymans don't know a true alternate reality game when you see it, but... I'm one of them. 90% of my former Ingress time has switched to Pokemon. While the concept was really cool, the reality is there's more stuff to do in Go, and it makes for a better companion on regular jaunts through my neighboring areas. Ingress is mostly just interesting to pull out while traveling to see what the factions are like, but of course if I'm traveling I don't want to be staring at a phone anyway. It's a wonderful concept, and perhaps there's merit to this sort of game without attaching a major franchise to it, but the reality is that Pokemon Go is just a better, more realized concept. I guess I'm not a hipster after all.


mariner's avatar
Community review by mariner (October 14, 2019)

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