If you think Apple Maps is the only service that can guide you to an alternate universe, think again. Google today unveiled its first stab at video games, Ingress. "Video game" is a loose term, though. The title is less of a classic game, and more of a Maps-based multiplayer strategy app.
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The "Project Niantic" story has promise. Mysterious portals emerge around the world, which only a select few can see (those with the app, of course). The energy surrounding these portals has mind-control capabilities. Your allegiance is based on your perception of this energy. If it's a good thing, you side with The Enlightened. If it's dangerous, you're part of The Resistance.
It's a brilliant way to implement one of Google's biggest strengths, its Maps data. You travel to real-world landmarks, claiming the portals for your side. Google's population data comes into play too, so a Chicago city block may be more valuable than a 100-mile stretch of Montana highway.
Ingress' in-game layout gives Google Maps a facelift. Streets have an Android-like holographic look. Once you arrive at the portal, its status will determine your options. If the portal is unclaimed, you "hack" it and make it yours. If it's claimed by the opposing faction, you can attack it. If it already belongs to your side, you can reinforce its defenses.
It's a bold vision, but it has challenges. Gamers will have to get off their butts and travel. Once there, they just push a few buttons and are done. Isn't it more absorbing (and inexpensive) to immerse yourself in a traditional game while lounging on your couch?
Ingress also requires gamers to take their geekiness out in public. For most, gaming is a way to entertain and blow off steam at the end of the day. How nerdy will you look, running around public locations, "hacking enemy terminals"? Good luck getting a date on that trip.
Google also appears to have missed an opportunity. The app consists mostly of overhead Maps views. Once at the "Portal," a still shot of the landmark sits above a few buttons. The obvious killer feature would be camera-based augmented reality. Think augmented sci-fi animations as you point your phone at the landmark. But Ingress doesn't (yet) have that.
Ingress may not be a global phenomenon, but it can still be fun. Maybe you'll walk an extra two blocks on your lunch break to amp up your portal's shields. Or maybe you'll get off of the train one stop early to attack an enemy's base. Ingress' biggest strength is that it doesn't require your complete attention. You can have fun with it while going about your daily business.
Ingress is available now for Android, but you'll have to wait for a beta invitation. Google says the game will eventually come to iOS as well.
For more of a sneak peek, check out the trailer below. You can then sign up for the beta at the source link.