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I am no stranger to augmented reality, and I'm not only talking about shenanigans with the EyeToy, the 3DS camera, and the Vita camera where virtual pets and face raiders exist. For a college project, I needed to write a program that had a camera transform QR markers placed around New York City into infographics about population density and real estate prices that would appear on the laptop screen as virtual columns overlaying the buildings themselves. It was a nifty, highly complex project, but I wondered how viable it would be for the everyday person to use a program like this. Augmented reality would be more popular if it was entertaining and available using a common phone.
That's what Ingress, developed by Google's Niantic Labs, aims to do with a mobile, free-to-play, multiplayer title that converts public landmarks into portals that can be captured much like shrines in League of Legends. Employing the vast database of map data from Google Earth (and whatever godlike quantum computing Google must perform in the darkest of basements), Ingress encourages gamers to travel about their hometown, if they don't already do so, and bring these portals under their team's control. Most of these portals will be bound to areas of public art, with most of them being densely packed around cities and towns with high populations, though players can add to their current distribution by requesting new landmarks as portals.
The core narrative of Ingress involves Exotic Matter, a seemingly alien substance that comes out of these mysterious portals and improves the creativity and mental power of those who come in contact with it. These Enlightened wish to distribute this matter to the populace, but The Resistance believe they are fools and that the human race should prevent themselves from succumbing to a foreign element that they know nothing about. What if it's just a ruse?!
Players can become an agent for either side and, by successfully controlling portals with their team, impact the dynamic storyline told through bits and pieces in documents and YouTube videos on their official site. For instance, in the latest Project Cassandra that took place throughout the world, the winning side was able to sway the position of the scientist Cassandra in the narrative. This freeform storyline is certainly ambitious, and if the developers can maintain it, this will continue to be a powerful connection and motivation for its players.
Capturing portals can be done alone but players face far better chances hacking and defending them within a group of eight agents. Each portal can be fortified with resonators that have more power when constructed with eight individual players than one alone. Closely knit portals of the same faction will even form larger networks and triangular fields that contribute to points on the overall leaderboard. Visiting landmarks in other areas, even foreign countries, will award players portal keys that give them remote access and Android notifications for when their portals are being attacked.
On top of that, players can deploy modifications on these resonators for bonus effects like having them attack more often, hack more successfully, or defend with more hit points. As such, don't be surprised to find a pack of Ingress players moving from one place to another, communicating with one another on private forums, or huddling in a Zipcar or local Jamba Juice, as they have struck a deal where it will offer its locations as portals as well as offer special power-ups (and hopefully some coupons in the future). Since these portals degrade over time and recharge more effectively based on proximity, you might see these packs return with regularity.
Ingress's Product Manager Brandon Badger promises more content, more events, and perhaps even an iPhone version for the title when it comes out of closed beta. Given my favor for non-binary games, I asked whether he could see a third faction in the game, or perhaps unaligned merchants, and he hinted at the possibility of a red faction (the Resistance is blue and the Enlightened is green). With any luck, the current level cap of eight will also be loftily raised, along with new features and modes in support of the user base already more than one-million strong.
Look for the full retail release of Ingress some time in 2014.