Foursquare Meets Capture the Flag: Hands-On With Ingress, Google's New MMO

There's an digital battle going on all around you and, unless you're tapped in with Google's app Ingress, you'll be completely in the dark.  In many ways, this game is Foursquare meets capture the flag, with a bit of science fiction in the mix. The game is still in private beta, so if you want to help control the fate of this massive online battle, you'll need to request an invite. The app works on any Android device, including tablets, but since the game is location-based, the tablet needs a data connection or to be in range of a Wi-Fi hotspot.

In the Ingress augmented reality world, a new energy has been discovered, with powers to hack into people's minds and control crowds. Players belong to one of two factions, the "Enlightened" and the "Resistance." The Enlightened believe that this new energy is a positive force and that it will lead to mass enlightenment. The Resistance, on the other hand, believes this energy is harmful and works to temper its spread. These two camps are constantly at odds.

Complicated Yet Simple Gameplay

While the tutorial walked us through actions such as placing resistors and linking portals, we were still confused about the specific game mechanics. Google has online documentation explaining game play, but the game is quite complicated and players will benefit from both reading the Ingress Field Guide and venturing out into the world and playing the game. We were able to get the hang of the game fairly quickly, but reading the online documentation was a must.

The game revolves around portals, which are a type of base station that are geo-located at "places of creativity" in the real world, such as public statues and landmarks. Portals are controlled by either the Enlightened or the Resistance, which means a member from a specific side has taken control of the portal and placed resistors, an action that secures control over the portal. Resistors can be of different strength and the higher the player's level, the stronger the resistors. Enlightened portals are green while Resistance portals are blue.

All portals, regardless of team control, can be "hacked." Hacking a portal is as simple as entering its physical vicinity and clicking on an in-app "Hack Portal" button. Hacking a portal returns items that can be used in game, but doesn't have any impact on the portal itself. Damaging a portal is done through the portal's resistors, using items gained from hacking portals.

Players want to control as many portals as possible, since these portals can be linked together to create Control Fields, which equates to a larger area in the physical world. A user can seize control of one portal, travel to a new location with another portal, then link the two together. When three portals are linked together, the area inside the created triangle is a Control Field, and the population that resides within these boundaries are controlled by the dominating faction.

All actions use energy, which is refered to as Exotic Matter (XM) in Ingress. Players gain XM by simply walking around, as small XM bubbled are floating around everywhere on the map. Player's XM meters fill fairly quickly, so you won't have to travel far to refill your energy.

Venturing into the Ingress World

Upon opening the app for the first time, we were given a tour of the different actions we could perform in the game. Ingress scanned the globe until it found us in the offices in New York City. The game placed a temporary portal, instructing us to tap the "Hack Portal" button. We then "deployed resonators" and linked three portals, creating a Control Field. The walk through showed us what to do, but didn't exactly describe why or when to perform these actions. We didn't quite grasp the entire game from the in-app tutorial, but we able to join in fairly quick thanks to Google's online documentation, as well as searching for specific questions. 

We were soon asked to pick sides between the Enlightened and the Resistance. We chose the Enlightened, opting to believe that this new energy is a positive force in the world, rather than a threat to humanity.

Once we were let free into the world of Ingress, we took a walk. Google recently announced a partnership between Ingress and the drug store Duane Reade, offering in-game bonuses for visiting store locations. There is a Duane Reade located a block away from the offices so we made that our first stop. We opened the app during our walk, collecting Exotic Matter as we traveled.

Upon arrival, we located the energy portal in the Ingress app and pressed Hack Portal, which yielded an L1 Xmp Burster, a tool for destroying enemy portals. If we wanted to hack the portal a second time, in an attempt to get more items, we'd have to wait until the end of a 300-second, or 5-minute, "cool down" period.

All of the other options were grayed out in this location, so we weren't able to perform any other actions. Slightly confused, we turned to a Google search to try to find answers about what we should do next. We soon realized that the portal at Duane Reade was controlled by the enemy, the Resistance, so there were no other actions that could be done at this location at this time. As a new player, we weren't yet strong enough to do damage to the portal, and the longer we stayed in enemy territory the more XM we lost, so it was time to find a friendlier location. We headed to Union Square, a few blocks away, which was a hotbed of Ingress activity.

Controlling Minds and Hearts

The purpose of Ingress is to get the highest number of controlled minds, which are captured by linking three portals together. If the opposition has a Control Field, created by linking three portals together, players must work toward capturing one of those portals in order to break the field. Capturing the portal themselves, and creating their own Control Field, is the natural next step. 

Toward the bottom of the app is a communication window, and we noticed that the community within Ingress was quite active, with portals being captured and linked multiple times per minute. The app also supports group messaging, and we found an active community of players in the New York City region. Fellow members of the Enlightenment were discussing strategy, making guesses as to other player's work locations in relation to their Ingress activity and working together to link portals and create Control Fields. There was even some off-topic discussions about grabbing drinks over the weekend.

We located some Enlightened territory, the statue of George Washington riding a horse, located in the middle of Union Square. First, we hacked the portal, which issued us four items: two L1 Xmp Resonators, one L1 Xmp Burster and one L2 Xmp Burster, which is stronger than our previously collected Burster. The portal had only two resonators filling the eight spots, so we deployed the remaining six resonators ourselves, which helps the Enlightenment maintain power over the portal. Next, we recharged all the resonators and were on our way.

A few hours later, we received an email informing us that our resonators had been destroyed by MeyB, a member of the Resistance. While we weren't surprised -- those resonators were only level one -- we had a strong urge to go back and reclaim our territory. 

We're not sure how entertaining this app would be in smaller towns, since there would be a much lower number of players than we battled in New York City. Google does support adding new portal locations, by submitting a photograph of a public landmark, but if there are no opposing forces to battle, we can imagine capturing a large control field to be much less rewarding.

The Future of Ingress

This massive multiplayer game from NianticLabs@Google has succeeded in turning the entire world into a game board. The game mechanics made us want to come back into the world, checking up on our territories and seeing how the battle was fairing between the Resistance and the Enlightened.

There's no word yet about an official launch date, but Google seems to be slowly filling the game with users through the closed beta, working to build an active battleground before making the game available to everyone. Despite a lack of public access, Ingress is a highly active world where there is a constant struggle to create control fields and capture the minds of the unwitting masses.

Google is constantly adding new elements and features to the game. Most recently, it announced a partnership with HINT Water, implying that there would be signup codes available under the drink's cap, effectively cutting the line in front of users who have requested a beta invite. Google has released a total of 12 videos on the official Niantic Project YouTube account, which both build a long form story within the Ingress world as well as build interest in users who aren't yet in the game.

There's no doubt that Google will continue to build the story as the game progresses, and most likely has big plans for the major public launch. At this point, there are way more questions that answers regarding this strange new energy but one thing is certain: it is of utmost importance to pick a side and start fighting for the minds of the general public.

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