As much as Niantic have built their name and brand on the success of Pokémon Go, that was not their first foray into the world of augmented reality smartphone gaming. No, it might be easy to overlook it in many ways, but it was actually with Ingress that they laid out the foundations for Pokémon and the upcoming Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, and with today’s release of Ingress Prime they’re hoping to bring it back into the limelight. In fact, they’ve even gone as far as to promote Prime within Pokémon Go.
Much like Pokémon Go, Ingress is all about revealing otherwise invisible elements in the real world to you, but instead of pocket monsters, it’s a mysterious exotic matter, dubbed XM. Discovered by CERN using the Large Hadron Collider (something that was very ‘in’ with fiction when Ingress first launched), XM infuses everything around us, with millions of points dotted across the world that exude this matter. While its actual effects remain somewhat unknown, it’s sparked a secret battle between two rival factions, the Enlightened who seek to use XM to advance mankind, and the Resistance who believe it’s far too dangerous to us.
It’s a simple story, and leads to the first meaningful act in the game, as you pick which faction you want to align yourself with – the Resistance naturally has twice as many players aligned to it than the Enlightened. However, while that choice was practically the first thing you did in Ingress, Prime pushes it deeper into the onboarding tutorials. You’re now first introduced to the world, led through capturing and linking your first portals together, and it’s then followed by learning about the meta-game of capturing and controlling the map.
The endless collectathon of Pokémon Go is put to one side, and instead you seek to link the portals, constructing triangles that capture slices of the world and adding the population to your side. It’s a really interesting difference that adds a deeper strategic layer to the game compared to Niantic’s other projects. However, it’s depth that has to be learnt and I still don’t feel like the onboarding missions are as effective as they could be at bringing new players into the fold.
Where you can quite easily slip into Pokémon while you’re doing other things, your first exploration of the world possible to do in just a few minutes as you go about other tasks, Ingress Prime needs you to pay attention and try to complete tasks in quick succession. Break up your session or try to do this while walking across a bustling city like Manchester, as I was this past weekend, isn’t just tricky, it can also leave you with stubborn tasks for a particular node halfway across town. In the end I had to simply exit the onboarding via an option in the game’s settings.
That’s an option that’s very much in there for returning players who know the ins and outs of Ingress already, but Prime is really a complete reboot of the game. Instead of rebranding the existing apps on iOS and Android, shifting all players over to the new platform in a major update, they’re taking the somewhat unusual step of releasing a brand new app. Considering how deep and wide the changes are, that gives them the opportunity to try and appeal to new players, while also easing existing players across as they can still dip into the old game. Those existing players will, however, be tempted by the prospect of recursing their accounts and dropping all the way back down to level 1. Similar to how you can Prestige in Call of Duty games, it will then give you extra perks for having reset your account.
You can immediately tell the two games apart from how they look. Where Ingress was relatively flat and blocky in its interface design, reminding me a bit of classic hacker game Uplink, Ingress Prime has more pizazz to it. The map looks more vibrant, the many points on the map glow more as their XM disperses into the atmosphere, and the interface has a more futuristic look to it.
It can be a bit over the top at times though, with rival AIs Eta and Jarvis competing for your attention in the early game, and their appearance in the game bringing a rather over the top amount of visual disruption and digital mess to the screen. Interestingly, Niantic say that these AIs will learn and evolve from how they interact with players, moulding them into different characters over time.
This being Niantic’s own property also means they have far more freedom to play with its story and the form it takes. Players can directly impact the flow of the story through major Ingress Anomaly events, with some of the story beats in the original game set to return as Prime takes players back to the beginning. However, beyond that, Niantic are building a new multimedia universe to accompany the game. The Dunraven Project will fill the shoes of the Ingress Report as a live action series to accompany in-game events, while Ingress The Animation is coming soon as a collaboration between Niantic, Netflix and Crafter AI Studio.
What’s impressive about Ingress Prime isn’t so much the graphical and user interface overhaul, but just how complete a package Niantic is creating across different mediums. The company can use the game itself as a testbed for ideas and features in their other games, but it’s more than that, thanks to The Dunraven Project and the anime series. So no, Ingress can’t really hope to match the popularity and wide appeal of Niantic’s other games, but as it tries to appeal to a somewhat rather different audience, it doesn’t really have to.