Why Pokémon Go fans should (or shouldn't) play Ingress

Niantic's earlier location-based game is an Android favorite, but it doesn't have the same accessible hook.

The dramatic successs of Pokémon Go has taken nearly everybody by surprise—well, maybe not Ingress players. See, Niantic’s location-based gameplay approach wasn’t invented for Nintendo’s franchise, but rather designed and refined first in the fan-favorite Ingress.

Launched in beta in late 2012, Ingress tells the story of two warring factions battling it out for the fate of the world. As in Pokémon Go, you play by leaving your home, exploring your surroundings, and interacting with nodes placed upon nearby buildings and landmarks. In fact, the games share a lot of DNA, with the Ingress world map and landmarks updated and repurposed for Pokémon Go.

However, Ingress is a very different game in many respects, from the neon-and-black look to the existence of an ongoing narrative, not to mention the ways in which you interact with the world and try to topple the opposing side. In some ways, it’s a much deeper experience, but it’s also a lot less inviting on the surface. Pokémon Go players seeking a more robust experience might find much to like with Ingress, but it won’t automatically appeal to all Poké-fans.

Curious? Here’s how Ingress and Pokémon Go compare, as well as why you should give it a shot—or why it might not be up your alley.

What is Ingress?

Unlike the cuddly and colorful Pokémon Go, Ingress has a dark science fiction edge to it, dropping players into a fictional world in which scientists have discovered a powerful particle called Exotic Matter (XM). It hails from the mysterious alien Shapers, apparently, but people around the fictional world are divided on whether or not we should mess with it.

The Enlightened (that’s the green team) believe that the XM will lead to an advancement in human capabilities and trigger our next evolution, and they fight for that vision. Meanwhile, the Resistance (blue team) want nothing to do with the XM, believing the human race will be enslaved and diminished if they embrace the mysterious material. As such, both squads battle to establish control fields around the world by linking together portals on the map.

That’s just the starting point for the story, by the way: through YouTube videos (see above) and other status reports, Niantic has built an ongoing narrative about the war between sides and the hidden motivations behind each. There’s a lot to dig into if you want it, unlike the story-free Pokémon Go—or you can just play Ingress for fun and ignore the rest.

Niantic also holds big in-game XM Anomaly events from time to time, including the just-concluded Aegis Nova, wherein portals open up in certain worldwide locations and challenge players to control the most of them. Live events are also held during these typically quarterly challenges, and additional story threads usually come out during them.

How they’re similar

Both games take place in the world around you, with the primary interface derived from Google Maps and nodes placed in hotspots all around you. Statues, signs, buildings, and sometimes stores serve as these outposts in the world, although there seem to be a lot more on the Ingress map—it looks like Niantic trimmed the list significantly for Pokémon Go.

ingress pokemon comparemap

The Ingress map is a lot busier than Pokémon Go’s is—these screenshots were taken at the exact same spot.

As you near each location, called a portal in Ingress or a PokéStop in Pokémon Go, you can activate it to generate items used to help further your mission elsewhere in the game. The same five-minute wait between single-spot activations applies in both games, so you can’t just stand in one place and constantly generate inventory.

Also, the idea of team-based gameplay holds true across both games. Ingress has two factions battling for control of nodes and then linking them together to create control fields, while Pokémon Go lets its three player squads fight over control of nearby Pokémon gyms in the world. There’s a lot more to the team play in Ingress than in Pokémon Go so far, however.

How they differ

In fact, there’s a lot more to Ingress, period. Part of that is surely due to the fact that Ingress has been live for nearly four years now, including the initial beta period, and Pokémon Go has been around for a matter of weeks. Ingress has had more time to evolve upon its initial design and implement new features. However, Pokémon Go is also a much more streamlined game in general, likely because the franchise is meant to appeal to all ages while Ingress is clearly targeted towards older players.

Ingress has chat (between players and among teams), while Pokémon Go has no communication whatsoever, which probably makes it easier to avoid abuse and keep kids safe.

With Pokémon Go, the PokéStops are just there to feed you items—that’s their sole purpose. Ingress, on the other hand, makes each individual portal a battleground, and there are a lot of moving parts to taking over a portal for your faction. Players can install up to eight different resonators on each portal, and each of those has a strength level and can be upgraded or replenished when weakened.

ingress pokemon portal

In Pokémon Go, all you do is spin the marker and claim your prizes. In Ingress, there’s all of this stuff to sort out.

To take a portal away from the other team, you’ll need to fire off XMP bursts to weaken the resonators and try to remove them from the portal. On the other hand, if a portal is already under your faction’s command, you can help reinforce it when walking by. That’s a nice perk that Ingress offers over Pokémon, letting you support your team and ensure that your neighborhood’s hotspots stay under your command, rather than the constant back-and-forth approach of claiming gyms in Pokémon Go. Filling support slots in gyms could be considered Pokémon’s analog here, but again, it’s a simplified approach.

Ingress doesn’t have head-to-head battles like in Pokémon Go, nor is there anything similar to the process of capturing monsters or viewing anything via augmented reality moments. The two games share the same core play approach, but then vary quite a bit in theme and execution: Pokémon Go is streamlined and accessible, making monster-catching its main goal. Ingress, on the other hand, is heavily menu-driven and all about furthering the aims of your chosen faction.

Should you play?

Ingress is free, so you might as well give it a shot—and its servers aren’t being crushed like Pokémon Go’s are, so Ingress could be a welcome respite when the other game doesn’t work. It’s a tough game to get into, however. The Ingress interface is overloaded and tough to understand, the menus are densely filled, and even the text-heavy tutorials don’t do enough to ease you into the experience.

Part of the frustration come with the fact that progression is slower than in Pokémon Go, and that the items and abilities you have early on are incredibly weak. Other people have been playing for years and have high-level characters with powerful attack items, while your early blasts do nearly nothing to nearby portal resonators. Ingress feels like the kind of game that you need a hardened friend to help you understand and advance through, and without a guiding hand, it feels a bit impenetrable.

That’s a big contrast from Pokémon Go, which is super streamlined and pretty easy to grasp, even if a lot of the smaller details aren’t explained well enough (if at all). Pokémon Go is ultra-accessible and meant for everyone to enjoy with little trouble, while Ingress requires much more of a commitment and some perseverance.

ingress pokemon playing

Get out there and help your faction take over the city! Or just keep playing Pokémon Go; whatever makes you happy.

While that makes early Ingress play a struggle, it means potentially greater rewards and fulfillment for players who stick with the experience. There are millions of players, and plenty of die-hards that take part in the events and meet-ups and debate the story threads online. In other words, if you’re looking for a fictional, interactive rabbit hole to explore, Ingress can offer that.

Pokémon Go doesn’t have any of that so far: it’s a reliable cycle of capturing monsters, evolving them, triggering PokéStops, and battling over gyms. It’s likely that Niantic will add more social elements in time (including trading), and perhaps make team play a proper focus. Events seem a certainty, as well, but that stuff may take time—and it’s doubtful that Pokémon Go will ever sacrifice its essential accessibility to boost depth.

Ingress might not be the headline-grabber that Pokémon Go is right now, but as of January, it had amassed more than 14 million downloads and more than a quarter of a million players were devoted (or curious) enough to attend Niantic’s live events. It’s a big game with hardcore fans, and if you’re looking for something richer and more complex than Pokémon Go—and you have some patience—then Ingress might be just what you need.

Bonus: For lapsed Ingress players

If you played Ingress in the early days but fell off the bandwagon, is there any reason to loop back on it now? Possibly! In addition to the ongoing narrative developments and frequent in-game and live events, there’s one big feature you might have missed: Ingress now has a Missions tab that can direct you towards things to do.

ingress pokemon missions

Missions give you a path to explore and a series of objectives to complete. Pokémon Go would really benefit from this kind of guidance.

Essentially, missions are sequences of locations and objectives that help guide you around nearby landmarks, tasking you with visiting multiple portals, creating links or fields, and even hunting for information in the world around you. Agents who are at level 7 or above can create their own missions and submit them for inclusion, meaning the community creates its own little challenges to keep everyone entertained and defending/taking portals.

It’ll save you some meandering and maybe even expose you to more of your city in the process, which is always a plus. Also, Ingress added Android Wear support last year, so if you’re wearing a watch and playing, you can perform basic actions right from your wrist rather than pulling out your phone. Fev Games has a more extensive update-by-update breakdown of how Ingress has evolved, in case you’re looking for the tiniest of details on what’s changed over time.

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Andrew Hayward

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