Shadow Cities: The moment a location-based game surprised me

Seth Schiesel’s effusive review for the New York Times:

If you have an iPhone, you simply must try this game. Shadow Cities isn’t just the future of mobile gaming. It may actually be the most interesting, innovative, provocative and far-reaching video game in the world right now, on any system.

I looked up at the sole approaching man, and he looked back at me. I couldn’t believe the first thought in my head: “Could he be one of them?”

I was walking up the street to my home, and had just been playing Shadow Cities when that moment, an experience of virtual world crossover that no other game had ever produced before, hit me. There are few truly new sensations in gaming each year, and that was a whopper. Giving another person in real life a nervous glance, wondering if they’re a player too, sounds like the kind of crap you might put in an ad (sure enough, it’s in Shadow Cities’ trailer), but there it was, happening to me. Sure, the Nintendo 3DS has its StreetPass feature, but the mechanics there are like a coin toss, and largely irrelevant to the games you play on it.

Shadow Cities is a freemium, competitive, GPS-based game of global warfare on a local scale. Essentially, all players are divided into two factions. After picking a side in this MMORPG-style game, you see your surroundings in the form of a glowing map; a parallel world of magic. Your goal is to work, with others if possible, to gain control of territory and harvest energy to put your faction over the top. You’re not limited to where you actually are, either. Creating a beacon will allow friends from around the world to temporarily visit your area.

The side that I picked, the science-based Architects, are total underdogs right now, forced into playing guerilla tactics against a more powerful enemy. All day, my similarly low-ranked colleague (@jeanfinds) and I had been running away from hopeless battles, trying to eke out small victories.

At the aforemention moment when I was walking home, I’d just placed two towers in the neighborhood that would help generate energy as long as no one disrupted them. I needed to protect them. When I looked up at the other man, I could feel my lizard brain actually priming itself with a fight-or-flight cocktail of apprehension and aggression.

But I won’t lie: the game has a steep but short learning curve. I installed it last night at a company dinner party at Jean’s suggestion, and only managed to fully understand its menus, unique vocabulary, and mechanics sometime this afternoon with her help. But it’s worth it. Every gamer and designer remotely interested in multiplayer experiences should try it for at least a couple of days. Level up past 5, and play it with a friend or two (I’m going to convince my office to get together and dominate the central business district), and see where the bar is for location-based games on any platform, free or paid.

There’s a lot of polish in this Finnish game. Unlike other freemium MMO titles, there aren’t long load times between views. It renders its smooth 3D graphics quickly while loading network data secondarily, much like how the iPhone appears to launch apps instantly by going straight to static screens that look like running apps. It’s all quite impressive, and I look forward to getting further with it.


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