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N-Gage II. First impressions
Nokia heralded the launch of its reincarnated N-Gage platform back in 2007, however, the release date got postponed a couple of times, and only now does the N-Gage site offer the installation program, allowing all enthusiasts to put the platform onto their Nokia N81s (the list of supported models will be considerably expanded down the road, learn more about it on the service’s official page).
The foremost difference of the new platform from its predecessor lies exactly in the lengthy list of supported handsets. Nokia was the first manufacturer to offer the idea of a gaming-centric phone, and even went as far as releasing two devices of this kind – the Nokia N-Gage, and N-Gage QD, however, even a very optimistic person could dare to call them successful. The main reasons for their failure were: quite lackluster designers (especially true for the original Nokia N-Gage), and the company’s strategy that forced consumers to go for a dedicated device to be able to enjoy a top-notch gaming experience. The latter concept wasn’t meant to last long, though, as almost all games released exclusively for the N-Gage line-up got cracked in no time, and became freely available for other S60-powered smartphones. One of the factors that contributed to the failure of the original N-Gage was the way games were distributed. Long story short, on top of costing a small fortune for this kind of software, (around 30 USD), they were available on memory cards, and what is more, demo modes were disabled in most games. So it’s not surprising that there wasn’t a crowd queuing up to get their hands on these games. However, all these things aside, gaming-minded services for mobile phones are a very promising industry. Those who know about the quality of games that were available with the first iteration of the N-Gage can competently compare them to Java-based games that are ubiquitous on the market these days. While in the field of music services, Nokia had to enjoy the position of the runner-up, for quite a while, it is second to none when it comes to games for mobile phones. This is in fact strange, especially given Sony’s expertise in portable gaming consoles, which happens to own a half of Sony Ericsson. A gaming-heavy handset from Sony Ericsson would’ve been a natural way to take the range of portable consoles one step further, but Sony Ericsson doesn’t seem to be poised to launch one. I won’t be surprised to see it on the market one day, chasing the market leader.
Developing the new platform, Nokia has taken account of its past mistakes. This way, the N-Gage II is not a specialist device any more, but a software shell that caters for the user’s gaming and communication needs. They have also altered the way games are delivered to end-users – all of the latest, and greatest titles are now available on the official page, from which consumers can download them directly to their handsets wirelessly, or opt for a more traditional manner (synchronization with PC). Once you have installed this software shell, you will see a dedicated folder on the memory card – game files moved into it will be identified by the N-Gage, and installed once you give it the green light. After this, it is all “try and buy”, meaning that you can play some game in the demo mode, figure out whether you like it or not, and then buy it without letting go of the handset. More importantly, you can pay with a credit card, so that once the transaction is finished, you will get an activation code to a specified e-mail address. The price has gone down too – now a full version of an N-Gage title, no valid-until restrictions, will set you back 15 Euros (price also depends on the license validity period)
Almost at one time with the release of the official First Access software, the Web also saw an installer not confined to the Nokia N81 alone. In fact, we can’t even call it a hack; it is handed away for free, and installs the software shell of Nokia’s new platform that can start up on many Nseries smartphones. Specifically, for this review, we used the Nokia N93, which, as the developers claim, will soon get an official N-Gage installation program. Probably it will require all users to update their firmware versions; but cutting to the chase, we successfully installed the application, so I’m here to share my first impressions of how it works with you.
The software shell comprises of five tabs, which you can navigate through with directional buttons. The first window shows info on the last game you played, link to the download menu, and received messages. The second tab features all games installed on your smartphone, you can get more on it via the Internet or PC (with the help of PC Suite). Neither method is a pain of any kind - to install new games over the air, you will need to enter the Showroom section and check for available updates. When installing games via PC, all you need to do is drop game files (.n-gage extension) into the “N-Gage” folder, and start up the software shell, after that, things will work out on their own.
The next tab features player profile, where you can go online/offline, check your current level, and gaming history. Many games have score boards. In the next window, you will be presented with your buddy list, who you can trade a couple of messages with. The last tab is the Showroom section, where you can download free trials of N-Gage games and check for updates.
One of the main disappointments about the N-Gage service for all Russian users is the absence of the Russian language from both the application itself and most game interfaces. And while we may hope for getting it embedded into the software shell eventually, games are quite different. It seems, developers don’t see this region as a lucrative market for legal games distribution, and therefore, invest nothing in localization. And we know all too well what this approach leads to. One scenario is that Russian users will have to turn to various hacked game versions. But this issue can be resolved if Nokia, as the publisher, will step in and do something about localized editions of games. The price tags of 10-15 Euro these days can hardly put off consumers with state-of-the-art smartphones on their hands, and I, for one, know a lot of people who would like to get localized products. More importantly, cracked games are quite easy to track and cut them from the multiplayer mode, which is, in fact, one of the new platform’s centerpieces. Buying N-Gage titles is also quite a pain these days – for instance, we couldn’t purchase a game with our Visa Electron credit card. Although, this is probably more due to the service still being tweaked and tuned as of today, so we expect this problem to get rectified in the near future.
Now for the games themselves.
There are six games available for download, three of which come with the First Access application (System Rush Evolution, Space Impact, and Hooked on: Creatures of the Deep), while others (Block Breaker Deluxe, World Series of Poker, and, Tetris) can be downloaded from the official page.
System Rush Evolution is the title the owners of Nseries-branded devices already know about, as it came included with many smartphones. Long story short, it offers you to take part in races held in tunnels some time in the future. The demo mode presents you only with the first stage, and no multiplayer whatsoever. The full version, however, will allow you to go head to head with any other member of N-Gage Arena in real time. On the positive side, the game boasts stellar graphics, and smooth-looking effects.
Space Impact is a single-player arcade game, with a pretty decent visual part. The objective of the whole game can be expressed in a few words – get on your own ship, and blast the ones around you.
World Series of Poker – Texas Hold’em with top pros sitting right in front of you (tutorial available for those who are unfamiliar with the rules).
Block Breaker Deluxe and Tetris geometry-centric puzzles with pretty graphics, and a ton of levels on offer.
We took a plunge into the new N-Gage platform, with Hooked On: Creatures of the Deep, a fishing simulator.
Our general impressions of the game itself are best described with this - “WOW!!!”. What is more, most of these games show off spectacular graphics, which is exactly the thing that all those Java-based games lack. And the rest is up to developers – story telling, twists and turns, new ideas, everything that can add value and make the product appealing to consumers. But all these visual marvels, by definition, require a hardware video accelerator, which, however, doesn’t mean the platform will not launch on handsets with no accelerators onboard. But if that’s the case, then all graphic rendering processes are delegated to the CPU, so sluggishness is almost inevitable. That’s why when looking for new phone that you intend to use as a gaming console, it would be smarter to go for models retaining accelerators.
The list of the most anticipated titles for the N-Gage platform includes Asphalt 3 and Brothers in Arms from Gameloft, Sims 2 and FIFA 2008 from Electronic Arts, and Nokia’s own fighting game – One. Naturally, the first thing you stumble upon is how many known and beloved developers are queuing up to deliver their own titles to the N-Gage. In a nutshell, whether this platform will succeed or fail hinges on what and how many games it will have on offer; in our turn, we couldn’t be happier to see popular titles carried over from other platforms to the N-Gage.
Now let’s submerge into the depths of the ocean, as we take a look at “Hooked on: Creatures of the Deep”.
Hooked on: Creatures of the Deep
Infinite Dreams, a Polish dev team, are among the first few companies that have rolled out their projects for the N-Gage gaming platform. And, let us be frank, this debut is more than impressive. In fact, it is not that much of a game, but a fishing simulator, which sounds like boring at first, but we dig deeper.
The game’s story revolves around fishing sessions in a couple of places scattered all over the globe. “Hooked on” is offered as “try and buy”, however the Web already features versions with Costa Rica fully unlocked for your fishing pleasure. We really didn’t mind paying 10 Euros for this marvel, but we failed to complete the transaction via our VISA Electron, that’s why we had no other way to go but turn to this not exactly fair method. The game was launched on the Nokia N93 smartphone, which wasn’t officially supported by the N-Gage II, that why we are willing to attribute all glitches to the unofficial installer version that we had to utilize. But, moving on to the game itself, I need to point out certain issues we ran into with registering in the N-Gage Arena service. Upon the first start up, we had no problems with going through all registration steps, and getting our user name. However, once the application found out that our handset’s video subsystem was out of order, and the installer wasn't exactly official (again, it is important), we couldn’t enter the system under our first user name any more. While the program told us it couldn’t find our login in the database, all our attempts to register another account ended up in vain, for we kept seeing the prompt that the device in question was already registered. This means that when registering in the N-Gage Arena, not only does it send the data you submitted in the form, but also your handset’s IMEI identifier. Unfortunately, there is no way you can change the device your N-Gage Community account is registered to as of today, but I suppose this feature will be added as soon as they expand the list of supported phones with more models. Long story short, we had to explore the depths of this game without being able to upload our personal records to the company’s official page. Now that we are through the preface, let’s get back to an angler’s routine you get to taste with “Hooked on”.
Your alter-ego who’s bent on fishing finds himself in Costa Rica with a boat, an assortment of lures, rods, reels and lines at his disposal. As you skill grows along with your character’s in-game level, the selection of available items gets better and better. Basically, you can cast the rod in any place that you like, which leads to another important point in this game – there are two modes: map overview, and fishing. All actions are done with the help of the joystick, and soft-keys, but moving about or catching fish aren’t really that hard. Use the joystick to move your boat across the map, then push the center button to get to the site. All sites can be categorized into two groups – those where camera is in standstill mode (cast only in front of you), and those where you can rotate the camera, picking the best direction to cast. The indicator found on the right is nothing but a simple power bar – to cast further than normal, you will need to practice a little, though, as the further you cast, the more extra points you get, so tapping the center button at the right time is quite profitable in this game. Once the lure has submerged in the water, you have to options to choose from. First, you just sit idle, wait until you snag something (small blue plate with an arrow pointing at it) – you will surely know when it happens, thanks to a very distinctive sound of a spinning reel; what is more, if you have enabled vibration in the settings, you will also get some sort of tactile feedback, which does a good job making the things you see on the screen more “real-life like”. The other option you can opt for – cast and then reel in the line. Whichever method you pick, the joystick is used for reeling in the line.
The process doesn’t seem to be all that complicated – basically, all you need to do is draw a fish close to yourself, but don’t expect it to surrender just like that. The distance between you and fish, as well as the line load, are shown as two indicators on top. That’s where you need to strike the right balance – should you reel in the line too fast, it may just snap.
Once your alter-ego gets his virtual hands on the catch, the biggest fish gets photographed – all these snaps then become freely available from the menu. Your overall statistics can be sent to the server, so that you can participate in the global ranking. Regrettably, there is no multiplayer for “Hooked on”, so you can track your progress world-wide only with the official rankings.
The process of fishing in “Hooked on” is extremely entertaining – struggling against huge fish is very challenging, and you will have to sweat a little before you’ll have it wallowing in the cage. You get real adrenaline injections every time you see the reel spin, and at times, it will be extremely hard to get back from the sunny shores of Costa Rica to the real world.
As soon as you get to the third level, you will be offered to attend a tournament, which is very little different from the fishing you’ve done before – the only difference is that now it actually matters what kind of fish you catch. Every tournament adds a handful of points to your total score, which is shown in the global ranking.
On top of fishing, the game offers a bevy of quests, marked as red dots on the map – you will need to visit them in order to get a new task. There are two types of quests in “Hooked on”; the most frequent request will be to fetch some particular item – that’s where the second fishing method comes in handy. Reeling in the lin,e you are very likely to snag all sorts of trash – from palm leaves and toys to anchors. For every completed quest, are you awarded some points or, occasionally, upgrades to your arsenal – for instance, once you find the locator, you will get a bathymeter.
Every zone has the main city, where you can learn more about the tournament schedule, change your rods/lines/reels, and get some extra tips.
Since the Nokia N93 comes equipped with TV-Out functionality, we tried to use a telly to play the N-Gage games, however the picture didn’t look good, especially upclose. As it gets scaled to fit the bigger display, the picture gets pixelized, plus the gamma changes as well. Nevertheless, you will get used to it, and after a couple of minutes, blockiness won’t be as striking, making for very exciting gaming sessions.
It is not the first time I complain that the world of Java-powered games has nothing to offer as far as graphics and gameplay go. In this sense, the new platform is a clear winner compared to Java titles. But the thing I liked the most is the N-Gage’s visual effects – in “Hooked on”, water was transparent, reflective and had a very distinctive and palpable texture. The graphics engine supports dynamic lights and weather effects – if it is raining, then the display will get covered with rain drops, have no doubt about that. Lightning storms are also possible, what is more, every flash illuminate the scenery around you. But more importantly, all these details and great visual effects don’t mar the process of fishing; even though there aren’t too many of, each one looks different, depending on the time of the day.
The physics of the game are also pretty decent – the resistance of fish is shown on the corresponding indicator, while the vibration mode lends the game a totally unique feel. All men with at least a little bit of experience in fishing will share my delight here.
All up, “Hooked on” is one decent title – dynamic and spectacular, a game that can get your heart racing. Once the N-Gage platform goes live for real, this will probably be the first thing I’ll buy.
Wrapping it all up, a couple of N-Gage related clips:
The new gaming platform can make your eyes round – everything is smooth, convenient, and with a great wow-factor to it. On the face of it, they have finally solved the problems of the previous gaming-minded phone – they offered consumers to pick any smartphone they like, without having to dump some functionality or focus they would like to have on their devices in favor of the gaming department. I suppose one of Nokia’s impending devices will come armed with a dedicated array of keys for gaming purposes, probably Navi Wheel (found in the Nokia N81) will get N-Gaged (pun intended) as well. As for those bugs and glitches we ran into, these are more due to us using an official version of the installer, that’s why we will definitely update this piece as soon as the installer for the N93 is released into the wild.
Published 05 March 2008
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