Because timing is everything, the latest entry in the location-based augmented reality gaming sweepstakes, Ghostbusters World, has arrived just in time for Halloween.
Launched Monday on the App Store and the Google Play Store, Ghostbusters World shares its perfect timing with the likes of Jurassic World Alive, which hatched just ahead of the theatrical run of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, and Walking Dead: Our World, which crept onto the scene just ahead of the television show's ninth season.
Likewise, all three games are pursuing the same high bar of mobile AR gaming success set by Pokémon GO and are doing so by way of the Google Maps API for location-based games.
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Will Ghostbusters World be the game to finally get out of the shadow of Pokémon GO? Next Reality was able to scare up a pre-release build of the app and, because I ain't afraid of no ghosts, I strapped on the virtual proton pack with the intention of answering that question.
Like its predecessors, developer FourThirtyThree follows the same basic formula with Ghostbusters World that Niantic laid the groundwork for with Ingress, and then built upon with Pokémon GO: players hunt virtual characters in real world locations, add them to their digital collection, and then do battle with other players and their crews.
Also, like its Google Maps API peers, FourThirtyThree tweaked a few aspects of the gameplay. For instance, all three games include battle modes that are accessible independent of location, with certain conflicts, like raids, maintaining the geocached approach of the gym battles in Pokémon GO. From a business perspective, it's a smart move, keeping players engaged at home and giving them more opportunity to spend money on in-app purchases.
Among the location-agnostic activities, Ghostbusters World offers a story mode (with comic book-like narration from Peter Venkman and gang) as well as daily player-versus-computer challenges and player-versus-player arenas. Each mode asks players to command their ghost armies in turn-based battles. There's also an autopilot mode for battles that are beneath your skill level and unworthy of your undivided attention.
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Meanwhile, boss battles are tied to certain locations. For example, one of the boss battles in my area involved the infamous Stay Puft Marshmallow Man.
Anyway, while some of these battles don't occur in augmented reality, the boss battles do take place in a 360-degree virtual battlefield, where players have to point their device in the direction of their foes. Successfully navigating these battles adds the boss to your Tobin's Spirit Guide (a.k.a. your ghost roster).
But since Next Reality's our name, and augmented reality's our game, let's talk about where the AR resides. That is in the hunt, which is the most fun part of the game.
As is customary with the genre, players have the opportunity to catch a handful of ghosts in their immediate vicinity and, once those characters are captured, they'll have to venture out into the real world, particularly public parks, to continue the pursuit of other virtual prey.
In the context of Ghostbusters World, instead of Pokestops, there are Dimensional Gates at points of interest for mining resources; players can pin a Remote Gate in a location of their choosing, but it costs gems (the in-app currency that can be earned or bought with real money) to move it. Amusingly, when the game detects that players are in a moving car, the walking avatar is replaced with the Ghostmobile.
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The ghost encounters are where the real AR magic happens. Players pick an apparition from the map view, and the process of capturing it begins.
There are three stages to each encounter. First, players scan the environment with an EKG meter, a cute cover for the customary surface scan that comes with ARKit and ARCore experiences.
Next, players blast the ghost with one of their equipped weapons to weaken it for capture or, with higher-powered weapons, "destabilize" the demon into oblivion. These ghosts fight back and players have a health meter, so players will need to press the "counter" button to defend themselves, or else...well, I never saw what happened if my health meter was completely drained. I guess, just be careful out there!
Finally, once weakened, players hit the "trap" button to push out the ghost trap and capture the apparition. Once the trap is set, players guide the ghost above the trap until it gets sucked in. As with Pokémon GO, the ghosts can escape the trap with a portion of health recovered, so it's back to step two if that happens. Once captured, the ghost is entered into Tobin's Spirit Guide.
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Also like Pokémon GO, the AR experience is optional, but, in my opinion, the encounters are more entertaining in AR (though, since we don't have occlusion in ARKit or ARCore, the illusion can be broken when content ignores real world objects in the space).
The gameplay is also less frustrating in AR with Ghostbusters World, as the interface involves virtual buttons on the screen versus the gesture-based mechanics in Pokémon GO. In other words, there's no guessing game as to what your exact input is. However, for those who opt out of the AR mode, the game switches to a virtual 360-degree environment (just like with the boss battles), so there's still an immersive element, even without the AR.
So, to answer the question I posed earlier, the success of Ghostbusters World ultimately boils down to the IP. Pokémon GO enjoys a very loyal following of gamers. But the Jurassic Park, Walking Dead, and Ghostbusters franchises, while popular in their own right, are more known for their movie and TV products than gaming.
Personally, I found the AR experience to be fairly excellent in Ghostbusters World. But, I'm not as invested in the franchise (though I've quoted Zuul on occasion).
I spent quite a bit of time with Jurassic World Alive over the summer, which doesn't even have AR in its capture experience. But it does have virtual dinosaurs that you can place in your environment once they are captured, and that's pretty fun. Alternatively, my lack of interest in The Walking Dead TV show didn't change with the introduction of the AR game. Pokémon GO was novel for its time and probably stuck with me longer than the others, but it has since been relegated to the land of dormant installed apps.
In the end, with these games, your mileage will vary based on taste and preference. At the very least, this flavor of location-based gaming is worth a spin at least during Halloween season, particularly for the ghost capturing experience. But I don't think it has quite the franchise power to take on King Pikachu.
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