Straight up: you’ll have to forgive me if some of the nuance of Shadow Cities [Free] -- one of the newest geo-centric MMO games available on the App Store -- has evaded me. It’s not good at telling you what it is and how you’re supposed to interact with it. Although, a lot of that might have to do with the fact that I don't exactly live in a dense metropolitan area, rendering the location awareness of the game moot since there's no one around me playing.

The PR isn’t much better, though the press releases and the buzz around it are the things that drew our attention in the first place. Shadow Cities is billed as a PVP-centric ARG that uses wherever you are as the game’s map. Like an MMO, it supposedly offers a cool and deep leveling system and a ton of missions and ‘activities.’

That's real high-concept stuff. What I actually see is a weird, blacked-out Google Maps-style world with little purple, blue, red, and green orbs floating around like neon snowflakes. With a couple of flicks of my wrists, my orange orb can decimate these other colored orbs. Then, I get experience points and, I guess, the implied promise of further orb decimation.

It seems like the point of the game revolves around killing these orbs. With each victory, I come closer to dominating my urban center, which happens to be a small city deep in the American south. I don’t see any progress bars or anything of that sort, though, so I’ll just assume that the forthcoming tyranny will take some time to seed.

In Shadow Cities, you play as a mage of one of two sides. I picked the “tech priest”-type of dudes assuming that the meld of man, psychic powers, and machines would fair better against the earthy, organic types of mages. I don’t think there’s a substantial difference in what “team” you pick. At least, I don’t get that impression.

There are two chat rooms available to you once you start the game. It isn’t, at least here, specific to your urban center. The guys talking in the chat are from my state in general and they’re looking for people to battle because app hasn’t reached the kind of critical and consumer response that it needs to flourish and become more than a proof of concept that sounds neat in press releases.

Over on the game’s official blog, proof of stuff that can happen in the game can be found. Earlier in May, users were encouraged to join battle groups, which are, essentially, global communities of 100 mages assigned to a country. There was a campaign in which one team won over another by keeping large cities to themselves, while destroying the other team’s big cities. That sounds pretty cool, actually.

I’d like to get a sense of that scale, but through the app, I can’t. I just see city streets and AI-controlled wisps of color that dance around my orange wisp. I destroy these wisps and then more generate and then I destroy them. If I could see where my battle is going, how my individual fights are factoring into a larger picture, or if I actually felt like I was interacting with a larger world, Shadow Cities would click better with me.

There's a lot of promise here. I mean, think about it. Just by whipping out your phone and spending the 15 seconds it takes to crush an orb, you could be helping to decide the fate of a global battle. That's heavy, man, and fun-sounding idea to boot. Or, additionally, if you live in a dense area, this could be like Yelp!, except with mage battles. You walk into a store some jerk checked-in to and then BOOM -- you take him out.

I should note that the studio behind Shadow Cities, Grey Area, is behind the project and willing to keep iterating on top of the existing software. Gamasutra caught up with its CEO recently and he said as much, adding some specifics on new mechanics being added in the future:

"We want to develop it further and enable people to interact in the way that they want," he said, "we’ve been really conscious and paying attention how people want to create the battles... that’s what people want to do: strategize, plan, raid locations together, and all of that, so it’s definitely in the works, if you will.”

Cool. Come next update, I hope someone, anyone, around here picks up the game so I can put a spell all over his face.

  • Nickmorgs

    Sadly not available on the UK App Store :o(

  • deadcake

    It took quite long to understand how this game worked they should really improve the tutorials. Anyway it was fun to check out the surrounding areas when traveling to different places and while waiting a bus. There certainly isn't lack of players here in Helsinki and while I was playing, the game always crashed in the center of the city due to it being crowded by players.

    • Nickmorgs

      To be fair. there ain't a lot to do in Helsinki   ;o)

  • John V. Keogh

    Sorry, but what on earth is a "PVP-centric ARG"? Is this one for the cognoscenti?

    • Tina Aspiala

      You play against other players, and use the IRL environment as your "game board". Eg. you place area-controlling "dominator" pieces by actually going to the spot you want in your city, opening the game on your phone, and tracing the spell shape(this is just the UI) that creates a dominator for your team. In order to destroy the dominators of others, you go to the physical place where they are, and cast a destroy spell with your phone.

      Essentially it's as if your city had an alternative version that is still spacially related to your version, that you can only see if you look at it through your phone. You stand in Times Square, look at your phone, and see that there's an enemy dominator on the corner of street X and Y right beside you, and a bunch of spirits floating about. And an enemy player standing in the next block, about to shoot at you. There have been other games that approach this, but they've felt like demos in comparison.

      Honestly, it's worth trying, and by trying I mean giving it a proper chance, not just a few seconds of "I don't get it".

      I'm a big fan of more games that try to break new ground, but they always require a bit more from the player initially, to learn the new paradigm. That's why most games just play it safe and give us another version of AngryWingsCutRopeHalo.

      • John V. Keogh

        Thanks, that's a brilliant answer. So PVP must be personal viewpoint, I should have worked it out really, and the app gives us what is also known as an augmented view, so ARG means augmented reality game? I'll give it a try when it's available in the UK.

      • Joe

        PvP = Player vs. Player
        ARG = Augmented Reality Game
        At least, I think... 🙂

      • Ccycycyc

        You are correct, sir.

      • Adams Immersive

        Actually, ARG = Alternate Reality Game
        Augmented Reality, AR, would typically mean superimposing stuff on a camera view; but an ARG implies gaming in the real world in a different sense. ARG is a game that pretends to be real and involve the world. Like leaving the house! Or making a real phone call to an 800# that’s part of the game... stuff lets the game pretend to be actually happening, and your computer/handheld is just a part of something bigger going on. Now, AR could be a great part of an ARG, these days!

  • Jaggins

    The key to this game is friending other players.  You can then teleport to their beacons.  We routinely "raid" downtown Seattle with 10-20 players battling it out.  Having real players running around downtown to access the enemy for surprise attacks takes this game to the next level.

  • Anonymous

    I'm addicted to Shadow Cities! I'm not a gamer at all, but I got the hang of it after a day or two of playing. I think the "real world" aspect of it makes it so fun.

    • Bryan

      I totally agree.  I live in a town of 1500 people in the middle of nowhere, but by adding friends from bigger cities, the game totally opens up.  It took a couple of days wandering around on my own and talking to people to figure it out, but once I did it was totally worth it.  They have weekly campaigns pitting the Orange team against the Green team, and the best out of three winner gets a medal for each win.  There are several smaller objectives within each larger level, and this is the best part of the game.  You can see how you are contributing to the "bigger picture" by seeing how much energy you have obtained on the leaderboard.  They also have contests amongst the entire community of Shadow Cities, and post "Hall of Fame" lists at the end of the respective campaigns, so you can have an idea of how you compare to the entire community.

      In short, this is a wonderful game that is very addicting.  If you give it a chance, ask people already playing the game questions, and put in some time, it will definitely be the best free game you have EVER downloaded.  I promise.

  • Sami Salmenkivi

    You don't have to be in densely populated areas to play - friend a higher level Mage and jump to their Beacons for action. Actually being in a not so crowded area is good, because you can harvest energy on your backyard without being hassled, and jump to cities for battles.