Shadow Cities is a brilliant mix of GPS and MMO
While they certainly have their following, MMO’s are arguably something of a niche market. Location-based games, even more so. Given these facts, you’d think that a location-based MMO might have about as much appeal as a dead fish in a streetcar. Yet Shadow Cities manages to impress not merely as an MMO or as a location-based game, but as an original concept that could only work on a mobile phone.
Set in the real world around us, Shadow Cities tells the story of magic’s return to our planet after a 600 year absence. This magic is bleeding through at certain gateways, and along with this magic comes spirits bent on our destruction. Players will join a team, fight spirits, and try to lay claim to gateways as they level up to become the greatest mage in the neighbourhood.
At its most basic, Shadow Cities offers up all of the staples of a standard MMORPG. Players will have missions to complete, experience points to earn, spells to unlock and stat points to spend. That “just one more level” feel you get from a good MMO is absolutely front and center, even if the rest of the experience feels a little more lax than what MMO gamers might be used to.
Shadow Cities could probably be described as a casual MMO. Combat is as simple as targeting a spirit (or enemy mage) and casting an attack spell by drawing a Z on the screen. The missions, too, are equally simple. In some instances you’ll need to kill three spirits from the same house. In other instance you may need to kill three like-colored spirits. There’s nothing overly complicated here to bog things down. The developers at Grey Area seem to have a solid understanding that when it comes to mobile games, quick and easy is always a better choice than deep and convoluted.
Of course, simply attacking spirits and filling up your mission ticker would get old pretty quickly if that was all there were to the package. Thankfully, Shadow Cities is as much about playing with your team as it is about the combat itself.
Most social games on the iPhone tend to emphasize social as an added feature. Visit a friend’s farm to earn extra coins – that sort of thing. In Shadow Cities, however, making new friends is an absolute must. Meeting friends in the team chat (a very easy thing to accomplish) lets you add them to your friends list, which in turn will give you access to any beacons they’ve set up. These beacons serves as a waypoint, meaning you can now jump to their location in another part of the world. What’s the value in that? Try collecting three uncommon blue spirits without ever leaving your block, and you’ll see how important this becomes. Jumping from place to place is essential to hunting down your targets and completing your goals.
It’s also essential if you want to participate in the real meat and potatoes of the game – Player vs Player combat. Since a big element of the game revolves around controlling gateways, you’ll want to make sure that your team has the backup it needs to defend its property. When the opposing team starts to raid a gateway, be it in New York or Nantucket, players are quick to ask for help in the Team Chat. After a quick beacon jump (so long as you’ve made the right friends) you can be in on the action.
For all the things it does right, though, there are still a few kinks to work out in the system. For example, while the game is largely about controlling gateways, there are some places in the world that will come up as “Unknown Realm,” meaning there’s no Gateway nearby. What’s worse, other elements of the game like Dominators (towers you set up to gather energy) won’t work if you’re too far from a Gateway. And it’s not necessarily middle of nowhere places that are without Gateway’s either – I live in a densely populated area, yet I had to walk a mile to the west before I was considered in my own city by Shadow Cities.
Other elements, too, could use some tweaking. If any of my summoned items are under attack, I’d love to receive a push notification. And when vying for control of a Realm, I shouldn’t need to spend the game’s premium currency to bid for the Gateway. I’m all for premium currency in a game – but when so much of the game is about well strategized team-based attacks and defences, shouldn’t our hard work be rewarded without having to cough up some real world cash? Still – at the end of the day these are small complaints, and don’t really do much to mar an otherwise excellent game.
And if you’re looking to hold your control over an area without having to call in reinforcements, don’t worry – at higher levels you can cast spells to summon buildings that can help to keep you safe from enemy mage attacks, even if you’re not logged in at the time.
Shadow Cities really manages to hit all of the right notes. It’s a mobile MMO, yet it’s casual enough for 60 second sessions. It’s a location-based game, yet you can enjoy it from the comfort of your couch. It’s social, yet you’ll never need to bother your real world friends to play with you. In a word, Shadow Cities is sublime. Is it niche enough that it may not draw as big an audience as it deserves? Probably. But with a solid community already in place, Shadow Cities should have no problems keeping whatever audience it gets.