During their September Special Event, Apple announced a new game: The Machines. The game showcased the new iPhone hardware’s focus on Augmented Reality(AR) by rendering an entire three-dimensional map on top of a real world table. Instead of panning the camera and zooming in and out utilizing touch controls, players use the phone itself as a viewpoint into the action. Physically moving around the table “turns” their point of view. Moving the device closer or farther away actively zooms in for a close up or out for a birds eye view. The actual game being played on this virtual battlefield is a MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) style confrontation where each side competes for who can blow up the opposition’s towers and subsequent base first.
Even though I am personally not a huge fan of Real Time Strategy(RTS) games, I was curious to see how this game would perform, especially considering how boastful both Apple and its developer, Directive Games, were during the presentation. Once I got my iPhone 8, I cringed moderately at the five dollar price tag, closed my eyes and pushed the download button.
Upon loading, the game immediately asks the player to point the camera towards a flat surface, like a table. Bring a table within frame and an overlay rectangle very accurately starts tracking where the phone detects there is a table. A few taps later and the game’s home menu is setup: across the surface of the table and hovering above it. It was a little bit surreal and unexpected for even the menu to be handled in AR, but kind of cool. On the left side, sat some kind of silo with my player name on it which, upon touching, rendered my player stats in the air in front of me. Towards the right, a ship labeled “Battles”, gave me the option to do either Single or Multiplayer.
Sometime before the menu or right after choosing Single player mode, the game provided a short hands-on overview of how the controls work. Players control two Machines and can give them commands by centering the viewpoint on the target location or enemy and tapping one of several on-screen buttons. The game renders a targeting reticle in the center of the view point so it is pretty easy to aim. If there are too many enemies clustered together, moving closer to zoom in usually helped with selection precision.
That was it though. What is the game objective? How do the different deployable turrets work? What are those color coded towers? These questions and many more were not answered at all within the game. Granted, it was not rocket science to figure out the “flow” of the game is pretty much to destroy all enemy towers in order to be able to destroy the enemy base. But, there are many other details about the game that were not explained. And, through most of the rounds that I played, I felt a bit lost.
Only after several more rounds under my belt did some of the mechanics start to make sense. I also developed certain strategies, both in how to approach encounters and also how to set myself up to play the game in the physical world; rendering the game board on the floor instead of on a table. The latter detail I discovered completely by accident. I was wanting to play so had to find a flat surface. The dining table was covered in folded clean laundry and the living room was being utilized. I literally had no good surface to render the board on and, at the time, had completely forgotten to try the bed. So, I decided to attempt to render the board on the kitchen floor which happened to have just the right dimensions. The brilliance of the idea became clear when I played my first match. Rendering the world on the floor gave me a perfect birds eye view that looked down on the battlefield. It made spotting most of the paths on the map really easy; versus having to move laterally in order to regain line of sight on certain areas. It also made the AR experience really click as I truly felt like I was controlling tiny robots moving all over my kitchen floor. And right there may lie the beauty of the concept: finding that perfect spot to play; that perfect angle were it makes the most sense and the experience is heightened.
Although I played a few matches online against human opponents, most of my playtime was spent practicing against the A.I. which, to my disappointment, does not seem to scale in difficulty as my player rank increased. This meant that, with as little experience as I had gained, the computer was already the afterthought of a pushover. So, not only is there no single player campaign or story mode of any sort but they also made the single player A.I. plain suck. I understand that the primary focus of the game is multiplayer but this level of negligence was off putting.
My other big gripe with The Machines is that, so far, I have only experienced one map. One! Even if more maps become available once players rank up to certain levels, only having one map at the start seems pretty low. After all, the game has an above average price of entry which has left me feeling like I overpaid.
Put together, the production values are there. The detail on all the in-game models is pretty solid, even though players will rarely ever get to really appreciate it. The terrain is also well rendered and shaded. But, again, it is one map and a single set of machines, minions, turrets, towers and bases. I am crossing my fingers hoping that there will be more content either on the way as free downloads or behind the ranking system.
So, with the caveat that I only played the game for an hour or so, the experience was fun but underwhelming. The graphics and feel of Augmented Reality were developed well and the performance is noticeable. But, there seems to be a serious lack of content. If Directive Games already has plans on releasing more maps and machines for free, then the experience might actually improve with time. This means though that players on the fence on whether or not to buy the game, may just want to wait and see what happens.
Post Patch Impressions
A few weeks after my initial try of the game, an update was released that addressed some of my concerns; mainly the lack of a proper in-depth tutorial. Upon launching the game post-update, I was greeted by a much more lengthy tutorial that walked me through all the points of interest on the map and what each structure’s purpose is. Like how not all towers serve the same purpose. It was very helpful since some of the deductions I had made through trial and error were wrong.
Sadly, one detail worth noting that may or may not be related to the patch is that, after that initial play session post-patch, the game has been unsuccessful in detecting flat surfaces to render the board on. This means I have been unable to play the game at all! It has been this way for a couple of weeks now and, although issues like these will probably get fixed (at some point) by the developer, it does lend fuel to people’s request that the game allow players to manually set the game board when the automatic scan is unsuccessful. But, more so, it means players should be cautious about buying this game since they could find themselves unable to play it in its current state.
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