Is it phone? Is it a console? Bird? Plane? No, it's...
Coming out to play
We tried the N-Gage out with Tomb Raider, which for all its Tomb Raider 4 icon and title graphics is the first game in the series. Play felt fast and the control was responsive. The graphics aren't exactly Nvidia or ATI quality, but fine for a software renderer. Only the portrait display - rather than the landscape orientation we're used to playing games in, on a computer - felt odd, but you soon get sufficiently wrapped up in things not to notice.
The screen size is an issue, leading to bent backs and squinting eyes, but that's true of every handheld console we've tried, from the Atari Lynx onward. But the N-Gage's screen is smaller than most, limited by what the Series 60 UI can support. Again, Nokia's phone-centricity playing working to the detriment of the device's console functionality.
Dedicated consoles also offer more dedicated controls - aside from the joypad, the N-Gage simply uses the numeric pad for gameplay. Still, it's remarkably comfortable to use, though if every key is required, it can take some getting used to. The N-Gage sits nicely in a pair of adult hands, resting on second fingers, with thumbs over the front.
While the N-Gage feels good to hold when you're playing games or accessing the PIM apps, that's not the case if you're making a call. Perhaps if you're in the habit of using a headset - be it an overpriced Bluetooth job or a regular wired one - it might not matter, but we're not and it does. You can hold the N-Gage up to your ear as you would any other phone, but it's not comfortable. And which way up it goes is anyone's guess. The handset also operates as a speakerphone. That's handy when you're stationary but of little use if you're on the move.
The loudspeaker is activated on an application by application basis, and once turned on, you can largely get away without a headset. But powering down the device automatically turns each app's loudspeaker setting off, so have to turn it on again with each app you use.
The obvious answer might be to leave the N-Gage on. But you have to turn it off to change games. This involves removing the back cover, pulling out the battery, pushing down a catch and finally releasing the card that's in there already. Nokia seems to believe users will stick with one game until it's done, but our experience is that gamers like to mix and match.
The online dimension
We've talked a lot about the N-Gage hardware, and about the imbalance between phone and console features. Yes, Nokia hasn't got the balance right, but then neither would Nintendo or Sony, we suspect. But focusing on the hardware tells only half the story. Equally important is the device's online side.
Head-to-head Bluetooth gaming is a part of this, but not, we suspect, a key one. Some gamers will try it, a few might even do so regularly, but we suspect many won't. It works, but it's clearly dependent on knowing fellow gamers who own N-Gages too. We reckon more owners will use Bluetooth for headsets, at least for the immediate future. N-Gage LAN parties are some way off yet, we think.
No, what N-Gage offers that even the upcoming Playstation Portable lacks is an online community. We were dismissive of this when Nokia described it at the console's launch, but we found ourselves enjoying our attempts to race through Tomb Raider levels faster than a host of fellow gamers had managed it. Or watching replays of games, secret item locations, hints and tips, not only provided by Nokia, but by other users. Even their attempts at movie-making - balletic death leaps seem to be the 'in' thing - are fun to watch.
Nokia's N-Gage Arena doesn't yet provide head-to-head network play, but it will. And even the 'shadow' combat - playing against game sequences uploaded by other users to see if you can complete levels more quickly - has a real appeal. Yes, having engaged in many a fierce online real-time firefight, we were sceptical too, but it's surprisingly engaging. As yet, there aren't many players - we counted just 17 in the Orange Tomb Raider league, for instance - but more will come.
As a phone, the N-Gage is hard to recommend. The software and user interface are excellent, but its console design makes the hardware unfriendly and clumsy to use for voice unless you pay extra for a Bluetooth headset.
As a console, the N-Gage is flawed, but a gem nonetheless. We expected to be disappointed, but ultimately enjoyed using it. It's really only screen size that lets it down. Like all console in their early days, there aren't enough games, but hopefully they'll come. N-Gage uses the Mophun games engine, also used by Sony Ericsson and others, so game developers are not working in a vacuum.
And, unlike its rivals, N-Gage does provide a true online, as opposed to simply a networking, experience.
But here's a word of caution. N-Gage has its merits, but we've seen too many entries into the mobile market being beaten by better alternatives or let down by a paucity of top-brand titles. Nokia is a worthy challenger, but it will have its work cut out competing against GameBoy's extensive software catalogue and the prospect of Sony's entry into the market - even the knowledge that the PSP is coming is enough to keep some buyers waiting before they purchase. It may also persuade games developers to target other platforms.
Nokia's advantage is that its future doesn't depend on N-Gage - the console is an experiment in handset diversification. Nokia may not have won the game, but N-Gage has certainly helped it clear the first level. ®
|Pros||— Good game performance
— Excellent user interface
— Engaging online experience
|Cons||— Not a friendly voice phone
— Too small a screen
— Installing game cards is unnecessarily fiddly
|Price||£250 without contract; less with connection|
|More info||The N-Gage web site|