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To get to the games on the N81, you simply navigate to the Applications icon on the main menu then go through that to the N-gage application. Here you get a set of tabbed windows that allow you to view and setup a player profile, choose from your available games, handle your friends list and download new games, add-ons or trial versions from the N-gage Showroom. If all that sounds fairly familiar, it's because it's not hard to see where Nokia has got its inspiration from: Microsoft's Xbox Live Service. As with Xbox Live, you have your own personal profile, your own friends list and a running points score, boosted by earning achievements in your N-gage games. What's more, the service offers online leaderboards and proper online multiplayer gaming through its Arena section, not to mention downloadable content through the Showroom. You can connect through your provider's 3G or EDGE services, or through a Wireless LAN or PC Internet connection via Bluetooth. Clearly the latter options are preferably if you're planning to spend a lot of time online.
The new-fangled N-gage application and services show a lot of promise. I had a few issues getting things working smoothly with my own LAN connection (poor coverage in my area prevented me from trying a proper mobile connection), but the interface is clear, the personal profile system is roughly as effective as the equivalent on Xbox Live, and the Showroom facilities give you an easy way to find and try new games - not least because all N-gage games seem to have a free trial version, which you can then unlock if you want the full product. I honestly think that Nokia has taken the right approach here - after all, the close integration of Xbox Live with the Xbox 360 hardware and games line-up has been a huge selling point for Microsoft, and there's a lot of potential in the idea of mobile online gaming. I might never have tried it, but I know that more than a few people got into Pocket Kingdom just because the idea of an MMO you could dip in and out of wherever you were was so appealing. The multiplayer-focused Reset Generation, which stems from the same producer, Scott Foe, should be a real feather in the N-gage cap.
For now, however, Nokia still faces the same problem it faced with N-gage version 1: a lack of truly compelling content. We all know that we have to make allowances when playing games on a mobile phone - which is part of the reason why simple, graphically unambitious, easy-to-control titles have been the most successful games on these platforms. All the same, there's nothing I've played on N-gage that really stands up to what's available on the DS or PSP.