The ROG Phone 3: of microtransactions and true gaming

Dominik Bärlocher
Zurich, on 30.10.2020
Cutter: Armin Tobler
Translation: Patrik Stainbrook
What good is a gaming phone if the industry surrounding it wants nothing but your money? Not much. So join me as I explore the horrifying depths of the mobile gaming landscape.

With a maximum refresh rate of 160 Hertz, 16 GB of RAM, 512 GB of memory and an overclocked Snapdragon 865+ system-on-a-chip, the Asus ROG Phone 3 appears quite solid. It's so good in fact that most other phones will struggle to keep up with this proud 6.59-incher. After all, the ROG Phone is a gaming phone. Moreover, it's the de facto industry standard. Granted, it's a pretty empty market, and the Xiaomi Blackshark can't really be called competition now can it?

ROG Phone 3 (16GB) (512GB, Black, 6.59", Dual SIM, 64Mpx, 5G)
1169.–
ASUS ROG Phone 3 (16GB) (512GB, Black, 6.59", Dual SIM, 64Mpx, 5G)

ROG Phone 3 (12GB) (512GB, Black, 6.59", Dual SIM, 64Mpx, 5G)
992.–
ASUS ROG Phone 3 (12GB) (512GB, Black, 6.59", Dual SIM, 64Mpx, 5G)
ROG Phone 3 Strix (8GB) (256GB, Black, 6.59", Dual SIM, 64Mpx, 5G)
849.–
ASUS ROG Phone 3 Strix (8GB) (256GB, Black, 6.59", Dual SIM, 64Mpx, 5G)

Nevertheless: it's not worth buying. But this has nothing to do with the actual hardware. It's wonderful. No, the problem lies squarely with the Android Play Store: is doesn't even contain one single decent game. Which brings up the question: what's the point of a gaming phone if there's nothing to play?

Therefore: review's over. Let's talk about the absolute dumpster fire that is mobile gaming.

All I really want to do is beat people up

Let’s take a look back. Here's my story. I'm a Mortal Kombat fan, among other things. I look back fondly on the year 1992. I'd be sitting in front of my home tube TV, and suddenly this commercial flickered across the screen.

Whoever let out that cacophonous «Mortal Kombat» at 0:15 deserves a medal. I can hardly remember the game itself, or whether it was MKI or MKII that I played first. But I sure do remember the movie. And there it was again: «Mortal Kombat!»

Then, 26 years after the cult classic was released, I realised that I could play Mortal Kombat on the ROG Phone 3. Simply the idea of having Scorpion beat up some fools and smash their heads in sounds fantastic. I could already hear the announcer calmly proclaiming «Fatality» right after tearing some opponent's head off and separating their spine from the staggering torso. All while calmly commuting, of course. Not so boring anymore, public transport. Needless to say, I was rather excited.

Spoiler: in the end I still prefer riding my bike to work.

But what a let-down: Mortal Kombat for Android is complete and utter garbage. The trailer and screenshots looked extremely promising. There's Scorpion, an undead yellow ninja fuelled by anger at a world that wronged him. The thunder god Raiden shoots lightning, Jade has a new outfit. Blood, blood everywhere. Bones breaking. Visceral. The range of characters looks great. Even alternative costumes from the past are included. As separate fighters? With different skills? My first thought: Mortal Kombat! And immediately the soundtrack is stuck in my head again.

But the truth hurts. You start off with these three clowns.

Where's Scorpion? Or Sub-Zero?
Where's Scorpion? Or Sub-Zero?
  1. Shirai Ryu: a grey ninja I never heard of.
  2. Osh-Tekk: what even is that?
  3. Monk: creative bankruptcy in the shape of a video game character.

I'm playing a game in which four-armed monsters can battle against thunder gods or ninjas who shoot ice. And I get «Monk»? Go to hell, Warner Bros. Interactive.

A second disappointment quickly follows the first. I try to play the game. To make Scorpion perform «Get over here», conventional franchise entries have you pressing Back, then Forward and – if I remember correctly – Punch. The exact combo isn't really important, I just want to be able to make Scorpion stand up, say his line and shoot his chains.

In Mortal Kombat on Android, «Monk» is too busy trying not too die from even the slightest injury. Granted, challenging fights can be fun if they require player skill. But all you really do is just tap somewhere on the screen using your right thumb. At some point the game demands you swipe down or up. Wow, exhilarating.

Even after playing with «Monk» and his insipid colleagues for two hours, I spent little time beating people up. First and foremost, the game is primarily about buying things that are supposed to make «Monk» stronger. Spend 10 gold and some 15 souls and receive a new left sock for «Monk» so that his kick is 2% stronger.

This is the main focus of the game. You either have to fight absurdly long to afford all the power ups, or spend your hard-earned cash to win faster and hopefully, eventually have Scorpion rip Raiden's head off. But instead of perfecting my skills and learning how to line up combo after combo to stun lock Raiden, you have to figure out if «Monk» is better suited to a right sock or the headband.

This isn't Mortal Kombat.

Okay, let's try something else.

A Rose By Any Other Name... a journey into mediocrity

Let's see how Injustice 2 does. At least I can actually control some of these superheroes. Seriously. Warner Bros. thankfully doesn't have the gall to throw in «Monk» here as well.

To my immense shame, however, it's just the same game with reskinned characters. You beat up fools as Batman for a moment, then spend the other 95% dealing with your heroes' socks to improve their kicks. Maybe Batman should ask «Monk» for advice.

Why do I have to buy this? What the hell?
Why do I have to buy this? What the hell?

But good news! Power Gems are on sale. 200 rare purple crystals, whose purpose still isn't completely clear to me, for only one franc. Who could resist that? And if I get the new power socks, I might soon be able to afford the right glove that improves your power punch. Maybe even the new breastplate that boosts your defence by 1.5%.

That's how it goes. I doodle around for a bit, then navigate through half a dozen screens that either feel like they're rewarding me or trying to sell me something. I can either acquire this stuff that I don't really need, or invest the money. One franc here, two francs there. And so that I don't realise how much money I'm actually spending, Warner Bros. introduced several currencies whose exchange rates are kept as vague as possible.

200 Power Gems cost one franc. But how much does a SIM card cost? Or a thousand coins? Or one of those green things that aren't really transparent regarding their use? Because I need them all. Batman's new left sock doesn't just cost 3000 coins, but something like «3000 coins, 2 SIM cards, 1 green thing and 5 power crystals». No wonder no one can keep up with how much money they're actually wasting. And if this entails squeezing through 35 screens with rewards and all that junk just to get to the next 20 second fight... Shut up and take my money.

All I really want to do is beat people up.

I'm escaping to the one place that hasn't been corrupted by capitalism... space!

Well, guess I won't get to give people traumatic brain injuries today. Driving around in public transport, not being able to afford the shoulder pad of power, level 3, for «Monk» really makes you want to throw the 240 gram ROG phone at a passer-by's head. I'd rather spend the money on petrol for my motorbike. Seems more reasonable to me. Healthier too. For anyone around me as well. After all, I was just trying to complete a mission. Ok, now I'm really getting angry. I can't even get past my first opponent. Either I spend a bunch of money to beat the boss right now, or I grind up «Monk» and his merry men for hours on end just to afford the nail polish that can destroy concrete.

Disillusioned, I try another game from another franchise that I really like: Star Trek Fleet Command. Excuse me. I am of course referring to «Star Trek™ Fleet Command». After all, anyone could steal the IP if they left out the «™», no? I'm already annoyed by the title of the game. How petty can a licensor be?

You play as the Captain of the USS Constellation, out to take on some Klingons. I want to bring honour to Starfleet, not only as a warrior. I want to build infrastructure, help the Federation on its mission of peace. And I also want to find creative ways out of situations in which I have to fight against gods and godlike creatures as a normal Starfleet captain. Like James T. Kirk against Trelaine. Or Jean-Luc Picard against Q. Even the best phasers and photon torpedoes don't stand a chance against creatures who decide to look like a human for the fun of it, but can change reality at will.

For only 17 bars of gold-pressed latinum, 45 tritium and 100 other things I can buy better armour for my ship. Or invest the money. Only 4.50 francs can go a long way, maybe even help you win. Because the Constellation can go for maybe four battles against some space pirates before it explodes.

Only 4.50? What an offer!
Only 4.50? What an offer!

This is life with the ROG Phone 3. No game is worth its weight in gold. Even if they cost nothing to install. «Free to Play» is a phrase I come across a lot. That may be, but game developers won't tell you the second part of that sentence. «Free to play, pay to win».

That's how it's always been.

Looking back

Nevertheless, what we've got here is some extremely powerful hardware that fits in your hand well and can be cooled externally thanks to the included attachable fan. This works, then the ROG Phone 3 even comes with a monitoring app where you can see how well the system is performing under certain circumstances.

I choose to sacrifice a morning shift to compile a real video game as an Android app. Emulators have been a thing for a while, but I want to know if there's another way. Yup. Super Mario 64 runs reasonably well. There's some blurry frames, especially in my favourite level Whomp's Fortress, but it's less frustrating than having to buy 200 bars of latinum knee pads so that maybe someday I can beat up someone with Scorpion or some other cool character.

Mobile gaming, a sorry state of affairs. Enticing deals everywhere, a lame pay-to-win system. You don't need skill, you don't need thoughts. Just tap on the screen during your commute, invest some more money and start the whole charade all over again.

Time for a comparison: which game subscription service is *the best for you?**
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What a shame. Then the ROG Phone offers powerful hardware, but it's all messed up by game developers. Even if you're a gamer, investing 1000 francs into a gaming phone just isn't worth it if there are no games that take advantage of this hardware and are worth playing at the same time. You'll be tempted by an industry of half-truths, microtransactions and misleading advertising to spend more money on things that aren't fun and only lead to more spending.

This isn't Asus' fault. I would like to see an industry that justifies the development of such a phone. I want to be able to buy a gaming phone in good conscience, with the knowledge that I'm really getting my money's worth. And most of all, I want to have fun, both with my phone and the games I play on it. This just isn't it. All you get here is a 1000 franc phone used for games that will only bankrupt you further.

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Dominik Bärlocher
Dominik Bärlocher
Senior Editor, Zurich
Journalist. Author. Hacker. A storyteller searching for boundaries, secrets and taboos – putting the world to paper. Not because I can but because I can’t not.

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