Pokémon Go is now officially the United States’ biggest game in the history of mobile gaming. It’s very nearly poised to pass Snapchat, too which is one of the biggest apps in history period. There’s no denying that the game is one of the biggest crazes to hit the gaming world since well… Pokémon originally landed on the Game Boy. But is it any fun? Read on for our full initial review.
I say initial review, because I expect that the core experience of Pokémon Go will change somewhat rapidly, if Niantic can ever get a wrangle on the many server woes they’re experiencing due to overwhelming demand. Almost makes you think they should have consulted some MMO companies before pressing the green button on launch day, right?
The stability of the game has probably been the biggest detractor for me in this first week of play, with somewhat random disconnects and lock ups coming at the worst possible times – like when I was trying to catch an elusive Vulpix. I got it though, don’t you worry. It’s also true that connectivity to PG can be because of your cell carrier’s reliability, and there are several dead zones in my usual park which means I must (gasp!) pay attention to the world around me sometimes.
It’s also true that Pokémon Go is an absolute battery drain on any mobile device. Its combination of screen, motion sensing, GPS, and cell data pretty much pummels the lithium ion in your little pocket device, so if I was an investor I’d probably start funneling money into makers of portable battery packs for phones right about now. Sure you can turn on battery saver mode, which turns the screen about as dark as possible when you flip the phone upside down to go into, say, your pocket. It helps, as does downloading map data in Google Maps for offline use to your phone. (You’re welcome for those two tips, if you hadn’t seen them elsewhere yet).
The real key to saving battery life and keeping people from being glued to their screens while walking off of cliffs will be when the Pokémon Go Plus wearable comes out soon. Though it’s already sold out at the only retailer with pre-orders (GameStop), it’ll likely be everywhere soon enough and the only question mark is how many people will be bold enough to wear a pokeball on their wrist or lapel? The Go Plus will reportedly allow you to leave your phone screen off and get alerts on the little wearable, and then press a button to capture nearby Pokémon or get vibrates when something new appears or you’re close to a Gym or Stop. We’ll see how well it works, but for $35 I’m even considering getting the thing if Pokémon Go still has its hooks in me when the doodad hits shelves.
But what about the gameplay of Pokémon Go itself? What exactly do you do, and is it any fun? For those uninitiated, or those who missed out on the cult hit Ingress, Pokémon Go basically is a 1:1 scale version of the real world that uses your phone or tablet’s GPS to place Pokémon, Gyms, and PokeStops all over the world. Your goal is to travel the world, catch all of the Pokémon, train them up, and take control of the Gyms with your chosen faction (there are three, and Blue is best by the way). It’s a really addictive practice of roaming around your neighborhood, park, mall, work, and looking to see what Pokémon might show up next. It’s great because the game’s maps (using data populated for half a decade by Ingress, Niantic’s other game) know the difference between water, parks, and so forth which means Pokémon differ at times of day, locations and more.
Capturing a Pokémon is like a game of Paper Toss on your old touch phone from years ago. The higher their CP (Combat Power), the hard they are to catch. For catching Pokémon, even duplicates, you earn Stardust and Pokémon-specific candy. These resources can be used to power up or evolve your catches, which works well enough for the common species like Pidgey and Weedle. But if you have a rare catch like Tauros or Jigglypuff, good luck upgrading those. A solution would be to allow people to trade spare candy for stardust, or vice versa, so they could at least power up rarer Pokémon.
The system of collecting potions, pokeballs, revives, lures, and more from Pokestops is actually really decent. The game’s meant to be played out in the wild, walking around, so it’s nice that the game rewards you for travel. But some areas, like my neighborhood, are terrible for the sort of landmarks that are used for Gyms and Stops, so I’d like to see Niantic open back up the Landmark Submission feature that fueled Ingress’ growth for years.
The Gyms are, for all intents and purposes… pointless outside of bragging rights. Which I mean, is cool. It’s like DAOC the way the three factions (Yellow, Blue, Red) are fighting and organizing via unofficial social media accounts and forums. But as of right now, there’s really not much point to capturing them and holding them except to get the Defender Rewards that come in when people try to take your spot on the pedestal out. Someone who’s way more hardcore than I (Looking at you, Dreamo84) can tell me if I’m in the wrong.
Battles themselves are just “have higher CP and tap fast on the enemy” but hopefully that changes soon. Right now, the act of fighting Pokémon is far less engaging that actually hunting them and that’s a damn shame.
And that’s about all there is to Pokémon Go… for now. This is the beginning of a multi-year game that will probably last longer than many MMOs. There are only 133 Pokémon in the PokeDex right now, and something north of 700 out in the series. We already know player-to-player trading of Pokémon is coming, and there’s rumor that real turn-based combat akin to what we have in the rest of the series is coming soon. Maybe even real PVP duels in the wild.
As a game, Pokémon Go needs work. As an experience, it’s very unique, addictive, and well… it’s captured the attention of just about everyone and it’s not even a worldwide release yet. With Pokémon Go, Nintendo and Niantic are essentially delivering the Pokémon experience fans have been craving for a decade and it just so happens that the game is something that lures gamers and non-gamers alike. It’s hard to deny the benefits to mental health, fitness, and even social health experienced by players. But it comes with just as many real world danger implications. There’s also the fact that on iOS, Pokémon Go requires TOTAL access to your Google Account, which is a security risk some may not be willing to take. Let’s not even get started with the people falling off cliffs and finding dead bodies.
All that said, Pokémon Go is fun. It’s just a beginning, but I can’t put it down. It’s free, and what you can spend money on can also be earned in the game easily. If you’re into this sort of thing, if hunting down fake digital monsters in the real world with friends or alone sounds fun, then try it. You may be disappointed in the combat, but the real world adventures are worth the data plan overages.
GAMEPLAY: 7 | It’s incredibly addicting to run around your haunts, hunting Pokémon and raising their levels. My wife, a non-gamer, is absolutely hooked. But the combat is terrible, and the Gym control system favors the highest level, with little to no room for new or time-limited players.
VISUALS AND SOUND: 7 | The AR gimmick is nice, but just a gimmick. The overall UI design look and feel is spot on, but also not very intuitive. That said, the classic Pokémon music and sounds work well, and the way they use sound as cues is brilliant.
LONGEVITY: 9 | There’s literally the entire globe to explore, and by the time most people catch all 133 Pokémon and get sick of leveling them, chances are there’ll be more to catch and more features to play with. It’s something you could spend real hours doing because the act of traveling around is one that takes time. At the same time, there’s just not a lot to do outside of walk, hope to find what you’re looking for, and try to take gyms.
SOCIAL: 9 | This is one of only a few games that require you to actually physically go out meet and work with other people, but at the same time you can do it all solo. The way it’s bringing people of all types together is nothing short of extraordinary, but it’d be even better with faction chat, guilds, and more.
POLISH: 5 | Simply put, it wasn’t ready to launch. But it did, and it’s playable… when the servers are working. UI can use polish, and tutorials would be nice. But with the money PG is making, I expect things to improve quickly.