The launch of Pokémon GO has been more than a little rocky, with regions left out for hours or days and servers crashing left and right when they finally have been turned online. Fortunately, thanks to this job, I get to play Pokémon during the day while everyone is still at work or school, meaning I had a full day of servers mostly working yesterday, and got to spend a fair amount of time with the game.
I racked up a collection of 22 different Pokémon (I caught probably over 80 total, with duplicates) and my heavy hitters right now are Hypno, Jynx and weirdly, a Bulbasaur that wasn’t even my starter. I even took over my own gym for a spell.
Am I having fun? Yes. Is this a very good Pokémon game? Absolutely not.
It’s simultaneously a huge disappointment and also something that has exceeded my expectations. Those two things sound mutually exclusive, but I’ll try to explain why that isn’t actually the case. I’ll start with the bad.
Pokémon GO is a pretty awful Pokémon game. It lacks everything everyone likes about Pokémon other than the existence of the Pokémon themselves. Everyone knew the game would be simplified to some degree for AR gameplay, but what we’re left with is just…such a bummer.
Everything you know about catching, training and battling Pokémon has essentially been thrown out the window.
You do not catch Pokémon by battling them with your own, whittling down their health until you can capture them. You simply flick Pokeballs at them until they relent.
You do not train your Pokémon through battles. You get currency from catching both duplicate Pokémon and Pokémon in general to level up a single stat “Character Power” (CP).
You do not battle your Pokémon with turn-based strategy. You essentially mash your enemy with taps to the face until either you or they die. You can dodge and your type factors into it a bit, but it’s stupidly simplistic.
The only one of these points I’m willing to concede is the capture system. Given that the game is about walking around (hence the “GO”) if I had to stop and fight every single one of the 80 Pokémon I’ve caught in the last day with my Poke-team, that would have been a lot of standing around in the middle of sidewalks for an extremely long time. To keep things moving, I think the “headshot them with a Pokeball” system is actually not all that bad as a compromise.
But I draw the line there.
Training Pokémon is just…strange. Since you’re not fighting wild Pokémon and the only battles are at gyms, you essentially train them by just…catching a crap-ton of other Pokémon. If the game wants to use Pokémon as currency? Fine, but the current system just plain sucks.
Say I catch a CP 60 Drowzee. Early in the game, that’s pretty good. He costs 200 “stardust” and 1 “Drowzee candy” to pump up (each Pokémon evolutionary line has their own unique candy currency for leveling/evolving, which is why you need duplicates). I catch another 35 CP Drowzee, then a 20 CP one and a 10 CP one (there are lots of Drowzees by me). I have a decent amount of Drowzee candy now from all these duplicates, so I start investing in my 60 CP Drowzee, and pump him up to 120 CP.
Then, I find a 140 Hypno in the wild, Drowzee’s evolution. I realize I have done nothing but waste Stardust and candy on my 60 CP Drowzee, because even after he’s upgraded, if I “transfer him to the professor” (I’m hoping this isn’t a euphemism for Poke-euthanasia, since you can’t get them back), I get the same single piece of candy I got when I gave away any of the lower level Drowzees.
The point is that you feel really hesitant about investing too heavily in anything because you can usually find something that outclasses it, and everything you’ve invested elsewhere has essentially been wasted. The best plan seems like it’s to pump up one or two Pokémon only so you’re unlikely to find a version of them in the wild that is better, but that only really works for ultra-common Pokémon, Pidgeys, Rattatas, and in my case, Drowzee.
What the game needs is a Destiny-like Infusion system (don’t laugh) where somehow these duplicates can be merged in a way to make one uber-version. It’s about halfway there, but it’s too stripped down and simplistic to work effectively, and you feel like you’re wasting precious resources in the current system.
Also unforgivable is what Pokémon GO has done with battling. Turning Pokémon battles into a button-mashing tap-fest is just embarrassingly bad. I understand if they didn’t want to do a full turn-based move system with attack buffs and special moves and elaborate tactics, but there has to be something more complex than what we have, a series of taps and swipes that makes Fruit Ninja look like Dark Souls. Battles are way, way too fast, and if you don’t just start mashing, you will lose, so you mash away and hope your CP is high enough to prevail.
And there should simply be more battling. Gyms are not terribly prevalent or easy to get to (not to mention they will soon all be owned by crazily high-level players), and it’s bizarre that this game doesn’t have some kind of functionality where you can battle strangers or NPCs on the street, or friends nearby or online. But the battle gameplay itself would have to be much improved for this to even be worthwhile.
So that’s the bad. There’s a lot of it. This is like 25% of a good mobile Pokémon game. Even if you’re not expecting anything close to the complexity of the Nintendo handheld games, you will still probably be disappointed with most gameplay aspects of Pokémon GO.
And yet, the game is crazily addicting, a lot of fun and possibly the most significant advancement in the battle against obesity in recent memory. I’m not kidding.
I doubled my average step count yesterday because I was wandering around my city, collecting PokéShop landmarks and hunting Pokémon. I went outside for the sole purpose of exploring the area around me and playing the game. I discovered landmarks I either never knew existed, or had passed a million times and never actually noticed before. I was outdoors and moving instead of sitting on my couch, controller in hand. I talked to two other guys at a Lured PokéShop downtown who were also playing, and I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve spoken to a total stranger unprompted outside of people working in retail. No game has ever made me do anything like this.
I know that Pokémon GO is not the first AR game on the market. The entire game is essentially a skin of Niantic’s last AR game, Ingress, which also motivated people to move in real life to complete objectives. And yet, it’s impossible to deny marrying the world of Pokémon to this concept is anything but a genius idea, and something that takes it to a new level. From what I saw in the previews, I was more than a little underwhelmed by the time the game’s launch rolled around, but despite its many problems, despite the fact that it could be so much more than it is, it’s really quite enjoyable. It is cool to see a Caterpie in your local park or a Ghastly floating over the sidewalk or a Zubat in your bathroom (those things get everywhere). The AR aspects of this are pretty great, and when combined with the geo-based stuff, it’s a home run for the entire emerging genre.
I know I’m probably spoiled living in a major city. I can make a two block circuit and hit eight PokéShops and a gym, and probably catch a half dozen Pokémon on the way. I’ve heard that in more rural areas the game is almost impossible to play, with landmarks and wild Pokémon few and far between, but for where I live? It could not be more perfect.
It has been over a decade since I played a video game that was technically a workout. No, Wii Bowling doesn’t count, as I’m flashing all the way back to when I dropped 20 pounds in high school by sweating to Dance Dance Revolution for an entire summer. Pokémon GO isn’t that level of intense, but I am literally adding miles to my day, every day, if this becomes a habit, to catch Pokémon, hit landmarks and hatch eggs. That is an achievement, and I’ve heard stories about people with social phobias venturing outside for the first time in ages because of Pokémon GO. I’ve heard of severely overweight players setting goals that they were going to walk far enough to hatch one egg a day. This game has the potential to affect real change in people’s lives, and that’s nothing short of a miraculous achievement.
But for all the health benefits, I worry about a few of the health risks as well. For as much cardio as you may get from Pokémon GO, because the game essentially forces you to keep the app open and check it constantly, you are really not paying attention to where you are much of the time. Add in headphones, and the game can feel downrightdangerous because of how much it engrosses you. Moving while having your vision andhearing diverted by a game is dangerous and if I, a grown adult, can almost be hit by two separate bikes and a car in one day, I really do worry about kids playing this and not paying attention to where they are. And past that, I can easily see kids chasing Pokémon into places they shouldn’t be messing around in (bad parts of town, crosswalks, hell, the damn fire station by my house is a PokéShop). I have not heard any confirmed reports ofPokémon GO-related injuries or accidents yet, but unfortunately, I think they’re inevitable.
So, this is how a game can both underwhelm and surpass expectations. With such a stripped down experience that takes away so much about what makes Pokémon, Pokémon, the game could have easily been a total disaster. But what little it does do is so addicting and activity-inducing that it still feels worth playing.
My experience with the game will evolve as time goes on, and I’m sure the game itself will grow, as it’s already a huge hit and will likely gain the resources it needs to refine itself. But if you’re skeptical, and you live in an area that’s conducive to it, I highly suggest giving Pokémon GO a try. I was ready to hate it, and though there are some aspects of it I can’t stand, overall, I can’t deny I’m pretty hooked.