Welcome back to the Mobile Games Revue! This week, we’re going to Tackle the newest game from Niantic (it’s super effective!). If you haven’t heard of Pokemon Go yet, then it’s probably only because the Geodude you’ve been living under is particularly hard to catch. The game, which is free on Android and iOS, has taken the world (or, most of the world – sorry Canada and the UK) by storm. Pokemon Go memes are as thick as zubats – images and stories of people celebrating the nerdiness of chasing pokemon in the middle of the night; the community of groups of people getting together and making friends at the local PokeStop; businesses advertising rare pokemon that spawn nearby or offering discounts to PoGo players; and local government releasing statements advising people not to play while driving, and to be sure to do things like wear sunscreen and stay hydrated. I challenge you to scroll two pages down your facebook feed and not see something related to the game.
So the big question is: what’s so great about the game? And is it worth the hype? First, let’s start with the pros:
Pokemon Go is unquestionably fun. The gameplay is easy: run around (in the real world), hunting pokemon, tagging PokeStops (sources of potions, pokeballs, eggs and so on), and training at/taking down Gyms. Your trainer level increases by catching more pokemon and leveling them up, as well as visiting PokeStops and Gyms. It has what a good mobile game needs: a relatively intuitive gameplay style, but with enough depth to keep the interest of players (true to the Pokemon franchise, under the veneer of simplicity there is a more nuanced and complicated set of tasks to master).
It fosters a sense of community (and competition). Because you cannot play in the comfort of your own home (well, unless you’re one of the lucky sods who has a nearby PokeStop), you have to get out into the real world, and this often leads to side effects such as exercise, getting sunshine, and even occasionally meeting other human beings. It’s a uniquely fun experience to be wandering through your local cemetery and run into a couple who are chasing the same Gastly that you are, and start up a friendly conversation about how much it sucks that the servers keep going down.
The competition portion comes from the game’s three factions: Valor (Moltres), Instinct (Zapdos), and Mystic (the best one! I mean, uh, Articuno). Once you hit trainer level 5, you can choose which faction to ally yourself with. Gyms can be claimed by any color – if you are an opposing color to a gym, when you fight, it is with the intention of lowering the gym’s Prestige level, until you can overtake it entirely. It’s the opposite if you are training at a friendly gym – the more pokemon you defeat at a friendly gym, the more prestige the gym gains (and thus, makes it more difficult for an enemy to take down). And as with any arbitrary competitive assignment, people have already developed fierce loyalty to their color, and there’s some delightful smack-talk going on around the internet.
There’s a lot to do – sort of. If you gotta catch ’em all (all 151 of them), you’re in for a good chunk of gameplay. If training them is your cause, multiply that several times over (pokemon power up via candy of that pokemon’s type – so if you want to improve your Raticate, you need to catch a whoooole bunch of Rattata to get their candy). And if you want to be the very best, like no one ever was, then you could play this game your whole life. That said – while there is a lot to do technically, it’s sort of all the same stuff. Catch pokemon, level up pokemon, tag PokeStops, fight Gyms. Goals have to be self-set in PoGo (although there are achievements to strive for!), so that’s great for the people who thrive in that kind of game. People who want story or lots of unique gameplay are…well, probably not Pokemon fans to begin with, honestly.
I think the primary extender to PoGo’s length/replayability is (or will be) the geographical nature of it. Because you have to go places physically to play, it limits the amount you can realistically play per day, which means that you can’t just speed through the whole game in a few days at home. Besides which, suddenly every trip to the gas station, grocery store, or your weird aunt Minerva’s house is an exciting opportunity for new or better pokemon – which will keep not only the game fresh, but your errands also.
With that, on to the cons: The biggest one at the moment being the server issues. It is currently day 3 of the US release, and while server uptime is becoming increasingly more stable, it still isn’t up to snuff during peak hours. There is nothing quite so frustrating as having your long-suffering and kind boyfriend drive you across town to an isolated and unclaimed gym, only to have the servers go down when you arrive.
In the first few days, it was unplayable. Even if you got close enough to your sought-after Eevee without losing connection, and managed to hit it with the Pokeball, the entire game could freeze up. Close the game, reopen, relogin, and hope to Mewtwo that it lets you in. Often it wouldn’t. And, to rub salt in the wound, every time it crashed, you would not only have to log in again (or, if you use your Google account, “sign up” – there’s only one button), but it would forget your settings. Particularly obnoxious for me, since I disable the music.
As mentioned, this will resolve itself in time (I hope), but as of right now, it’s a significant downside.
It sucks if you live in a rural (or even suburban) area. Let’s compare reddit user smigreth‘s screenshot of downtown Sydney, with my screenshot of my town’s mall/shopping center area (one of the busiest places in town).
Racine is the third largest city in Wisconsin. I can only sympathize with the folks who live in smaller cities or out in the country. There is currently no way of submitting your own PokeStops, either, so people in un-Poke-populated areas are at the mercy of Niantic.
The main boss of Pokemon Go is your phone’s battery life – or your data plan. This game eats battery like you would not believe. GPS, constant screen use, and rendering 3D graphics takes an enormous toll on charge lifespan. I was in the car (passenger! don’t PoGo and drive!) and hunting pokemon while my phone was plugged in and charging – and I was still losing battery (albeit more slowly than otherwise). It takes approximately 45 minutes to 1 hour for my phone to go from full to single-digit percentages while using this app.
You can minimize your battery usage by disabling the AR function when catching pokemon (sadly, that’s one of my favourite parts of the game), and by enabling “battery saving” mode, which allows you to hold your phone upside down to stop the game rendering the graphics – but you’ll still receive notifications when a pokemon appears nearby. You can also purchase an external battery pack (I bought one from the Anker line) to extend your poke-hunting time.
PoGo also requires a data plan to play. While it is technically possible to play on WiFi only, you have to rely on there being PokeStops within WiFi range of wherever you’re going – and if the pokemon you’re tracking is just out of range…? Well, you’re out of luck. For people without unlimited data plans, it’s a good idea to keep an eye on your usage to avoid overage charges (or speed throttling).
Overall, Pokemon Go is a fun game and a great incentive to do stuff you should be doing anyway: going outside and meeting people. It’s great to be a part of worldwide in-jokes, engage in lighthearted bickering, and catch some cute pixel animals as you go. But for some people, the hype seriously oversells the game. Pokemon Go is almost less of a game and more of an experience. If you don’t already like Pokemon, if you don’t like leaving your house, if you don’t use facebook or reddit, or if you just don’t do well in sandbox games – it’s not the game for you. To get the most out of the game, you have to travel, you have to be social, you have to be able to set your own goals and stick to them, and it really helps if you already like Pokemon.