Hands-on with Pokémon GO

One week only! Mew appears! Buy items at the cash shop to increase your chance of capturing this mythical Pokémon!

PMGO concept mockup

It’s finally here. One of the longest-awaited games has arrived, and it’s a free-to-play phone game! Pokémon GO has arrived and everyone’s been talking about it. How does it play? How close are we to “real world Pokémon”? The Inverseman investigates.

In Pokémon GO, you use your phone’s GPS and internet to run around the real world to find and capture Pokémon at actual real world landmarks. From there, you can strengthen your Pokémon as well as yourself to take over gyms, specially marked landmarks, in the name of your faction in a worldwide battle to see who is the very best.

Ideally your experience is going to look like this.

Ideally your experience is going to look like this.

The best thing Pokémon GO has going for it is its immersion. Using your phone to track down Pokémon and then using phone’s camera to “see” Pokémon is an exhilarating experience, culminating in that last shake of the Pokéball. Scouring my hometown has been a blast so far as a wild encounter is never too far away. However, my hometown happens to be New York City… Sadly, in its current state, Pokémon GO is nowhere near as fun in the suburbs or in rural areas. Pokéstops, where you can get items, and gyms, turf to take over, are sparse out in the suburbs as there are fewer parks, museums, churches, and community centers within walking distance of your average development. Consequently, it becomes difficult to find Pokémon that aren’t Pidgey and Ratatta unless you travel miles away across dangerous highways. The most diehard non-urban players have taken to driving around town just to camp spots to restock on items or hunt whatever is local.

But if you actually live in the woods, it'll look like this.

But if you actually live in the woods, it’ll look like this.

While catching is a blast, evolving and battling, the other core tenants of Pokémon, aren’t as fleshed out. To evolve or strengthen your Pokémon, you must catch and release additional copies of it, which while easy with common Pokémon, means you’re a long ways away from a fully-evolved starter. In fact, it’s better off to delete your starter for more of its evolution candy once you get a clone with higher power. It’s a pretty typical phone game design and a necessary sink for all those Zubats you’ll catch. Battling, on the other hand, is not deep at all. Pokémon fans and hardcore RPG fans won’t appreciate the “tap-to-win” real-time combat system. Victory or defeat lies with who has the bigger numbers and bigger parties of trainers ganging up on a gym. That said, even if you do take over a gym, your tenure won’t last long. With a few special exceptions, gym turnover is within hours and sometimes minutes. At the moment there’s little incentive to claim a gym in the first place, bar taking screenshots for bragging rights. The game is extremely casual-focused instead of hardcore when it comes to combat. Veteran trainers will likely be getting their fix from other facets of the game. Personally, I get mine from filling my Pokedex and optimizing my experience.

PMGO crashing

Most of my first gym battles were loss-by-default since the game would crash every time. Much like this.

Since this is a phone game, you’re all dreading the cash shop, and I’m happy to say, at the moment it’s rather benign. Since Pokéballs are so common, buying them is pointless, and you may want to buy a lure to bring out Pokémon, but it’s not a requirement. If you’re in an urban area, a kindly stranger will usually tag a node with one already. There’s a big culture of helping other players out. Generally, when a monster appears, it appears for everyone, so when that rare Dratini appears, you’re naturally inclined to tell everyone around you so everyone can go home happy. I’ve had hunting sessions where I’d swap strategies with other players, theory-craft, and collaborate to get the most out of a lure-tagged spot. With a bit of coordination, you can grab some friends and for one harmless dollar from the each member of your party, you can squeeze out hours of wild encounters.

PMGO Server down

Server error is a bit too vague. It’s all too common for the game to crash and lock you out, but meanwhile everyone else is still on.

The game suffers many technical issues, which is probably the biggest strike against it. Servers will go down or kick random players regularly, particularly during peak hours of lunch break into the afternoon. Bugs and crashes litter the game, as if it was still in beta, and with no rollback, a critical capture or battle is as good as lost. In order for the game to count anything, your phone cannot be asleep, which means this already resource heavy app demands you find a way to disable sleep mode. Expect to invest in an external battery.

Proud of my Vaporeon, but I can't wait to get a Sylveon.

Proud of my Vaporeon, but I can’t wait to get a Sylveon.

 

Speaking of “feeling like a beta”, there are many features one would expect from a core Pokémon game or even a major phone game missing from Pokémon GO. Currently, there’s no leaderboard function or any progress tracker for the three factions, giving little incentive to turf war. Trading, a key Pokémon function, is absent, but that may be a blessing in disguise with the server quality. Then there’s social functions missing, like the ability to interact with other players or build a simple friends list. Fortunately, Niantic plans to implement all of these in future updates, as well as the later generation Pokémon, customization, and special events. Until then, we’ll have to take it on their word, which is basically the entire game in a nutshell, an exercise in faith.

PMGO first gym takeover

Eventually I did get to take that gym.

Right now, Pokémon GO is an objectively bad phone game: it’s buggy, it’s barely functional outside of a metropolitan area, it’s incredibly poorly optimized, and it’s woefully feature light. Yet everyone is playing it. Why? Because Pokémon has amazing brand strength; people trust Game Freak’s franchise and the developers at Niantic to deliver on the aforementioned promises. And in spite of the umpteenth game crash, there’s the deep level of immersion when you can gather with random strangers in a park to all cooperate on a hunt or compete with each other in real life.  To be able to connect with people over a game with such a low entry barrier across any age and difference is probably the nucleus of Pokémon, and as of writing as a guy born in NYC, it’s doing a fine job of it right now.  It’s far from perfect now, but Nintendo, Game Freak, the Pokémon Company International, and Niantic are all betting on black. We’ll just have to see if it all pays off, and I’m putting my bet in with them. Join me next time when I join the Cult of Gaia.

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Inverseman

The Inverseman is an evil overlord from an alternate dimension representing humanity's anti-existence who wound up becoming a modest civil servant.

Inverseman

The Inverseman is an evil overlord from an alternate dimension representing humanity's anti-existence who wound up becoming a modest civil servant.

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