Pokémon GO was announced last year, and people have been freaking out about it ever since. The original trailer (included below) blew everyone’s minds, and it was a tough wait. I mean, it’s a big deal – this is something we’ve all been dreaming of since the original Pokémon games came out! We’ve all wanted to set out on a Pokémon adventure with our friends, and return home with a collection of Pokémon that we can be proud of.
Finally, it launched – and this summer has been the summer of Pokémon GO. It has taken over the world, and is a full blown social phenomenon – but is it a great game? Not really, but it’s good enough to merit a download.
We’ve been waiting to review the game for a while, and we think that Pokémon GO has been out for long enough that we’re ready to score it. So here we go!
I downloaded Pokémon GO as soon as it was available in the United States, and I’ve been playing it obsessively ever since then. I don’t need to tell you this, but the first few weeks were full of bugs, glitches, and crashes. This is something that has to be addressed right off of the bat – Pokémon GO is not a super reliable game. It will crash, it will glitch, and it’s not always going to work the way it should. Niantic has tried their best to keep up with the insane amount of traffic, and they’ve gotten a lot better at it since launch. It’s not a deal breaker, but it is something to keep in mind before you use an item or pick up an in-app purchase.
Now, the gameplay itself is simple. Remember Ingress? No? That’s okay. It was Niantic’s last game, and it, too, was a massively multiplayer game based in augmented reality. It’s actually a fantastic game, and I hope the success of the new game makes people want to check it out. Anyway, Pokémon GO takes the map and GPS function almost directly from Ingress and coats it in a Pokémon skin. You create and customize a trainer, and then you’ll see your avatar walking around what looks like Google Maps. From time to time, small animated Pokémon will show up on screen – tap them, and you’ll go into a catching game (pictured above). Flick a Pokéball at the ‘mon on your screen, and watch those three familiar shakes. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch it and it’ll be added to your collection. If not, you’ll either get another chance (given you have another Pokéball) or it’ll run away. Catching Pokémon will net you “candy” for that Pokémon’s evolution tree. Use that candy to evolve your Pokémon, and then use your most powerful monsters to control gyms in your area. That’s Pokémon GO.
You’ll inevitably end up with a ridiculous amount of weak Pokémon – like Pidgey and Zubat. You can release (or “transfer,” as the game calls it) these Pokémon in exchange for candy, which assists in the evolution process. Once your monsters are strong enough (you can check their CP to see how strong they actually are), you can take on gyms – these are designated locations on the map. One of the three teams can control the gym at any one time. Team Valor (red team), Team Mystic (blue team), and Team Instinct (yellow team) are the three factions you can choose from once you hit level five. If you manage to defeat the Pokémon protecting the gym in question, you can take the gym for yourself. Each gym has a reputation, and each Pokémon you defeat will result in a decrease in rep. If you bring it to zero, it’s up for grabs – below, you can see a screenshot I took a few weeks ago after taking a gym.
Catching Pokémon isn’t the only way you can collect them. You’ll also come across eggs (and other items) at Pokéstops around the world. These, like gyms, are predesignated points on the map (you can see one pictured below). If you’re in range, you can tap them, spin a picture around, and get some loot. If you get an egg, you can use an incubator to start hatching it. You then must walk a certain distance with the app open to hatch it – either 2km, 5km, or 10km. The distance impacts how rare the Pokémon is. Finding and hatching Pokémon gives people a great reason to get out and explore their hometown, and I’ve seen it work wonders. The one problem I have is that you have to have the app open all the time – it can be really frustrating if you’re trying to hatch an egg while walking a pet or doing something else (other than actively catching Pokémon).
To help you with all of this work, you can use items that you can either earn or buy. Lure modules bring wild Pokémon to Pokéstops (this benefits other players as well), incense attracts Pokémon to your location on the map, lucky eggs double your experience points, Razz Berries make Pokémon more likely to stay in the ball, and different types of Pokéballs can increase your catch rate.
Catching, hatching, evolving, and battling gyms are the core elements of Pokémon GO. The AR doesn’t always work, sometimes GPS is hard to get right, and the current lack of direct multiplayer (battle, trades, etc.) is frustrating. The gameplay is also extremely focused on grinding for levels. Some people love spending hours and hours leveling their characters, but the nature of Pokémon GO requires you to travel around. This limits the amount of play that’s realistically possible. It sounds like a game that has a wide audience, but not something that would become insanely popular – so why is everyone playing it?
A lot of it has to do with the greatest part of Pokémon GO – the social component. I have truly never seen a mobile game bring people together the way that Pokémon GO did this summer. Parks in my area were more crowded than they’ve been in months. Crowds gathered around Pokéstops and dropped lure modules, creating a social space for players of all kinds. The most I personally saw was a group of about fifty people at a park, but crowds of hundreds of people have been reported. It’s very cool, and very exciting. The Pokémon franchise has a reputation of bringing people together, and Pokémon GO is no different.
The amount of people out and about has decreased as of late, and it has been steadily decreasing since the game launched. This is concerning for the game’s future. It launched, and it seems like it immediately peaked. The game has stabilized considerably, but no major updates have been added – no Pokémon past the first 151 and no multiplayer features (though Niantic insists that these things are on their way). It still tends to make the news, and it’s a hot topic among gamers, but it makes me wonder whether or not Pokémon GO actually has a future beyond 2016. Hardcore Pokémon fans are sure to keep playing, but more casual players will start dropping off soon. Even for hardcore fans, the launch of Pokémon Sun & Moon this fall will give Pokémon GO a major drop in activity if there’s nothing new by then.
Even though there are a lot of concern, it’s true that Pokémon GO is a primarily social experience. Hunting for monsters with friends is a lot of fun, and the number of users will grow once more direct multiplayer features are added.
Being a mobile game, data usage and battery usage are obvious concerns for Pokémon GO players. Luckily, it doesn’t use up that much data. It is a battery hog, though, and the battery saver feature is essential. Turning off AR seems to help some people as well – it also makes Pokémon easier to catch, in my opinion.
Features have been added, removed, and re-introduced throughout the game’s life. To their credit, Niantic is extremely dedicated to making Pokémon GO better, and it’s clear by the way that they work on their game. It’s really great to see a developer care so much about their game.[By the way, the screenshot below has my dog meeting a Machop. It’s adorable, right? Pokémon GO is full of moments like these]
Pokémon GO is fun. I’ve spent over 1000 words talking about the game, but it boils down to whether or not it’s fun. It’s not a perfect game by any means – it’s not even a great one. The thing is, it doesn’t really matter right now. As long as a lot of people are playing Pokémon GO together, it’ll continue to be a success. I hope to see future updates make the game deeper, more interesting, and more directly multiplayer. For now, though, it will suffice to say that Pokémon GO is a good game that is made better when playing it with friends, strangers, and anybody that’s ready to explore the world and catch more Pokémon.
Score - 6
Pokémon GO has a lot of problems, and it's nowhere near the best iteration of the series. However, it's mass appeal and social power makes it a game that most people will want on their device.