Suddenly everybody was wandering around with their phones almost glued to their faces. More so than usual, anyway. Within a short span Pokémon Go has seemingly taken over the world, and with it has come plenty of media attention, both good and bad. Normally I don’t play games on my phone, but for this one I wanted to make an exception. It’s another foray into the world of augmented reality (AR) gaming that just so happens to be riding on the coat tails of a huge franchise that has played a large part in many people’s childhoods.
So here are the basics of how it works. On your screen is basically a boring looking version of Google Maps and your avatar, who has incredibly shallow customisation. On this map Pokémon will appear as the player ambles around in the real-world, and once you’re close enough to a critter you can attempt to catch it, whereupon the game will hijack your camera for an AR experience, meaning a Pokémon can turn up on top of cars or on the wall outside of the local pub. You can always turn the AR mode off, though, which not only saves battery (the app will eat your battery like a monster) but also makes the whole process a bit easier since the Pokémon will stay centred in the screen, rather than you trying to keep it in view by waving the phone around madly To catch it you fling Pokéballs by flicking them toward the beast. Gone are the days of old where wild Pokémon had to first be battled and beaten into submission. This task is slightly complicated by holding down the Pokéball to get a circle as small as possible in order to catch it easier, or maybe calming the beast down with some fruit from your inventory. You can also twirl the Pokéball around in order to toss a curveball and potentially earn some bonus XP. Rarer Pokemon are harder to catch, thanks to dodging and even blocking incoming Pokeballs, so you can use advanced Pokéballs to increase your odds.
Training your Pokémon has also been replaced by a much simpler system that lacks any real depth. You can power up a Pokémon by spending candy and stardust, for some strange reason. Candy is unique to each Pokemon type, and you’ll earn three for catching one, plus an extra candy if you trade a Pokémon into Professor Willow, providing a way to get rid of copies. Stardust, though, can be used with any Pokemon. To evolve your assorted creatures you need plenty of candy, and also the ability to accept that upon evolving them they might end up with crappy abilities that you can’t get rid of.
But what to do with all these odd beasties? Make ’em fight to the death, of course! Pokémon GO also ditches the ability battle other players one on one, instead implementing a system where you capture gyms for your team, which are locations scattered throughout the world. Teams (there are three in the game) can leave their Pokémon to defend a gym from attackers which earns them rewards, and can “train” Pokémon at the gym to increase the gym’s prestige and thereby unlock more slots to house Pokémon. So as a member of the opposing team you amble up to a Gym location, tap on and begin hurling Pokemon at it in an attempt to capture it from the enemy. Combat, though, is about as exciting as attending a seminar titled, “The history of paint drying.” Pokémon have one basic attack that you can use, plus a special move that charges up. They can also dodge incoming attacks by swiping the screen left or right, but it is so unreliable that combat becomes nothing more than a case of tapping furiously on the screen to attack, and occasionally pressing and holding the screen for a special move. Repeat until one Pokémon stands victorious. The only real nod to the Pokémon games of old is that some types beat out others, thus fire is weak against water and so on. To be fair there are some other considerations to take into account, like attack speed and health, but none of those things provide the combat with any depth or sense of excitement. It’s freaking boring, and the only thing that makes it worthwhile is that satisfied feeling you get when toppling an enemy gym and installing your own Pokémon there. Suck it, bitches.
Aside from gyms you can also come across Pokéstops which are typically landmarks, although sometimes they’re odd things like a piece of cool graffiti. When you get to a Pokéstop you can spin its little center icon and it’ll reward you with some Pokéballs and other things. You can only do this every five minutes, but in a city or town there’s usually quite a lot of Pokéstops within short distance so you can keep yourself well stocked up just by moving around, again encouraging you to keep walking and building those leg muscles. You can also drop Lure’s at Pokéstops, which will attract Pokémon for 30-minutes. Best of all Lures work for everyone, so if you drop one then everybody in the area will benefit from its effects. This is a feature I really love because it helps make players more sociable. A Lure will often attract players from a mile or even two away, and thus groups of folk will form who sit and chat, and then excitedly run around a little because some cool Pokémon has turned up. I quickly discovered one of my favorite things to do was buy a few Lures and then announce on Facebook where I’d be activating them and when, and then just sitting back and enjoying the fact that kids and adults would turn up. Hell, being the social reject I am I didn’t even interact with them all that much, but just watching then smiling and chatting brought a warm glow to my otherwise chilled heart.
And that brings up to the microtransaction portion of the game, which actually left me quite impressed because at no point does Pokémon GO feel like a game that you need to spend money on to enjoy. Without spending anything you can catch plenty of Pokémon and power them up, since there’s currently nothing that lets you bypass those system to claim the best critters in the game. Using Pokéstops you can generally stay stocked up on Pokéballs unless you happen to be utterly terrible at flicking them. You’ll also occasionally be given potions and things to heal Pokémon, plus Incense, which attracts any Pokémon in the local area toward you. Still, by spending real money you can pick up more Pokéballs, potions and Incense if you want, plus the tempting Lure Modules. The prices seem reasonable enough at the moment, so all in all I was pleasantly surprised – Pokémon GO is free-to-play done well.
Or at least, it would be if the app didn’t try to ruin it. You see, Lures and Incense both last 30-minutes, a timer that continues to tick regardless of whether you’re actually logged into the game. At one point having spent some cash to grab some Lures I dropped one at a Pokéstop and settled in with a drink to see what would pop up. To my annoyance the app would freeze consistently during the catching animation, a problem that is plaguing most players. This meant having to restart the app over and over again, and sometimes it’d fail to start correctly. All in all I think I managed to get roughly 17-minutes of time with the Lure, while the rest was spent getting more and more annoyed. Another time I used an Incense while wandering around town, but the app kept freezing, crashing, becoming unresponsive or losing connection. It’s infuriating to know that your money is pretty much ticking away even when you aren’t getting to see the benefits.
As a game there’s no denying that Pokémon Go is not very impressive. It packs in just about the minimum level of interaction needed to be classified as an actual videogame. Moreover it has launched with a lot of problems; the servers are struggling under the strain of so many trainers wandering the land; the GPS often goes loopy or refuses to keep track of distance covered; the app crashes frequently, becomes confused, goes into a coma state or blankly refuses to accept the first dozen taps on the screen because it is busy doing Christ knows what. Over the span of a single week I had dozens instances of the game freezing in the middle of catching a Pokémon and a few dozen cases of it failing to start properly, plenty of unresponsive menus and basically enough problems that if this had been any other game people would be up in arms about how shoddy it actually is. I’d fire it up only for it to get stuck on the loading screen, or say that there was no internet connectivity despite being in a strong 4G area, although it is worth pointing out that being somewhere with 4G does allow for a better experience. And that isn’t even to mention the fact that the tracking system is currently bugged, making it much, much harder to effectively hunt and capture Pokémon. Because the app is free-to-play and because it bears the Pokémon name Pokémon GO has so far had a lenient audience. Had this been any other game it would have been ripped to shreds for the piss-poor state it has been launched in.
But as an experience Pokémon GO is unique, and has already proven effective at bringing people together in ways that videogames so rarely manage. You’re out in the real world, actually hunting Pokemon physically rather than just controlling a little on-screen character, and interacting with other gamers who are doing the same. I went to the park today with my niece to test the game out a bit, and was happy to see a lot of kids hunting elusive prey, and groups gathering around Pokéstops and gyms. They didn’t just have their faces buried in their faces, either, they were actually chatting away, people of all ages laughing and smiling., Sure, there were some people shambling about like mindless zombies, too engrossed in their damn phone and the app to see what was going on, but they were the minority. There was also parents giving their children a hand, clearly baffled by the weirdness of the concept but enjoying the fact that they were outside in the fresh air and bonding with their kids.
The media, of course, seems intent on painting the game in the worst light possible, which is a shame. However, in fairness the dangers and problems that come with the game should not just be swept under the rug and ignored, because there are some legitimate concerns. Sure, people ending up in stupid situations such as walking onto roads without looking or falling off a damn cliff are the direct result of human idiocy. They aren’t the game’s fault. No matter what, you can’t design for human stupidity. But it’s still a very real issue, especially when little kids are involved who become so enamored with what is going on on-screen that they lose track of what is around them. Of course one wonders where the parents are, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that it’s happening. There are also genuine concerns over people using lures to attract unsuspecting kids to quiet locations. Again, where are the parents? No child should be allowed to wander unattended. But no parents can can help out a teenager old enough to be out and about that doesn’t manage to realise the potential dangers involved in venturing off-track or going into areas that they obviously should not be in. In my local city, for example, some morons were caught trying to gain entry to an obviously sealed off harbor area that had clear markings. In other words, the game has dangers that aren’t its fault, and they should be covered by the media, but that same media also needs to remember its journalistic integrity and report on all sides of the story. Regardless, it’s going to be interesting to see what comes of them app as the developers try to respond to complaints. Many places have already requested Pokéstops be removed due to their locations.
But these negatives they don’t outweight the benefits we’ve seen, like people spending their own money to drop Lures so that lots of people can enjoy the influx of Pokémon. Local business are benefiting by acting as Pokéstops, with smart owners purchasing Lures so that Pokémon come to their business, and thus people come to. I also love how gyms and Pokéstops are often local monuments and places of interest, and hope that the developers expand on this by offering a brief snippet of the locations history so that people might just learn something about their home towns. This is a game that is bringing people together, encouraging folk to get out of the house, even those that have anxiety or social issues, and can be played by all age groups. No, stories of people drowning or being hit by cars because they were too busy playing Pokémon GO should not be swept under the rug and despite popular belief the media should very much report on these if only so they act as deterrents and reminders, but the media should also talk about the benefits of the game, because it’s one of the most fascinating social trends I’ve seen in a very long time. Who knows how long it might last, but for now it’s quite incredible and its unique ability to bring people together should not be buried simply to capture more headlines.
What I did learn without a shadow of a doubt is that is this really isn’t for people in rural areas. Shocking, right? I was already pretty certain this would be the case, but since I live three miles outside of a small town and about 17 miles from a large city I couldn’t not test it out in the vast wilderness of Scotland. So grabbing my phone I headed into the local woods, because the idea of hunting Pokémon in an actual woods was just too cool. Sadly while doing a two-mile loop with my dog the app only once claimed something was nearby, and even then I could never find it. This process repeated itself over the span of a week, with me and my 2-year old white German Shepard ambling around the various routes surrounding my house and only coming across a very small selection of Pokémon. The other problem is the lack of Pokéstops and Gyms, but frankly that doesn’t bother me; it makes thematic sense that I’d have to venture into actual towns and cities to find these. But the lack of wild Pokémon actually in the wild does bother me. C’mon guys, don’t let us country folk down. Where are all the critters at?
I also discovered another irritating problem out in the countryside; the game has a horrible habit of failing to register distance travelled, and thus won’t hatch eggs. Eggs are random rewards earned at Pokéstops which can hatch into Pokemon. To hatch them, though, you have to walk a certain distance, be it 2km, 5km or 10km. I love this part of the game because you can either carry on catching Pokemon and let the distance build up, or you can start going out on separate walks just to get eggs to hatch. Anyway, I headed out on a morning walk with my dog, covering a reasonable 3-miles, only to find that the app hadn’t logged any of it. Meanwhile, my Charity Miles app had registered every mile perfectly. This problem occurred a lot, even in small-ish towns. Again, all other apps didn’t seem to have a problem tracking me.
Look, Pokémon Go isn’t for me. Catching new Pokémon didn’t leave me hugely excited. But to be fair to the game, I’m not really its target audience; I already take a walk twice a day and find the world interesting enough without adding virtual animals to it, and I’m not exactly a social person by nature. But I can certainly see the appeal of it; it turns a basic daily walk into a game, and can make getting out of the house and doing some excercise a much more enjoyable prospect by providing goals along the way. For parents it presents a way to involve themselves in their children’s play, while for young kids it can turn an ordinary park into a social hub brimming with monsters to hunt and capture. And for those older gamers among us, it’s just a good laugh and a welcome break from reality. You can find a Pokéstop at a pub, grab a beer and just kick back, or go for a stroll around town to relieve the stress of a long day. It’s a game for all ages and types, a game that wants people to come together and just enjoy themselves.
Pokémon Go is ultimately an amazing, unique experience residing within a crappy app that is riddled with problems. But that also means it has considerable potential. With some solid updates Pokémon GO should become even more impressive, it’s execution hopefully matching its dreams of a landscape dotted with Pokémon and people hunting them. That leaves the biggest question; longevity. How long will the game? Its lack of depth makes me doubt how long it can maintain its huge playerbase before they move on to something else. For now, though, it’s nice to see a game that wants to bring players together, get people exploring and be enjoyed by folk of all ages. With all the horrible realities of the world weighing us down and a bleak future, sometimes it’s a daft little app that tries to puts virtual creatures into our world so we can throw balls at them which brings some light to the darkness.