Pokemon GO is far more than the sum of its parts.
Pokemon GO is actually an exceptionally hard game to review. The problem with reviewing it is rooted in multiple causes, but the primary one is that it is unclear exactly how much of a game it even really is in the first place. While Pokemon GO definitely is a stellar example of gamification, calling it a game outright feels like a stretch on many occasions.
Then there are other questions to consider- if one does consider it a game, does one assess it as a new Pokemon title? Doing so would ignore the context of its release, and the platform that it is on, completely after all. How about reviewing it as a standard bearer for mainstream AR technology? That sounds reasonable, but the AR in Pokemon GO is actually fairly banal, and sometimes even detrimental to the game experience.
And if Pokemon GO is a game, what kind of a game is it? Is it an MMO? Is it an exercise and fitness app? It is certainly not an RPG like traditional Pokemon games. And how in the world is one supposed to assess a game that, by the developers’ own admission, will change alarmingly frequently, getting major features and fixes in fortnightly updates?
The answer to all these questions? Pokemon GO is all of that, and none of that- and depending on what you go into it expecting, you will either find it exceptional, and get addicted to it, or you will find it mediocre and overhyped, and then get addicted to it anyway.
"Depending on what you go into it expecting, you will either find it exceptional, and get addicted to it, or you will find it mediocre and overhyped, and then get addicted to it anyway."
Pokemon GO doesn’t warrant an explanation at this point, but let’s give it one anyway. The game is basically an exploration of that intoxicating question that all of us in the Pokemon generation have asked ourselves at one point or the other: what if there were Pokemon in the real world? Using a combination of some admittedly cool augmented reality tech, as well as geocaching, Pokemon GO strives to answer the question. It places you in our world, putting a custom trainer on a map based on Google Maps, and then begins to populate the world around you with Pokemon. To catch these Pokemon, you walk to them (in the real world- your real world movement corresponds to in game movement), and then tap on them. This causes them the game to switch to its AR mode, and the Pokemon you are battling appears on your phone’s screen, juxtaposed against your real life surroundings.
The sheer novelty of it can keep you playing for hours- if there is a Rattata in your bedroom, where would you find an Oddish? In your garden, perhaps? Where would you have to go to find a Pikachu? Why in the world is there a Grimer on your patio? The fact that Pokemon seem to have native ‘habitats,’ prompting players to get out of the home and walk around with their phones if they want to find more of them, adds to the charm- will there be a Bulbasaur in the park? A Spearow by the fountain? Pokemon GO gives you a reason to step out of the house, and get some actual physical activity, and it does so by tempting you with the irresistible crying call which has defined a generation: gotta catch ’em all.
Just trying to find Pokemon and collecting them is a magical experience, and it is easy enough to be enamored by it so completely that you don’t pay attention to anything else. But there is more to Pokemon GO than just hunting Pokemon in the real world- for instance, the game turns landmarks and locations around you into in game places of interest. Fountains, statues, street art, schools, colleges, small businesses, and more, can all get turned into Pokestops, which act as gathering points that hand out free supplies to trainers- and just trying to find a Pokestop can be an exercise in revelation, as you explore your very own neighborhood with a fresh pair of eyes, and take it all in like you never have before. A lot of the joy of Pokemon has always been one of setting out on an adventure, and exploring a grand world- in Pokemon GO, that adventure is set in the grandest world of all: your own.
"A lot of the joy of Pokemon has always been one of setting out on an adventure, and exploring a grand world- in Pokemon GO, that adventure is set in the grandest world of all: your own."
Pokemon GO‘s real power, and the reason the game went viral like it did, has more to do with how communal of an experience it is, though. As you are walking around hunting Pokemon, you’ll probably see someone else hunched over their smartphone screen, shuffling towards what you know is a Pokestop in the distance. And instantly, you know that they are playing Pokemon GO, giving you a chance to connect with a stranger. Alternatively, you could go out hunting for Pokemon with friends, making the simple act of just walking around a kind of shared joy.
You could try and take over gyms (larger points of interest in the real world), engaging in simplified battles and claiming them, and maybe eventually losing them to someone else- and even here, in an open competition, the game makes you engage in teamwork and co-operation, making the entire act of winning gym battles something you must do with one of the three teams you choose from and ally yourself with.
Simply put, there is a lot in Pokemon GO– but there are also a lot of flaws and shortcomings, which notably detract from the experience. The game’s server issues are legendary at this point, and a week since its initial launch, remain largely unresolved. To developer Niantic’s credit, this is something they are actively working on to the extent that they have suspended the game’s international rollout, but server disconnections happen all too happen regardless.
By themselves, they are inconvenient- but coupled with the game’s generally buggy and glitchy nature, they actively hinder enjoyment of the title. Pokemon GO is probably the buggiest title to ever have come out that was associated with Nintendo. The game is rife with random crashes, and bugs where it outright stops responding- and sometimes, this can interfere with you playing it at crucial moments. Consider you having finally thrown a Pokeball at a rare Pokemon like Scyther successfully, only to have the game hang right there- couple this with a server outage, so the game can’t even send the data of your capture to the host, meaning you have almost certainly lost that Scyther, and must now try to find it again. Or consider fighting a gym battle, and getting the other Pokemon all the way down to 1HP, at which point its HP does not go down any further no matter what you do, causing it to attack you and knock you out, losing the gym battle in the process.
"There’s so much wrong and so much missing, at some point, it becomes clear that Pokemon GO definitely is not a very good Pokemon game, and it is a hugely mediocre video game overall."
These issues are actually outright game breaking- and the fact that they are not turning people away from the game is a testament more to the fundamental appeal of the game’s underlying concept more than it is one to the game itself.
There are other problems, too, problems to do with the game’s mechanics and content- Pokemon GO is a hugely simplified take on Pokemon. Just about all role playing and story elements are taken out. All stats and team building elements are also taking out, reducing all Pokemon to just one greatly simplified stat: CP, which denotes their effectiveness in combat. There are no Pokemon battles with wild Pokemon, whom you simply ensnare in a simplified version of the Safari Zone minigames from the mainline titles- throw a Pokeball at it to try and catch it, by swiping on the screen, or try and feed it berries to keep it around, and keep it distracted long enough that you can snag it. Pokemon battles do exist in the game, but they’re simplified affairs, breaking down into three actions: swipe to dodge, tap to use your simple attack, and press to use your special attack. That’s it, your aim is to use these three actions to reduce the other Pokemon’s HP down to zero.
Just about everything else is simplified, too- there are no levels for your Pokemon in the game, so evolution is handled by you catching multiple kinds of the same Pokemon to farm a resource known as Candy. Giving a Pokemon enough Candies corresponding to its species evolves it, and Candies can also alternatively be used to simply buff your Pokemon up by increasing their CP. There is no trading in the game, which is a shock, considering just how fundamental trading is to the very concept of Pokemon (though this, at least, is apparently being fast tracked by Niantic for an update as soon as possible). There is no PvP in the game – even the gym battles are asynchronous, meaning the joy of competition that Pokemon promotes is missing in this game, too. For a game that is as social as Pokemon GO, it even lacks very basic communication tools in game- all your interactions with other players must be face to face. Which is great, don’t get me wrong, but when I want to check in on my friend living on the other side of the planet also playing the game, this omission rankles.
Really, there’s so much wrong and so much missing, at some point, it becomes clear that Pokemon GO definitely is not a very good Pokemon game, and it is a hugely mediocre video game overall. As an AR experience, it is compelling because of the novelty, but the actual tech on use is primitive and simplistic. As an MMO, it is besot by so many server issues as to make gameplay almost impossible. As a social experience, it lacks basic tools.
"Pokemon GO may be a hugely mediocre game. It is, however, an incredible human experience."
But then you see your grandmother pick up her phone, and step out of the house and aim the phone at a Pidgey, and swipe at the screen to catch it. You see a three year old kid, far too young to be able to play the mainline Pokemon games, squeal with joy at the magic of Pikachu showing up in her bedroom, and you see her eyes light up as she swipes at the screen to catch it. You see hundreds of people leaving their houses, and stepping outside, walking. You see total strangers walking up to each other, talking, laughing, making conversation over this game. You see people who stopped caring for Pokemon or for Nintendo years ago suddenly pull out their smartphones and join in on the hunt again, as they are suddenly transported to 20 years ago all over again. You see people who have never even played games, who are terrified of phones and technology, suddenly glancing at the screen that shows them these wonderful creatures hiding in the world all around them, and you see them make a swipe to catch those creatures.
And then you realize- Pokemon GO may be a hugely mediocre game. It is, however, an incredible human experience, and at the heart of it all, that more than anything else defines it, and the franchise, that it is based on.
This game was reviewed on an iPhone.
Easily accessible to just about everyone, the novelty and coolness of the AR tech and geocaching, the social nature of the game, the fact that it compels you to leave the house
Basic features missing, very buggy, very glitchy, lacking in tutorials, simplified mechanics that detract from Pokemon's core appeal too much at times
Pokemon GO may be a hugely mediocre game. It is, however, an incredible human experience, and at the heart of it all, that more than anything else defines it, and the franchise, that it is based on.