Re­view: Poké­mon GO

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The idea be­hind Poké­mon GO is sim­ple, but in the space of a month this aug­mented-re­al­ity mo­bile game cre­ated by The Poké­mon Com­pany and Niantic has be­come the high­estearn­ing mo­bile app in his­tory. What gives?

First, I have to level with you: I didn’t grow up as a Poké­mon fan, and I never un­der­stood what all the younger kids were so ex­cited about. I guess I thought it was all a bit ‘sad’, but I now feel weirdly de­fen­sive of the game. Just the other

day I had to hold my­self back when a stranger in the pub told me I was too old to be play­ing Poké­mon GO. Out­ra­geous.

Things changed in Septem­ber last year when I wrote an ar­ti­cle about the then up­com­ing Poké­mon GO game. Site traf­fic is cen­tral to my role at IDG, so I won’t pre­tend the prospect of play­ing peek­a­boo with Pikachu was more ex­cit­ing to me than the 4.5 mil­lion page views the story has re­ceived.

Even af­ter 10 months of reg­u­lar up­dates to that ar­ti­cle - 10 in­fu­ri­at­ing months of hav­ing to find and then copy and paste that blasted é from an­other web page be­cause I’m the id­iot who didn’t know you just long-pressed the e key on a Mac key­board, and 10 long months of pick­ing my younger col­leagues’ brains for their Poké­mon knowl­edge – I still didn’t get it.

When Poké­mon GO was fi­nally re­leased in July I had to try it. Too im­pa­tient to wait for it to be of­fi­cially avail­able in the UK I in­stalled it via the APK file. I’m not go­ing to pre­tend I sud­denly un­der­stood why a ‘screen­shot’ of Ar­ti­c­uno in a gym could send fans into melt­down, nor who is this Mew guy, or even why the Com­plete Guide to Poké­mon GO al­most overnight be­came our best-sell­ing dig­i­tal mag­a­zine ever, but I am just a few thou­sand XP away from level 23 and I couldn’t be more ad­dicted.

The fact I’m more in­ter­est­ing in hunt­ing EeVees (be­cause I still don’t have a Flareon) than find­ing a dress for my wed­ding next year should have been the first sign that there was a prob­lem.

De­fend­ing the gym at my lo­cal pub has be­come my life’s work. Ev­ery jour­ney in the car in­volves a de­tour via a PokéS­top (or three). I’ve gone from

driv­ing maybe a lit­tle bit too fast to in­fu­ri­at­ing those be­hind me by driv­ing so slowly in or­der that my eggs can hatch faster. My phone is like a fur­nace from where its screen is con­stantly switched on, and my power bank has be­come less of an emer­gency gad­get and more of a daily ne­ces­sity.

What the hell is wrong with me? I don’t even like Poké­mon! But some­thing in­side me has been awo­ken and now I have no choice but to catch them all.

And it’s ex­actly this that makes Poké­mon GO such a bril­liant idea. This could be the start of some­thing much big­ger in aug­mented re­al­ity, and it’s the first time the technology has re­ally met with con­sumers en masse.

Within a few days of its re­lease Poké­mon GO has done what ac­tiv­ity track­ers have been try­ing to do for years. It has made kids – and adults – get up off of their back­sides and get some fresh air and

ex­er­cise. We’ve all heard the heart­warm­ing tales of peo­ple who have lost stones and gained friends (or lost jobs and gained lovers) in their search for Poké­mon. Which is nice.

Poké­mon GO is not the kind of game you can play from home (an­noy­ing), and un­less you hap­pen to live in a town- or city cen­tre you have to go find PokéS­tops, you have to go find gyms and, most of all, you have to go find Poké­mon. Cop­ping out us­ing an in­cense on the sofa just won’t cut it if you want to get far in the game and still have money in your pocket.

I’m still not okay with the idea of young chil­dren wan­der­ing around pub­lic places with their at­ten­tion fo­cused more on their phone- or tablet screens than the car that’s about to run them over or the ar­se­hole who is about to steal their de­vice, but I would hope that ev­ery one of these chil­dren has a watch­ful par­ent by their side.

One of the things we like about Poké­mon GO is that it is gen­uinely free, and you can play it without spend­ing a penny. If you are go­ing to spend some money, you’ll more than likely do so on in­cu­ba­tors for your eggs, since you get only one un­lim­it­e­duse in­cu­ba­tor. You can buy PokéBalls, though these are avail­able from PokéS­tops, and you can buy in­cense, lures and lucky eggs, which are also avail­able through lev­el­ling up. What strikes us as odd is that you can’t buy po­tions and re­vives, but that would likely make gym bat­tles too easy. Spend­ing real money on Poké­mon GO will help you level up faster, but it cer­tainly isn’t a ne­ces­sity.

What is Poké­mon GO?

For those who know noth­ing about Poké­mon GO, I’ll ex­plain it as I see it from one Poké­mon new­bie to an­other. There are more than 700 Poké­mon in to­tal, but only around 150 in Poké­mon GO (for now at least). Some are like real-life an­i­mals, birds, fish and rep­tiles, for ex­am­ple a Pidgey is a pi­geon, a Rat­tata is a rat and a Krabby is a crab. Others have less ob­vi­ous real-world comparisons, par­tic­u­larly in their evolved state, and I hope I never meet a real-life Rat­i­cate in the street. (The others are mostly quite cute, even those that can wipe the floor with you in a gym.)

The ul­ti­mate goal is to catch all the Poké­mon in the game. You can do so by leav­ing the house and phys­i­cally search­ing for them, by evolv­ing other Poké­mon, or by hatch­ing eggs which, again, in­volves leav­ing the house and walk­ing a cer­tain dis­tance or, if you’re lucky, hav­ing such a poor GPS sig­nal that your avatar will run around des­per­ately

try­ing to work out where you are. It’s ru­moured that a fu­ture up­date to Poké­mon GO will al­low you to also trade Poké­mon at PokéS­tops, but that’s not pos­si­ble right now.

The Poké­mon GO in­ter­face is sim­ply a map of your lo­cal area, and as you walk around you might be lucky enough to find a Poké­mon, which will ap­pear on the map. You tap the Poké­mon to be­gin your at­tempt at catch­ing it, which is made pos­si­ble by throw­ing PokéBalls in its di­rec­tion. (Later in the game you get larger PokéBalls and Razz Berries to ease this process.) When try­ing to catch a Poké­mon you can do so from an aug­mented-re­al­ity view­point, which brings up the view from your cam­era with the Poké­mon over­laid and makes it look as though it is ac­tu­ally stand­ing in front of you, or you can turn off AR, which is less fun but makes it eas­ier to catch the Poké­mon.

Ev­ery suc­cess­ful catch gains you three can­dies of that Poké­mon type (re­quired for pow­er­ing up or evolv­ing that Poké­mon), 100 star­dust (also re­quired for pow­er­ing up Poké­mon) and at least 100 XP (re­quired for lev­el­ling up).

Also on the map, and usu­ally at places of in­ter­est such as pubs and churches, are PokéS­tops and gyms. A PokéS­top is a point at which you can col­lect a ran­dom se­lec­tion of PokéBalls, eggs, re­vives and po­tions, while a gym is a place in which you bat­tle and train your Poké­mon and is where those re­vives and po­tions come into play to heal bat­tered Poké­mon.

Once you hit level 5 you can join a team. These have proper names like In­stinct and Val­our and, er, but it’s eas­ier to just call them team red, blue

or yel­low (choose yel­low). If you visit a gym that is of your team’s colour you can add a Poké­mon to help de­fend it. De­pend­ing on what level is the gym you may first have to train it up by bat­tling with your own Poké­mon. This is a friendly fight and adds to the gym’s pres­tige, but the dam­age to your Poké­mon is real: stock up on re­vives and po­tions.

If a gym is of an­other team’s colour you can bat­tle it and knock down its pres­tige, even­tu­ally knock­ing that team out the gym al­to­gether. At this point you can claim it for your own team, pro­vided that your ri­val isn’t ly­ing in wait and ready to add in new Poké­mon the sec­ond it be­comes va­cant. (Which is very naughty, but also hi­lar­i­ous, and I’ve never done that.) Also, choose team yel­low.

Why we can’t stop play­ing

Pro­vided you’ve opted for team yel­low, and you’re happy to leave the house once in a while, Poké­mon

GO can be a very ad­dic­tive, al­beit repet­i­tive, game. But this ad­dic­tive na­ture can also be a curse, and doesn’t in it­self make Poké­mon GO a great game. We love Poké­mon GO, but we have more than a few nig­gles with it.

Be­fore we even get into the game it­self and how it works we have to point out just how much of a drain it is on bat­tery life. I’m not ex­ag­ger­at­ing when I say you can watch the per­cent­age go down. If you are to play Poké­mon GO you will need a power bank.

The other things you’ll need to watch aside from bat­tery life are mo­bile re­cep­tion, GPS and data us­age. Some kids have been frus­trated by the fact you can’t play Poké­mon GO without GPS, which rules out many tablets such as last Christ­mas’ in­cred­i­bly pop­u­lar £49 Ama­zon Fire. Mo­bile re­cep­tion can also be an is­sue, and go­ing from an area with a strong sig­nal to a weak sig­nal can be

enough to cause the app to crash, which will be par­tic­u­larly frus­trat­ing if you’re mid-catch.

I’ve had is­sues with one lo­cal gym whereby you have to stand in a very pre­cise po­si­tion be­hind a tree in or­der to si­mul­ta­ne­ously be within range of the gym and mo­bile re­cep­tion. If re­cep­tion goes down slightly or you move even an inch then it stops the bat­tle you’re cur­rently fight­ing and treats it as though you gave up, so you still have to heal your Poké­mon and you gain noth­ing in re­turn.

Data us­age will be an is­sue if you’re on a lim­ited plan, although we have to say we’re im­pressed by how lit­tle data Poké­mon GO uses – rel­a­tively speak­ing, that is, when you take into ac­count how of­ten we play it.

When you re­ally get into a game you tend to spend a lot of your free time play­ing it. Ob­vi­ously you can’t be out wan­der­ing the streets at all hours, and when you’re not catch­ing Poké­mon there is lit­tle you can do other than evolve and heal your Poké­mon - and that doesn’t take very long.

Gym bat­tles can be fun at first, but they aren’t ex­actly what many fans seem to have been ex­pect­ing. You can bat­tle your friends only if they are on a dif­fer­ent team and you have found a gym that con­tains one of their Poké­mon. But even then you’re not re­ally bat­tling them: you’re bat­tling a Poké­mon they have left be­hind in a gym, and they will never know you fought them or that it was you who turfed them out. Ac­tu­ally it will work bet­ter if your friends are on your team, since you’ll find it eas­ier to de­fend a gym with sev­eral strong Poké­mon in there rather than all on your tod. You can play only so many gym bat­tles, too, since

you’ll quickly run out of po­tions, and the es­ca­lat­ing climb in XP be­tween each level jump (fol­low­ing which you are re­warded with ex­tra PokéBalls, po­tions and other good­ies) isn’t an­swered by the small num­ber of po­tions you might get from a PokéS­top. The game seems more than happy to give out re­vives via PokéS­tops, but these will re­store only fainted Poké­mon to half their HP and are no good for fully restor­ing the health of these Poké­mon or of others in­jured in train­ing.

The other prob­lem with gyms is they are far too easy to win and far too easy to lose. You gain fewer pres­tige points in train­ing than can be re­moved in a sin­gle bat­tle – and there is a huge dis­par­ity be­tween the two. Although it’s im­por­tant to stop one team reign­ing supreme for too long in or­der for other teams to get a look-in, it’s also point­less to pay out a 21-hour own­er­ship re­ward that is all but im­pos­si­ble to ob­tain. If you can find a re­mote gym then you’re lucky, but the gyms in my town cen­tre change own­er­ship sev­eral times an hour and I don’t have all day to de­fend them, nor to sit out­side a PokéS­top gath­er­ing po­tions.

These gripes con­cern play­ers on level 5 or above, but for new play­ers a far big­ger con­cern is the com­plete lack of an in-game help- or tu­to­rial sys­tem. Nowhere does it ex­plain how to play or the aim of the game, so you find your­self in later lev­els wish­ing you hadn’t wasted pre­cious star­dust and candy pow­er­ing up CP10 Pidgeys when you should have held out for CP400 Pidgeys. Each Poké­mon has a dial that shows you how far you can power it up, but it isn’t clear at what CP it’s worth evolv­ing. As an ex­am­ple, at level 22 I have a CP979 Ponyta

that I am un­able to power up higher be­cause my trainer level isn’t high enough – so what ex­actly is the max­i­mum CP for a Ponyta? Should I hold on since Ponyta candy seems to be hard to come by? The fact is I just don’t know.

Even more con­fus­ing is the way some Poké­mon can be more pow­er­ful than higher CP Poké­mon of the same type. A CP750 Rat­i­cate with Hy­per Beam would be more pow­er­ful in a gym bat­tle than a CP740 Rat­i­cate with Hy­per Fang, for ex­am­ple. You don’t work any of this out un­til it’s al­ready too late and you’ve used up your star­dust and can­dies and deleted what could po­ten­tially be very pow­er­ful Poké­mon.

Poké­mon are also grouped into types – some are wa­ter types, or nor­mal types, or psy­chic or poi­son, for ex­am­ple. This is im­por­tant be­cause some types are bet­ter at fight­ing cer­tain types than others – though I can’t tell you which be­cause I’m a Poké­mon new­bie and it isn’t ex­plained in the game.

You’ll no­tice we’ve men­tioned Pidgeys and Rat­tatas sev­eral times through­out this re­view. And that’s be­cause they are among the most com­mon Poké­mon you’ll find play­ing Poké­mon GO, along with Wee­dles, Cater­pies – and if I ever see an­other Drowzee… The prob­lem is, it’s very dif­fi­cult to catch them all when you only ever seem to be able to catch the same five. It’s true that as your Trainer level goes up you are pre­sented with a greater va­ri­ety of Poké­mon, but in the early stages of the game – and es­pe­cially now, a lit­tle over a month af­ter its re­lease – it can be dif­fi­cult to be­lieve you’ll ever stand a chance against other play­ers when pre­sented with CP2000 Snor­lax,

Gyara­dos and SloBros, even if you have been lucky enough to pick up a pow­er­ful Va­poreon fairly early on.

The nearby fea­ture that shows you which Poké­mon are in the vicin­ity was so heav­ily crit­i­cised that it was first al­tered and then re­moved, now re­placed with Sight­ings, and no-one is en­tirely sure what that means in terms of how close are those Poké­mon. Pre­vi­ously a Poké­mon’s dis­tance away from you was im­plied by the num­ber of foot­steps be­low it. Now all are dis­played in rustling grass.

In the be­gin­ning there were helper apps, the most pop­u­lar of which is PokeVi­sion, which had 50 mil­lion users when it was pulled off­line. Those who use it and its ilk now al­legedly face a life­time ban. But PokeVi­sion was fan­tas­tic for show­ing you where and for how long you could find cer­tain Poké­mon, though for many peo­ple it made the game un­fairly easy and re­moved the need to hunt down Poké­mon. Niantic says the ex­tra strain these helper apps placed on its servers was so great that it was de­lay­ing its global roll­out of Poké­mon GO, and pre­vent­ing it from find­ing the time to cre­ate bug fixes.

To be fair, server prob­lems were so bad in the first cou­ple of weeks that the game was al­most un­playable. You could al­most guar­an­tee Poké­mon GO would crash and not let you back in the sec­ond

you ac­ti­vated a lucky egg, in­cense or lure mod­ule, which each have 30-minute time lim­its. These days Poké­mon GO is very sta­ble, and although it still crashes more than it should get­ting back into the game is never a prob­lem.

We’ve thrown a lot of crit­i­cism at Poké­mon GO within this re­view, and yet we’re still ad­dicted to the game. Why is that? It’s a very long way from per­fect, but it gets bet­ter all the time and with each new up­date. It’s dif­fi­cult to see our en­thu­si­asm for Poké­mon GO re­main once we have caught them all, how­ever.

Ver­dict

Poké­mon GO is such a sim­ple and yet ab­so­lutely bril­liant idea that has cap­tured the world’s at­ten­tion. The hype won’t last for­ever, and one day soon only the most die-hard PokéHun­ters will con­tinue to play, but ex­pect it to be among the first of many more aug­mented-re­al­ity apps com­ing your way. De­spite the safety con­cerns and the huge amount of crit­i­cism it has re­ceived as Niantic strug­gles to deal with the huge de­mand, Poké­mon GO is de­serv­ing of real credit for get­ting a na­tion off the sofa and into the great out­doors. A repet­i­tive, buggy, power-drain­ing but oh-so-ad­dic­tive app, don’t pick up Poké­mon GO un­less you’re pre­pared to lose a large chunk of your life to it. Marie Brewis

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