Game Review: Pokemon Go!

I've been a fan of Pokemon since they first arrived in the United States.

I have two binders for the cards. One for shinies, and another for regular play cards. I've played the hell out of Pokemon Red/Blue/Yellow, in addition to a plethora of random memorabilia. 

So, with this in mind, I went into Pokemon Go! with an unhealthy optimism. This was to be a LEGITIMATE POKEMON GAME ON MY PHONE THAT I CAN PLAY WITH MY FRIENDS. I can challenge random passersby on the streets. I can scour an AR landscape filled to bursting with Pokemon, checking each entry off in my handy, dandy in-game Pokedex. This was to be as close to a Pokemon MMO as we were ever likely to get.

Did we?

Well, no.

We got an Augmented Reality Urban Exploration Game. A Pokemon-Themed Ingress, or, in most basic terms, a geocaching game.

The basic idea behind Niantic's other title is finding urban hotspots, attacking, defending, and collecting collectables. In place of "portals" like in Ingress, Pokemon Go! has "gyms" and "Pokestops." Instead of collecting attack and defense items, you collect various Pokemon (each with two powers), and interacting with a Pokestop will net you a few pokeballs, potions, and other items.

ncounters are very different than in the regular titles. For one, there's no actual "battle" during wild encounters. Instead, you are given a circular reticule which narrows and widens, and an onscreen Pokeball. You're then tasked with "swiping" up the ball to throw it at the Pokemon. Depending on how well you aim, you're even rewarded with good, great, and excellent throws with better XP for your trainer (you can even add a little "spin" to the ball to make it glow for even more XP).

Encounters are even color-coded (green, yellow, orange, and red) depending on the difficulty, with higher CP ("combat points") Pokemon being harder to catch. This can be a frustrating affair, as the game does not make clear what constitutes a good throw, and occasionally, the Hit Box for the Pokemon can seem either too large or small, and swipes can glitch and you'll instead throw your Pokeball wild or straight at the ground ... and, again, this varies based on each encounter.

The Ingress similarities come into full swing when it comes to Pokemon GO's factions: Team Valor, Team Mystic, and Team Instinct (colored Red, Blue, and Yellow after Generation I, with logos matching the Generation I Legendary birds Moltres, Articuno, and Zapdos, respectively). Compared to Ingress' "The Resistence" and "Enlightened" factions.

In Ingress, a problem arose for players after a time where one team would become significantly more populous than the other, creating a no-win situation for those in the opposing faction, where new players would opt for the more populous team over their particular preference.

The inclusion of a THIRD team into Pokemon Go! promises to mitigate this problem. Within the next few weeks, we'll see how this comes to pass (anecdotally, many of my friends have proclaimed support for Team Valor, though Grand Rapids, the city where I'm currently playing, is heavily dominated by Team Mystic and Team Instinct).

You have the option to join a team after you reach level five, wherein you can also attack and defend the world's Gyms. In regular Pokemon titles, to complete a Gym, one must battle multiple trainers, then the Gym Leader to collect a badge. In Pokemon GO, you battle several other trainers who've claimed the Gym, with the most powerful Trainer acting as the Gym's Leader.

Unlike in regular titles, these are one-on-one, Active Time battles, where you have to tap the opposing Pokemon to attack/charge your special gauge, and hold to unleash your Pokemon's special move. You can swipe left/right on your battler to have them dodge left or right.

The results are thrilling. Battles are fast, furious affairs that reward high skill and Pokemon Type Placement; Types work the same as in regular titles, though only during battles. It's incredibly fun to overtake a gym, install your own Pokemon and watch as other real world trainers struggle against your best.

In fact, the Real World is this game's biggest strength.

The first weekend the game was released, thousands of Pokefans flooded my local downtown area, walking in huge groups, pledging support for their team of choice, and offering advice to nearby trainers on where to find unique or rare Pokemon, and many other of the game's hidden features. At one point during my several hour excursion, a police officer stopped by a nearby crowd of trainers, lights flashing, and used his in-car megaphone to say, "POKEMON FOREVER!" and the crowd cheered. It was an unbelievably cool moment.

It's incredible to see Pokefans of all walks of life talk passionately about their favorite Pokemon, wandering around town in search of rarities and items (though, sometimes trainers find more than they bargained for). 

Literally, you could hail almost any individual with their face in their phone with your Team's name, and get an animated, almost giddy response of praise or condemnation.

In terms of the sheer number of individuals playing the game, I don't believe I've ever seen a more ubiquitously accepted game in the real world, and that, aside from anything else, is the most amazing thing about Pokemon GO! 

One has to wonder if it will eventually reach critical mass, but for the moment, it's a rare and wondrous sight to see.

It should be noted that if you're playing in a rural area or smaller township or village, you're probably not going to have as much fun as someone playing in more densely populated cities.

This is where the game's numerous flaws become most apparent, as well.

With the ridiculous number of people locally attempting to access the game's servers, on more than one occasion, the Cell Service towers became overloaded, and no one was able to connect (to anything).

Likewise, the national network went down on numerous occasions. Niantic's servers must be running at peak capacity, as connection to the servers were tenuous at best.

And if the game struggles to connect while you're in the middle of an important moment, there can be other problems.

On more than one instance, a Gym's Pokemon would "freeze" at 1 HP, making them impossible to defeat. Other times, caught Pokemon would cause the game to crash, resulting in a lost Pokeball and no caught Pokemon (especially frustrating when encountering the more rare creatures). Sometimes, Pokestops will freeze as well, meaning you can't draw items. On iPhones, I encountered a glitch where, after locking and unlocking your phone's screen, the touch functionality of the game will lock up, and you're forced to restart. Sometimes, the app will just remain black, again, forcing a restart. There are several more bugs, and not a single one of them is an uncommon occurrence.

It should also be noted that the game is a terrible resource hog on most devices. Trainers hoping for extended urban hikes should come well prepared with a backup battery bank. Comfortable shoes and water are a must, as well. There's an option to put the game into "Battery Saver" mode, but this doesn't appear to have any discernible effect.

A game this broken with this number of people attempting to still play is unbelievable.

Niantic has promised that there will eventually be raid bosses in the form of Legendaries. And, considering this is a Pokemon title, they're likely to add more content in the future beyond the current Generation I offerings.

Personally, I'd love to see an expanded social aspect of the game. In Ingress, you can add friends and chat with nearby or worldwide players. Since this is a Pokemon game... why can't we add friends and challenge them to friendly one-on-one matches? Also, what about trading?

Hell, since this is an Augmented Reality game, why not have the ability to go on Pokemon Snap style AR scavenger hunts?

Pokemon GO! is a game with so much potential, despite the bugs. It's a great amount of fun, and becomes even more fun the more you play, and the more willing you are to go outside of your comfort zone and explore your city. Within the first week alone, I can't wait to see how Niantic continues to evolve (HA) the content.

And if you have a smartphone, and you're not playing this game, you absolutely should be. Bugs and all, you're going to have a hell of a time.

9/10 Pokeballs thrown at Zubat in vain.