Thursday, July 21, 2016

Pokemon Go Review

So Pokemon Go has been out for a few weeks now (depending on where you live or if you’re willing to download the apk), and although I’m far from the reaching max level I think I’ve played around with it enough to be able to review the game as it currently stands, warts and all, and there are quite a few warts despite its enormous popularity, but let’s get into what it does right first.

One of the most successful aspects of Pokemon Go is how it encourages people to go outside, explore their communities, and get some exercise and it does so in several synergetic ways: going into new areas yields different Pokemon than you might find in your home neighbourhood, the nearby list encourages you to travel to find them, you’ll most likely need to leave your house to take gyms and hit up Pokestops, eggs hatch based on how far you walk or bike, and you get more Pokemon from the Incense item while moving as opposed to standing still. All of these systems synergize well together to get people out and about, and help make things exciting.

Since so many people own this game and are hunting outside, they’re bound to run into each other as they track down the same elusive Pokemon. Such encounters lead to people talking, swapping stories of their successes and failures (goddamn you Lapras!), and working together to either take gyms, find Pokemon faster, or to set down a Lure Mod at a Pokestop so the Pokemon will come to you (which also has the effect of attracting more people). So far all my encounters have been positive despite the animosity between the three teams.

Candy and Dust:
The system they have in place for evolving and powering up your roster is quite clever in my opinion and encourages people to go out and catch just about any Pokemon even if its one they already have. Each branch of Pokemon has their specific type of candy and you need X candy to evolve a lower tier Pokemon into the next tier. Each Pokemon caught awards 3 candy for their respective branch and you can trade them in for an additional candy (with bonus candy coming from eggs). Because you generally need lots of candy to reach a Pokemon’s final tier, this keeps you going out and hunting them down. Dust meanwhile is used in combination with a small amount of candy to increase a Pokemon’s CP, making it more powerful. Dust is a common resource to all Pokemon so you need to use it wisely and only upgrade your best or favourite fighter. Overall it’s a simple and easy to understand mechanic which adds a surprising level of depth, replayability, and decision-making to the game.

Quite simply, its fun walking around hunting Pokemon even if you’re by yourself. Nothing beats the feeling of catching a rare and/or powerful Pokemon out in the wild so you can brag to your friends and fill out that Pokedex. I’d argue that this is the most successful aspect of the game, and the desire to catch ‘em all is what keeps many people playing despite many other issues that we’ll get into now.

Server Issues:
I think this has to be the number one issue for most players. Although connection problems were expected at launch what with the millions of people downloading and attempting to play it all at once, the fact these problems continue to persist weeks later, and are at times even worse, is a tad worrying. From a failure to load up gyms and Pokestops to straight up server crashes the problems just never seem to end. The most obnoxious of all is when the Pokeball freezes after you’ve thrown it at a Pokemon requiring you to reboot the game in order to learn if you actually caught the damned thing, or more likely that it timed out. This is especially annoying when it happens with a Pokemon you don’t have (damn you Charmander!). Although I think my worst experience with server issues has to be when the servers went down 5 minutes after I popped both a Lucky Egg and an Incense.

In addition to an internet connection, the game obviously requires your location in the real world in order to know when Pokemon spawn near you. I suppose depending on your phone, and perhaps where you live, the GPS can be flaky sometimes, however this can also be beneficial. While it might refuse to move you to where you actually are thereby causing you to miss out on a Pokemon, Gym, or Pokestop, in my case it often moved me closer to these spots without me actually have to move at all. What’s more it often thinks I’m walking when I am, in fact, sitting down, allowing me to hatch eggs without moving. It may be ugly, but I’m not complaining.

Nearby List:
The nearby list is indispensible for tracking down Pokemon, which is why its so frustrating that for the past week or so, all Pokemon are displayed as being three steps away no matter how close they actually are. This essentially means I need to rely on either blind luck or previous knowledge of spawn locations in order to find them. The whole exploration element has kinda been shot to shit as a result with most players sticking to the small areas around their homes or workplaces rather than wandering aimlessly afield in the vain hope of finding something. A small note I’d also like to add, when the list is working why is the order of nearby Pokemon reversed on the mini-display in the corner compared to the larger list when you tap on it? It makes no sense.

Although going around taking gyms with friends can be fun, and the reward of dust and coins to spend in the shop is nice, I can’t help but feel that it’s a bit repetitive and borderline pointless. Battles are reduced to tapping furiously on the screen and praying that you dodge properly. But even if you don’t it doesn’t matter as gyms are won with overwhelming numbers, not skill. This makes them easy for just about anyone to capture which is more of a curse than a blessing in my opinion as that just means that all the work you put in to taking a gym will likely be undone within an hour at most. Furthermore, more advanced players have quickly figured out which Pokemon are objectively the best which I feel will soon culminate in bland metagame of endless Vaporeons who are inexplicably powerful (even compared to the other Eevee evolutions, or Pokemon they are supposedly “weak” against). I think we’ll see two types of Pokemon Go players; casuals who just wanna “catch ‘em all” (ie fill out the Pokedex), and the hardcore who wanna “be the very best” (ie take and fruitlessly try to hold gyms). Unless you go out with a group of like 20 people and power up a gym hard, or you and two other friends hit up a set path of gyms as fast as you can, I feel this aspect of the game is mostly pointless. For what its worth in time and gas you might as well just buy the coins.

Early on leveling is pretty breezy as the thresholds are lower and any Pokemon you catch are likely to be new, netting you plenty of bonus experience, but as you get higher up and the amount you need increases while the amount you get decreases if anything, leveling gets as grindy as any MMO. You basically just need to catch endless amounts of Pidgeys and Weedles so you can evolve them and throw them out. Their only value is the candy they give which ironically makes Pidgeottos and Kakunas worse to find as they give the same amount of candy but are harder to catch. A popular method to acquiring them is to camp out at a spot with two or more Pokestops to throw down Lure Mods at and just sit there catching the countless Weedles and Pidgeys that spawn. On that note, for all the hype they generate, Lure Mods mostly just attract trash making them far more passive and boring than just going out and actually finding Pokemon.

Urban Bias:
Players quickly discovered that Pokenmon Go favours large cities as opposed to rural areas in just about every conceivable way. Urban locales have far more Gyms and Pokestops in far greater concentrations, and what’s more the game determines the quality and rarity of Pokemon that spawn based essentially on population. This means that city-dwellers get better Pokemon simply because of where they live. Many don’t even have to leave their homes or workplaces to hit up Pokestops, hold Gyms, and capture Pokemon that might require someone who lives in a small town to drive for miles. I live in a suburban area so I don’t have it too bad, but nowhere near as good as people who live even a half hour drive away in a more densely populated environment. I can’t even imagine how tough it must be for players who live in farming communities or mountain towns. My heart goes out to them, and I hope Niantic gives them some love soon.

Game Communication:
The game could do a much better job about teaching you certain core aspects. Like how you want to throw the Pokeball when the coloured circle is smaller not larger. Though I’m still not certain if a Nice Throw is better than a throw when the circle is small but where you don’t get a bonus. And what is a curveball exactly? I’ve seen videos describing them, but I’ve thrown curveballs without doing anything shown in the videos. Or how about how Incense spawns more Pokemon when you’re moving as opposed to standing still. That would have been useful to know before I popped those two Incenses I started with. Also, it would be nice to have more info on how gyms work. Like how to time dodges, or use your secondary attack, or that you need to tap the screen repeatedly to attack. Pretty basic stuff. Oh, and also how you collect rewards for controlling gyms. Did you know that there’s a small button in the shop which you can click to get those rewards? And that the number in the button indicates how many gyms you can collect from up to a maximum of 10? And that you get 500 dust and 10 coins multiplied by that number? And that when you click it there’s no confirmation message, so don’t tap it unless you’re sure? All of this would be good to know. And what about the variations between Pokemon? What does XS mean versus XL? What are the differences between all of the abilities and how does CP relate to what I assume is the damage number next to each ability? All of these questions and more the game deigns not worthy of answering. You’ll need to go online to find out by looking at the forums, and not by asking Niantic. They don’t say shit. Which conveniently brings me to my final point.

Dev Communication:
Niantic really needs to hire a community relations manager, because right now all they have are some sporadic tweets that fail epically to address the needs and concerns of the playerbase. When will the server issues or the three-step glitch be fixed? Will they make Gyms more interesting or address the Vaporeon endgame? Will Lure Mods become more worthwhile? Will the game ever be playable for rural users? And what about the features that were promised? When will we see trading, PvP outside of gyms (which barely qualifies as PvP since nobody actually controls the defending Pokemon), or those crazy events featured in the trailer? Hell, I’d like to see smaller scale random events just to keep things interesting and maybe provide another much needed source of experience. Is there a way to give them this suggestion? Do they even listen? Who knows! They certainly don’t talk to us.

Final Thoughts:
Despite all of its problems I feel Pokemon Go is successful where it really counts. The core systems are solid overall even if they don’t work half the time, and it should satisfy most Pokemon fans. I think there’s a truly great game hiding in here that we’re just going to have to wait to see it, but when that will be I have no idea. As I said, the devs keep their lips shut tight, which has perhaps been the most detrimental aspect of the launch. For now though I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they know what they’re doing, and that I’ll be happy with the end product because this certainly isn’t it.