Why can’t we stop playing Pokémon GO?
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 highest-earning mobile app in history. What gives? Find out in our Pokémon GO review. Read next: Pokemon Sun and Moon review | Pokemon GO troubleshooting | How to catch Ditto in Pokemon GO
Pokémon GO review: Introduction
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 interested 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 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.
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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 I 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 unlimited-use 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 me 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.
Pokémon GO review: 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 pidgeon, 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 (but in our experience thankfully not at schools), 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 first.
If a gym is of another team’s colour you can battle it and knock down its prestige, eventually kicking 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.
Pokémon GO review: Why can’t we stop playing Pokémon GO?
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. I love Pokémon GO, but it has more than a few niggles.
Before I even get into the game itself and how it works I 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 particualrly 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 I have to say I’m impressed by how little data Pokémon GO uses – relatively speaking, that is, when you take into account how often I 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, with six Pokémon available to take out a gym and only one to train it. 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 I’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. (See some common troubleshooting fixes for Pokémon GO here.)
I’ve thrown a lot of criticism at Pokémon GO within this review, and yet I’m 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 my enthusiasm for Pokémon GO remain once I have caught them all, however.
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