Pokemon Go Hands-On: Pokemon In Your Pocket
Let's face it. I don't get outside that much.
How can I when I'm working hard to bring everyone the hottest mobile news, reviews and features they want? It's tough to leave the house for anything but work most days and my social life definitely suffers for it. But there's one thing that'll absolutely get me out and about, and that's the magical world of Pokemon.
When I first heard about Pokemon Go and its unique premise, I was over the moon. A chance to carry my lifelong desire to become a Pokemon master in real life? Come on. You don't even have to ask if that's something that'd appeal to me. In Pokemon Go, you can roam the world thanks to the game's GPS capabilities, all the while happening upon Pokemon, gyms, special "Poke Stops" that correspond to landmarks around you, and challenging others for supremacy. The idea is that you need to get up and get moving, searching the world you live in for the Pokemon that might be hiding around you. From Niantic, the team that brought us the very similar alternate reality title Ingress, it sounded almost like what could be the most perfect representation of Pokemon one could ask for in the age of smartphones and social media saturation.
After spending about a week with Pokemon Go, I'm convinced that's the truth. Despite some technical hang-ups (this is the field test, after all) and other curiosities, this is an extremely unique and beneficial way for Pokemon and Pokemon fans to interact with each other in a whole new space. And I'm confident with a little tweaking, it can be perfected to make a title that'll supplement the handheld titles nicely. But before I want to gush about the high points that made me excited to try the complete product when it finally rolls out, some discussion must be had about the lows, and unfortunately there are quite a few I'm concerned with.
When you launch the game, you can create your own avatar with which you'll explore the world. There are limited options beyond skin tone, slightly different features, and colors/styles of your outfit, but it's not really about representing yourself after all. It's about jumping in and getting straight to catching 'em all, of course. Once you're settled with your character, you can start to explore. As it was late at night and I wasn't planning on going anywhere, I opened the app and checked to see if there were any monsters around me. To my surprise I found a Squirtle, which I scrambled to capture.
Capturing Pokemon isn't that difficult, but I did have questions that the game didn't really answer. You can turn your camera on for an AR effect so that the Pokemon itself appears in your environment, so in my case I saw Squirtle on my leg as I sat reclining in a chair. You get your Pokemon on the screen and a ring that appears over it, with a green or orange ring closing in on the monster. You need to aim with your finger and throw a Poke Ball, I surmised, into the center of the ring in order to catch it. If you're on point you'll get a "Nice!" and a bonus for being so handy with a Poke Ball. Sometimes the Pokemon will bat the Ball away, or move about on the screen, which you'll have to turn your phone to focus on them again and try harder. I caught Squirtle easily, but when a Pidgey appeared it took five to seven tries with a regular Poke Ball and "Nice!" shots. The Poke Ball squirmed a few times, and Pidgey escaped. I'm not sure what bearing my tosses even had on Pidgey despite my good aim, and by the end of the beta I still wasn't sure what this or the other varieties of Poke Balls mattered, as my luck didn't seem to change no matter which type I used.
More confusing still were the Pokemon that would pop up in my vicinity. There aren't random encounters or surprises when it comes to the Pokemon around you. They're clearly displayed and your phone will buzz to alert you when they appear. When I saw Rattatas and Pidgeys around my home surrounded by a field, I wondered if they were par for the course since there's a lot of tall and low grass around. Later when I started seeing random Pokemon like Bulbasaur and Tangela in the same area, I wondered whether the area you're in actually matters or not.
For instance, going down a familiar highway miles away from a river, ocean or lake I started seeing Goldeen, Staryu and Krabby. Nidorino and Meowth appeared while I was in the restroom at a Skyline Chili. It's not immediately apparent if there's some sort of algorithm you can rely on to find said Pokemon or if it's somehow completely randomized. I tested the same area at different times of day and continually found the same monsters, though on the final day of the test discovered scads of Pokemon where previously there had only been one or two only one day prior. I was under the impression that Pokemon types might be dependent on your geological location, but that seems as though it may not be the case. And if I can see the Pokemon in my vicinity it does tend to take away from the "surprise" factor. I can't pick and choose which monsters I want to see in the original games, so it's a bit jarring to be able to do so in the mobile game. The argument can be made that you'd be able to see which Pokemon you're looking at in real life, but if you've got to look down and see five Pidgeys surrounding you (like what happened when I stopped at a gas station) it kind of ruins the mystique.
It does tend to break the illusion, unfortunately, as do several other aspects of the game. As I made my way around the neighborhood I came upon landmarks that were seemingly pulled from the same database as Ingress, though I only know this from a cursory Google as I'd never previously played before. By my house a Mark's Feed Store restaurant with a pig statue outside was given the name "Dirty South Oink," a pretty stupid name by all counts, with poor grammar and spelling in its description as if added by another player. We all know other players, especially those on mobile devices, shouldn't be the ones to decide what to name or how to describe these landmarks, so if that is the case I would hope there's a more official process in place to check and verify the names of landmarks and offer high-resolution photos instead of the terrible cell phone images some had attached to them, which really ruins the immersion factor.
But even with these issues, I still managed to find myself enjoying the game. I'll be back with final impressions once the game releases upon the unsuspecting public. Mark my words. It's going to be hectic.