Video Games First Impressions: Pokemon GO (Mobile, 2016)

Earlier this week, Nintendo kicked off a soft-rollout of their second major mobile game release, Pokémon GO. The altered reality game, which allows players to hunt and capture using the camera on their smartphones has already become a worldwide sensation. Everyone in The Iris offices has been playing it almost non-stop since it dropped and, in a herculean display of self control, we have dragged ourselves away from it long enough to provide our initial thoughts.

To say this game has rekindled the Pokémon player in all of us seems to be a bit of an understatement. I’ve seen people of all ages walking around the streets playing the game. For many in their mid-late 20s / early 30s, it’s nostalgic; we all remember playing Red or Blue on Game Boy, or playing the trading cards when we were kids. For those older, they might be playing with the brand for the first time, enjoying augmented reality aspect of the game, which few games have incorporated well (and rarely with a brand of this calibre), and maybe seeing what all the fuss is about. The fact that it’s “free” probably helps too. And those younger probably never stopped playing Pokémon.

With Australia one of the early territories to get the game in English, it remains in its infancy at this stage. There’s only certain things you can do: catch Pokémon in the streets, incubate eggs and train your Pokémon at friendly gyms (you choose from one of three classes once you reach level five) and battle at non-friendly gyms. Which are usually at schools or train stations. Maybe don’t spend too much time hanging out the front of the schools in the middle of the day, yeah?

Unlike pretty much every game out there, this is game that encourages you to get out there and walk the streets. The way they incorporate the city into the game is pretty remarkable — the game simply links into Google Maps and draws its location data and landmarks from there. But just make sure you definitely follow the reminder when you launch the game: it’s very easy to start ignoring your surroundings and probably get hit by a car.

The gameplay mechanics are all pretty straight forward — you hold your phone up and use the rear-facing camera to locate a Pokémon in the wild. Indeed, the first comparison we draw was with the now classic Nintendo 64 title Pokémon Snap, the last truly great game to have you wandering around with a camera looking for rare Pokémon.

With a couple of exceptions, catching Pokémon is easy – simply swipe your finger up the screen to fling a Pokéball at a wild Pokémon — though I imagine the higher level you are the more difficult it becomes. As I speak I’m only at level 6. The battles are fun, though will take a couple of times to get used to – the mechanics seems to be just hit the opponent via the touch capabilities of your phone as fast as you can, and dodge elsewhere. I hope that aspect of the game gets a bit more complex as it progresses, and that battles with your friends become possible.

The biggest obstacle to playing Pokémon GO so far has been the up-and-down servers. With so many people logging on, many of them back-dooring in from countries the game hasn’t officially launched in yet, the poor severs have been under near constant siege.

While some have derided the launch as disastrous, the fact that game can be this intermittent and still have the staggering drawing power it does is remarkable. 400 people turned up to a fan-organised Pokémon GO pub crawl in Brisbane overnight and several thousand are likely to turn out in Sydney this weekend for another fan-created walk.

The other rising fan complaint is that the game’s thirst for your phone battery is real. Playing the game for even a few minutes will take serious percentages off your phone’s remaining charge so if you’re planning to go Pokémon hunting this weekend, you should make sure you take charger cables and a portable battery. Like the scouts, a true Pokémon Master is always prepared.

Pokémon GO is a free-to-play title, which means there’s going to be some slow growth to your Pokémon without spending money – so prepare to be patient.

Pokémon GO is out now on iOS and Android devices.

David Smith

Games and technology editor, Dungeons and Dragons fanboy and your new best friend. You can reach me at david.smith@theaureview.com with news tips, pitches, press releases, invites, review content and more.