Pokémon Go | reviews, news & interviews
Game or viral phenomenon? Who cares - let's go hunting
If you've been outside in the past week or so, you will have seen someone playing Pokémon Go even if you didn’t realise it at the time. To the casual eye, a Pokémon Go player might appear to be checking their phone for an incoming text or studying a Google Map. Just normal people doing normal phone stuff.
But if you were to peer over their shoulder, you would see that they're actually looking at a simplified street layout of the surrounding area as they walk along, sometimes glancing up to dodge an oncoming lamp post or pedestrian. After a few paces they might stop, hold their phone in one outstretched hand and perform a flicking gesture with their other. Then a smile will form. Gotcha.
Pokémon Go, like the other incarnations of the Pokémon franchise, is about hunting for monsters in a world full of hidden creatures with strange powers and names which often suggest a portmanteau of a real-world animal with a unique ability – Charizard, Bulbasaur, Psyduck and hundreds of others, of which 151 are known to exist in this latest incarnation.
What makes Pokémon Go different to earlier Pokémon games is that the world, in this case, is our own. Players use their smartphones to explore real streets and parks and find virtual monsters ‘hidden’ in plain sight. A flutter of leaves on the map will suggest a nearby Pokémon. When you walk closer to the virtual creature and tap it on the map, the game switches from its top-down view and uses your phone’s camera to show you an ‘augmented reality’ window in which you can see a flapping Zubat hovering in the middle of the road or a plump Drowzee waddling towards you outside Sainsbury's.
Developers Niantic have packed a small subset of the ‘real’ Pokémon game mechanics into Pokémon Go, boiling the game down to the absolute basics of exploring, hunting and capturing your Pocket Monsters and powering them up so they can fight for supremacy in ‘Gyms’. Like the creatures themselves, these are real-world places, usually mapped onto local landmarks like statues or libraries. Wandering around town, you'll also come across smaller waypoints called Pokestops, where you can swipe the screen to gain powerups and supplies like the crucial Pokeballs you need to trap and contain your quarry.
The actual game is fairly limited. Battles are currently very light on strategy and just involve tapping the screen frantically until either you or your opponent lose the fight and the core of the game is just.. walking around and finding things. You can ‘evolve’ Pokémon into more powerful forms, incubate the Pokémon eggs you find (by walking around for a distance proportional to the strength of the Pokémon likely to hatch) and boost their abilities using the appropriate kinds of candy, but that’s about it.
Despite this, Pokémon Go is weirdly compelling. There's no formal social aspect to the game, no way to link it to your social media accounts and (currently, this is set to change) no way to interact directly with other players, but by playing it you do get an odd sense of being part of something bigger.
I took my two Pokémon-obsessed kids out hunting at the weekend and we found ourselves mingling with hordes of other kids (and a few adults) all stalking the local common in search of invisible animals. People were comparing their scores and sharing places to find the best Pokémon. A few got up and ran across the field to a water fountain Pokestop where a small crowd had gathered to stock up on Pokeballs and chat. It was like being part of a benign, slightly silly cult.
In central London I found more grown adults playing during their lunch break. Cafes and pubs had set ‘lures’ to attract Pokémon and, hence, players who would buy a drink or a bite to eat while they hunted. It's as if Nintendo is trying to revitalise the post-Brexit economy single-handed by making the simple act of walking around the city into something more fun.
Pokémon Go may prove to be a fad, but augmented reality gaming has the potential to be something huge and quite unlike anything we have seen before. Now if you will excuse me, I must be off. There are rumours of a rare Snorlax down by the leisure centre...
- Pokémon Go is out now on Android and iOS, published by The Pokémon Company
- The best games of 2016
- Read other gaming reviews on theartsdesk
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