One lucky Kotaku Australia reader managed to get himself into the Pokemon Go field tests.
What is it like? How does it all work? Here's one anonymous look at a very early version of Pokemon Go.
It's midnight, and I'm standing in the middle of a conservation park in the hills near my home. There's distant city lights behind the trees, but nothing but my phone's dim flashlight illuminates my path. An hour ago, I told my friends that I was going AFK, but they don't know the truth: I'm outside catching Pokémon. I glance at my phone for a moment, and the Poké-radar tells me there's a Ponyta near. I want that damn fire horsie. I need it. Soon enough, it pops out of hiding, and appears on my screen, superimposed on its surroundings - black rocks, black sky, black trees - and I hurl a Poké Ball at the poor creature with a quick swipe.
I catch it. The ball locks with the familiar click and burst of sparkles, and the Ponyta is mine.
But then I realize that I'm out in the wind and rain, playing a buggy alpha test of a free-to-play Pokémon game, and I feel a bit odd. I should feel great, right? I love Pokémon. It's the game of my childhood. But this isn't the Pokémon I recognize, and I'm afraid that I won't love it, even when it's a finished game.
When the Google-spinoff game developer Niantic Labs, known for its hit augmented reality game Ingress, announced its collaboration with The Pokémon Company to create a free-to-play Pokémon smartphone game, the internet collectively lost its shit. Augmented reality is all the rage these days, and mixing that with Pokémon sounded like a sure-fire hit. Just take Pokémon's time-tested RPG mechanics and put them in a mobile game. Easy, right? I sure as hell was thrilled to get my alpha test invite.
That thrill wore off quickly. It was replaced with a weird feeling of not feeling like the protagonist in a Pokémon game. Instead, I felt like an NPC, and not like the sort that dispenses banal advice to newbies. Pokémon Go's early alpha is a strange, lonely experience, and at present, your introduction to the game is extremely sparse. Here's your Pokédex, kid, and here's some Poké Balls. Now bugger off and catch a Rattata. Oh, and by the way, you're entirely alone in the world. Have fun!
For the seasoned Pokémon veteran, this shouldn't be too much of a challenge. However, this isn't the only curveball the game throws at you: the battling system is a completely new design, and it's a definite work-in-progress. Instead of working as a turn-based system, allowing players to plan out their moves in advance, Pokémon Go's battles run in real time, with your 'mons using either a basic attack, a dodge, or a charged move to deal more damage. In theory, it sounds like a cool remix of concepts introduced and refined through twenty years of gameplay, but in practise it's a clunky, laggy, opaque system. In the Pokémon Go tester forums, the jury's still out on whether the battle system will end up having the complexity and nuance of previous Pokémon titles. Only time will tell, right?
Of course, the above point is moot when you take into consideration the fact that you can't battle against other players, or even train your captured Pokémon on their wild brethren. The only available battles are against Pokémon placed in Gyms - the equivalent of Ingress's portals - by other players, and they tend to be one-sided and extremely short-lived. For a massively multiplayer game like Pokémon Go, the lack of social options is surely the most disappointing aspect. It's a lonely game, with no NPCs or story content, and it desperately needs some sense of progression or competition to salvage its already-flagging tester base. At least it has a cash shop, though!
Speaking of progression, it's minimal, and, once again, unfamiliar to fans of previous Pokémon games. You can't train your captured Pokémon - there simply isn't an experience points system. Instead, to evolve them, you gather "evolution shards" by capturing the same Pokémon over and over again. For example, I'm currently trying to evolve my Eevee, but instead of finding a rare evolution stone or fulfilling a unique event, I'm forced to grind out nineteen more captures. This sort of thing takes days, and it's frustrating, especially with the capture difficulty changes implemented in the most recent alpha patch.
I want to be very clear here: what I'm writing about now isn't the final state of the game. Far from it. I'm pessimistic about the current state, but even in the first couple of weeks of the alpha, Niantic has implemented common quality-of-life requests from the tester community, and this shows that they're absolutely willing to their most dedicated fans. As a Pokéfan myself, I feel the game is brimming with potential, and despite my pessimism, I'm still excited to see what the future holds for Pokémon Go.