An Anonymous Hands-On With Pokemon Go

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.


Comments

    This agrees with my guess from what I first read of this test...catching 10-20 extra pokemon to evolve one is a boring, grindy PITA and just not fun. Games are for fun, if a game isn't fun then it isn't good.

    They need to go back to basics and make it more closely match what people expect of a pokemon game or it's going to tank pretty heavily.

    As a semi-anonymous field tester I agree with most things said in this article.

    It could have been a lot more but I think a big problem is how much I hyped it up in my own head. I hope it improves but at this stage it will likely just be a pokemon themed Ingress, not that that is necessarily a bad thing, just not what I wanted from it.

    This smacks of the Bethesda/Fallout 4 DLC fiasco from last week.

    This was an enjoyable read.

    That said, if the developer has stipulated that an NDA is in effect during development of an unfinished title, and the testing users go 'YOLO' and share their experiences anyway, should be we be surprised by any repercussions?

    If this was to impact the game at all in Australia, I'd be pretty unhappy.

      It's almost as if this gaming news website is publishing confidential information in the interests of journalism.

      What a scandal.

    So it's really just Ingress with a pokemon skin?

    I was looking forward to being able to battle my friends.

      It's a beta test. Who knows what parts they are actually testing.
      Remember how bad the early access weekends are for Battlefield etc?
      Unfinished game.

      I'd wait until the final release to make a verdict. Even after release, Ingress changed things up quite a bit. Powercubes for example changed things massively.

      At the moment, it feels a bit shallower than Ingress: they've taken some stuff out, but what they've added in its place is not yet at the same level.

      In Ingress, you capture nodes in order to create links and form fields. You attack nodes controlled by the enemy to destroy fields or get rid of links blocking the ones you want to create. In this game, you can capture gyms in behalf of your team, but there isn't yet any larger goals.

      With that said, hunting for pokemon is quite different to anything you'd do in Ingress. It can be quite satisfying to be told that a new type of pokemon is near by and track them down and capture that. But the more you catch the less frequently you'll find something new, so it really needs something more to keep you engaged.

    it's not really like either and don't hold your breath for battling friends, unless they implement a friend code system being able to battle random strangers would open this up to all sorts of perverts hanging around schools etc. I think we often forget that Pokemon is still basically a game for kids.

    I got bored of the game so fast. I'll still download the final product but there is literally no reason to play. Ingress was great at giving you a reason to capture and attack portals, I see no reason to bother holding a gym in pokemon. Collecting pokemon seems to be the main aim of the game but it's such a grind that I got bored.

    Not to mention the fact that you use the camera on your phone for some "augmented reality" where the pokemon appears in real life. All good when you're alone walking down the street, less good when you are required to point your phone at a group of school kids or some other sketchy subject.

    Does anyone remember those hand held devices like Digimon called Pox. those things were well before their time.

    My biggest issue with the beta so far is that the best way to find pokemon is by going to crowded areas like a mall or retail store.... If the writer of this article wants to find Ponyta, why waste time hiking around? I've found most pokemon appear in crowded retail locations.

    As a field tester in the US, I can tell you I quickly shut the augmented reality off. Can you imagine the reaction to a middle age man holding his camera up in a park full of kids? Yeah I don't see that explanation being taken seriously.

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