Taking the road less traveled by in search of virtual critters.
People have been pretty excited for the smartphone-based Pokémon Go since it was first announced in September 2015, and with good reason. The concept harkens to this awesome Google April Fools' joke from 2014—in fact, one of the folks behind said joke is now working for Niantic, the game's developer. Niantic seems like a perfect partner for the concept of searching for fake critters in the real world, as well: they're the folks behind the globally beloved Ingress, an augmented-reality adventure which has millions of players worldwide.
So when I recently got the call for the Pokémon Go beta, I jumped on it. I'd been cooped up for a bit with post-E3 obligations, and it sounded like a great excuse to get out and about a bit. Little did I know how my next few days would be utterly consumed by the great Pokémon hunt.
When you start Pokémon Go, you'll create a male or female trainer avatar with a fairly basic set of customization options. Unlike the bubbly, anime-inspired avatars of the main games, these creations have a realistic look to them: not exactly super-detailed, but with a basic appearance more akin to someone you'd find walking down the street. I get the feeling that this is done as a way to emphasize that you—yes, you!—are a Pokémon Trainer now, and within your everyday reality now lies a whole new world of unseen Pocket Monsters. (Either that, or it's a Western developer exercising an aesthetic preference, which is perfectly fine.)
The basics of Pokémon Go are pretty easy to grasp. You open the app and you use it to check what's around you. It'll check your location via GPS, and use that information to give you details on your surroundings: what Pokémon are hiding within 200 meters, where Poké Stops are located, and where you can find Pokémon gyms. This is all relayed to you via a map that represents your current real-life location, and as you move around, the map updates, showing you new locations and hotspots for your Pokémon collecting journey.
When you encounter one of the critters while out and about, your phone will buzz and the beastie shows up on the map. I was excited to encounter my first Pokémon as I was walking to Rite-Aid, but was a bit surprised when I was just handed a Poké Ball and told to toss it at Bulbasaur. That's right—you don't get to actually fight wild Pokémon like you did in the original games, you're just going to toss Poké Balls at them until they either get caught (Yay!) or escape and run away (Boo! And I can never tell why they run away, either.) You do this in the exact way you're probably imagining, by grabbing the Poké Ball with your finger and chucking it straight at your potential catch. If you land it within range, you'll see a potential capture animation, but if you miss, you'll simply watch your wasted Poké Ball roll away with a few sad bounces.
The "Catch that Pokémon!" sequence takes place on an augmented-reality field, using your phone's rear camera to superimpose the wild beast on your real-life surroundings. It's a neat effect when you're walking around, but when you're at home burning incense items to draw Ratattas to your room, it's a little weird. It can also make the act of actually catching the buggers more difficult: not only do you have to carefully grab and throw the Poké Ball on your phone's touchscreen, you also need to hold the phone steady to keep the creature in the frame. Thankfully, Niantic has an option for Little Miss Shakyhands like me that turns off the AR camera functionality for Pokémon capture sequences, replacing it with a generic background and keeping your target in the center of the screen. I turned this on and never once looked back.
Bigger, tougher Pokémon seemed more difficult to ensnare, escaping from standard Poké Balls with alarming frequency. There were a few Pokémon that, for whatever reason, I simply couldn't snag. Large, flying Pokémon seemed particularly resistant, with multiple Poké Balls that I swear to god landed in capture range but did absolutely nothing. My personal record was 70 Poké Ball duds thrown at a Golbat before I eventually had to give up.
Oh yes, did I mention your Poké Ball supply is limited? Well, your Poké Ball supply is limited. So those 70 attempts at catching Golbat were gone forever.
Thankfully, you can replenish your Poké Ball stock pretty easily. Provided you're not averse to a bit of walking.
See, Poké Stops are littered all over the place. They're assigned to correspond in location to interesting sights and real-world landmarks: statues at the local mall, fountains and clock towers at apartment complexes, painted fire hydrants along city streets—I even found one that corresponded to the cheesy-looking dragon statue outside of a Chinese seafood restaurant a few towns away. When you get physically close to Poké Stops (which are always marked on the in-game map by their real-world landmarks), you can access them to get a random assortment of items like Poké Balls and healing goodies. If you visit enough Poké Stops in a day, you can accumulate a nice collection of Poké Balls, Revives, and spray medicines of varying potency. (In the demo version, they replenished pretty quickly (like, within 5 minutes), though that may well change for the full release. But if for some reason you're unable to go out and about, there's an in-game shop that will allow you to buy essentials like Poké Balls, as well as items that draw Pokémon to specific locations.
But wait, what do you need healing items for if you aren't fighting wild Pokémon? Well, that's where Gyms come in. Much like Ingress, you're playing for a particular faction—in this case, you pick between Red, Blue, and Yellow. From there on, you can travel around, discovering gyms (which, like Poké Stops, are tied to real-world landmarks) and claim them for your team.
Or, if you're like me and have terrible luck, you join the Blue faction, only to discover that all four of the Gyms closest to you have already been claimed by the Red and Yellow factions. Thanks, guys.
But there's still plenty that you can do in a gym controlled by opposing factions. Gyms operate on a prestige system, which determines the gym's level and how many Pokémon can be assigned to defend it. A gym with level 1 prestige will only have one Pokémon, while a level 3 gym can have up to 3 as defenders, and so on. To raise the prestige of your team's Gyms, you can set some of your strongest Pokémon to act as a defender (one per gym), and you can train your Pokémon by fighting against your teammates' critters. If you want to lower the prestige of opponents' gyms, you take a team of six Pokémon up against however many they have set as defenders, and if you win, their prestige goes down a notch.
These aren't the usual menu-based Pokémon battles you know and love, either: you attack, move, and dodge by tapping and swiping the screen. Each Pokémon has only two attacks, one regular attack and one special attack, so your options are pretty limited. You also better have your type charts memorized, because the limited movelist makes things more difficult for freshly caught Pokémon to perform well.
So how does one raise Pokémon skills, then? Well, you have to use a material called Stardust and candy items specific to each species, which you accumulate by catching Pokémon. Using these will level up your critters, giving them more power in the crucial gym fights. With enough candies, you can even evolve to the next step in your Poké-pal's growth tree.
And boy, did I ever accumulate a stockpile of candies. Here in the concrete jungle near my home, I encountered enough Pidgeys, Ratattas, and Zubats to take me back to my days with the Game Boy Pokémon blue cartridge. You can give Pokémon you catch but don't need to the Professor in exchange for more candy, which lets you level up the ones that do have potential faster, but if you want variety in your Pokémon box, you're going to have to head outside. The game changes up the Pokémon you encounter based on your real-world surroundings - going out to the river meant encountering more Water Pokémon, for example. You've also got Pokémon eggs, which would hatch after you ran a certain distance in the original games. Here, they'll hatch once you physically run a certain distance, which it determined by looking at my iPhone's health metric tracking feature. If you want to find out what's in that egg you've got, well, better burn off that 10 kilometers of walking distance!
I get the distinct feeling that Niantic wants players of Pokémon GO to travel to new and interesting local spots they might otherwise overlook. The app certainly convinced me to take the longer path walking to and from familiar places—and I wound up finding some interesting stuff I didn't know was nearby in the process. If I can capture virtual critters while gaining a better appreciation for the real world around me—well, I'd say that's a pretty good thing.