Review: Pokemon Go!

Pokémon GO
Android and iOS
Nintendo

A fun, educational, social, motivational and adventurous game app that may finally alleviate the ‘stay in and play’ restrictions of decades of gaming, or simply be a flash in the pan novelty? Steve Penfold (35) hits the streets of London to hunt some Pocket Monsters.

Stranger Things has just started on Netflix, a sci-fi thriller series set in the eighties. I’m an adult (I’ve been told) so I can watch anything I like so ratings have long since stopped meaning much to me. The reason I was surprised to discover that the series is rated G for Guidance, aside from the genuinely scary tension and a kid being hounded by a mysterious monster in the street the opening episode features kids riding around on their bikes, on their own, looking for clues. What are you crazy?!

Pokémon GO represents a step back in human behaviour that many 21st Century parents may find alarming. Described as a Real World Game, it encourages the user to go out into the real world, explore and discover things around them. Every aspect of the game is designed to get you on your feet and moving. Using the existing GPS, wifi and video apps on any mobile device, a virtual map of the local area is created populated by Pocket Monsters (or Pokémon), as well as Poké-gyms, power ups and equipment. A circle of influence, much like radar surrounds your on-screen character and while many details are marked on the map it is not until you physically move into the object, character or gyms ‘real world’ field of influence that you can interact with it, and most importantly, capture it. True to the original ‘gotta catch them all’ tag-line, your primary mission is to capture, train, power-up and unleash your Pokémon.

L-R: (Top) Beware the Gyarados; looking for new prey; surface may be slippery at Liverpool Street station, a freshly smoking Pokeball, post catch and the parent-pleaseing POI feature.

L-R: (Top) Beware the Gyarados; looking for new prey; surface may be slippery at Liverpool Street station, a freshly smoking Pokeball, post catch and the parent-pleaseing POI feature.

The Real World Test
Having downloaded the app and switching it on you are immediately presented with the friendly warning to ‘Remember to be alert at all times. Stay aware of your surroundings.’ To add emphasis a silhouette of a cap wearing gamer wandering along a bridge while a gigantic, blue, grimacing, toothy sea serpent Gyarados (one of the more terrifying and powerful incarnations of Pokémon) rears up above him. In a world where real world threats are all too regularly communicated inaccurately to young people this sets the right tone. Basically, get out there and hunt but don’t walk into heavy traffic. No doubt a corporate requirement like most warnings to make sure that the first time that a Pokemon enthusiast gets hit by a car / ends up in a 100m deep mine shaft or locates a dead body (all online reports seen since this app was launched), it only adds to the excitement of a great big world to discover and survive, filled with adventure and potential dangers. This, I feel, is the truly exciting aspect of the game, depending on your fearfulness of the world outside. The shameless encouragement for players to take responsibility for themselves, get out there, discover and have fun.

Further into the game itself, following an admittedly limited appearance options menu (you’d better like gym gear and spiky hair or you’re going to be disappointed) you are propelled into a map of the world around you, revealing the first Pokémon available to you and a simplified, cartoonish world map with your avatar at it’s centre. It’s hard to know how similar each online map is, and whether the occurrence of Pokemon are the same for all parties but I found a Squirtle in my bed, which I assume no one else is coming looking for. Automatically transferring to my video app the ‘Tiny Turtle’ Pokémon was standing on my duvet in the sunlight from my bedroom window, staring straight at me and gesturing and twitching. This moment, for a small child (or anyone with a willing imagination) is a magical and exciting one as the virtual and real merge pretty seamlessly. The intuitive controls encourage you to flick a Pokéball (the easily carried red and white spherical pseudo-prison cell for your unfortunate prey ) and if it bounces just right, your Pokémon gets sucked right up into it, added to your in-app Pokedex (exactly what it sounds like) ready for future battles.

One of the effects of the astonishing popularity of Pokémon GO is that you look at people wandering around with their mobile phones raised in a completely different way. They are potential competitors for one, as Pokémon GO allows you to pit your captured pets against others. Littered around the virtual world map are Gyms and Arenas, where you can train and fight other Pokémon (though your friendly trainer appears to let you know you can only do so after level 5). But more than that, they are fellow gamers. Previously, the voices at the other end of headsets as you batter your way through a multiplayer Halo level are now right in front of you, hunting in the real world. Just yesterday, on my wanderings (which were extended simply because I was playing the app) I suspected one older gentleman coming from the side of my block of flats of having just snagged a Poliwag, but more convincingly, saw GO on the screen of a young player outside Kings Cross station, whom I kindly directed to a nearby quarry, much to his surprise, heard the music playing as I walked past two young guys in their twenties in Romford high street, heard two others talking about catching the ‘orange one’ in the market and even found a hastily printed sign on A4 paper in a local pub reading ‘Pokéstop here!!! Grab a drink and top up your Pokéballs!’ I know the landlord however and it’s odds on as to whether there’s any Pokémon inside.

Psyduck appears to take a whack from a passing cyclist ay a busy junction outside Kings Cross station

Psyduck appears to take a whack from a passing cyclist ay a busy junction outside Kings Cross station

I picked up a Hypno by the busses and a Rattatta by the newsagents, as well as an extra Squirtle at Liverpool Street Station platform 16, much to the bemusement of two station staff. I discovered a route back to Kings Cross station that I was previously unaware of as a result of trying to hunt the base of a Poké-gym, discovering a quiet alleyway and square. The Gym’s base was apparently at the centre of the square which suggested that the larger points on the map are very deliberately placed.

But the best part for me I found was the ‘features’. As I wandered up the street towrads Romford station, the app forced me to stop, open a point of interest and forced my focus onto a ‘Havering Wall art’. It later directed me to a historical plaque I’d ignored on the way to and from work and most profoundly, drew my attention to a bronze statue I walk passed almost every day. Giving the option of further detail, it revealed that the statue was a tribute to all those who helped 20,000 Jewish and other children escape Nazi persecution. As a dad, I have to say that imbedding something that for all it’s positive features can be dismissed as spurious and time-wasting with the opportunity to understand details of the world surrounding children is a genuinely nice touch.

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GLITCHES
There were times when the GPS meant that I couldn’t grab a Zubat as it was imedded in a wall or the field of influence extended only to the wrong side of the road (opposite to where I was actually standing). Also, as a result of capturing a Drowzee, both myself and a colleague who should know better found ourselves standing in the road, albeit a quiet one-way street. This, added to the fact that I captured a Psyduck standing in the road at one of the most busy junctions in London, seconds after it appeared to be ‘run over’ by a cyclist weathered the point that it has the potential to be dangerous. Having said this, while the Psyduck was apparently taking it’s life in it’s flippers I was standing safely on the kerb, well within range to sling it into a Pokéball.

Arriving home, the wifi dropped below the level I needed to display the details of the game and I was left wandering on an empty map during what I had hoped would be an eventful walk home passed a church yard, bars and shops. This persisted for hours until it magically returned. This may have been the servers but the absence of an off-line set of features means it lacks the all-round distraction capabilities of games such as Plants vs Zombies.

Summing up, this is a revolutionary game, clearly heavily and meticulously tested. Simple enough to be easily grasped and used by anyone, complicated and broad enough to offer potentially thousands of gaming hours. The fact that distance covered in the real defines your progress in the game makes the nature of this game adventurous, positive and definitively cheerful – not to mention the answer to many criticisms of games in relation to childhood obesity and fear of the outside world. Again, subject to your own feelings of the dangers of the outside world – to me it appears to be a cheerful clarion call to go out and have fun!!

 

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