Wander into the downtown area of any major city around the world and you'll likely find people walking around with a laser-sharp focus on their smartphones. Normally, you'd think they were following directions or having an intense Snapchat session, but these days it's more likely they're playing Pokemon Go. This is the mobile game that has taken the world by storm, and with good reason: It's the closest we've gotten to capturing and training actual real life Pokemon. The gameplay and implementation of augmented reality (AR) isn't brilliant or groundbreaking in and of itself. It's the same framework used by Ingress, an earlier AR game from Pokemon Go creator Niantic Labs. What sets Pokemon Go apart is the sheer scale and scope of its cross-generational appeal. Servers may go down, the app may crash, and it may drain your phone battery, but Pokemon Go still manages to balance the difficult task of being fun for newcomers and capturing the sense of nostalgia for the old hands. Pokemon Go is tremendously fun and, despite its many issues, one of the most addictive iPhone games I've ever played.
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To Catch Them Is My Real Test, To Train Them Is My Cause
My first step in achieving my lifelong dream of becoming a Pokemon Master was to download Pokemon Go onto my Apple iPhone 6s Plus. It also works with Android smartphones with 2GB of RAM and Android 4.4 KitKat or higher, letting you use a variety of budget phones. I connected it to my Google account, which may not have been the best idea in hindsight, given recent reports about security issues. At the time, Niantic requested broad permissions that gave the app full access to my Google account, including emails and web searches. Fortunately, Niantic has released an update that's constrained the scope of account access. Your other option is to use a Pokemon Trainer Club account, which uses The Pokemon Company's server. This was mostly down during my testing, but it appears to be up now. If you're still concerned about your information being harvested, that may be your best bet.
After making an account I quickly swiped through the introduction by Professor Willow and created a character using the handful of customization options for gender, hair, skin color, and clothing. That done, the game placed my character on a map of my real-world neighborhood, where I encountered three traditional starter Pokemon: Charmander, Squirtle, and Bulbasaur. Your choice of starter doesn't really matter, as you can eventually get all three. I discovered Bulbasaur in my toilet after choosing Charmander, and there's even a way to get Pikachu if you run away from your initial starters.
Capturing a Pokemon is a simple task. The Pokemon appear on the map when you're close to them, which is usually indicated by rustling grass or lure modules (more on these later). You simply approach the target and tap it to attempt a capture. This launches your smartphone's camera, which shows the Pokemon in AR, set against the backdrop of your surroundings.
At this point, a set of rings will appear around the Pokemon, indicating the difficulty of capturing it. Green-ringed Pokemon are easy to capture, yellow are moderate, and red are difficult. From here, you have two options: Capture the critter by swiping Pokeballs at it, or run away. If you correctly line up your swipes, you should be able to capture a Pokemon on your first or second try. At higher difficulty, Pokemon can dodge, fight back, flee, and break out of Pokeballs.
The toughest thing about the process is that Pokemon Go frequently locks up after a capture, requiring you to restart the app. I encountered this on my iPhone, and Android users are reporting it as well. Worse, you lose the Pokemon you captured when this happens. This seems to be a server problem, as your phone sends data to the server, but gets no response back. If you're lucky and everything works as it should, you'll find that capturing Pokemon increases your experience points, allowing you to level up. It also grants you bonuses like stardust and candy, which you'll need to level up and evolve your Pokemon.
Overall, capturing Pokemon in AR is a fun and engaging pursuit. There's something undeniably exciting about seeing a Pokemon present in the real world. It worked seamlessly on my iPhone, but owners of more affordable Android devices will want to make sure they have a gyroscope; otherwise they won't be able to play.
I Will Travel Across the Land, Searching Far and Wide
To play Pokemon Go you must do something few other games require. You must leave your house, step outside, and get some exercise. For the average gamer, this practically counts as a fitness app. There's nothing as formal as a step counter, but you do get bonuses for distance traveled.
You need to walk around to find Pokemon, collect items, and hatch eggs. You'll know a Pokemon is nearby if grass rustles, and the bottom right of your screen gives you an idea of the Pokemon that are in your area, as well as approximately how far away they are.
The distribution and concentration of Pokemon can vary wildly depending on your area. In my neighborhood in Jersey City, I only got six or seven Pokemon over the entire weekend. Meanwhile, friends living in Williamsburg, Bed-Stuy, and other parts of New York City reported numbers in the double digits. Parks in urban areas seem to be especially attractive to Pokemon. My best Pokemon hunting ground proved to be Madison Square Park near the PCMag office, which was ripe with spawns.
A word about spawns: Their exact mechanics are a bit of an enigma, but from my testing I've confirmed that Pokemon spawn in the same location for everyone and that multiple people can capture the same Pokemon. I was able to capture a Cubone that spawned in the office using two different phones. However, after a certain amount of time the Cubone went away, indicating there's a spawning and despawning mechanic at work behind the scenes, likely tied to a time counter. To identify the Pokemon in a given location, check the bottom right of your map screen. You'll see all the Pokemon in your general vicinity with sets of one, two, or three footprints underneath indicating how near or far they are. You'll notice the Pokemon nearby will fluctuate even if you're sitting at the same location. The best way to think about it is that the Pokemon are moving around, some are leaving and new ones are appearing from time to time. So if a less common Pokemon appears you'll want to check the area quickly before it goes away.
There are a few key features you'll want to be mindful of while on a hunt. The first is Pokestops. These are buildings, landmarks, and other objects of interest that grant you bonuses, eggs, and Pokeballs when you pass by them. Pokestops are marked by blue boxes that turn into blue Pokeball symbols when you approach them. The symbols turn purple when you've collected their items. These are important if you want to keep stocked up on Pokeballs. Eggs are also good to have, because they hatch after you walk a certain distance (2 kilometers seems to be the minimum). Pokemon Go's GPS data isn't anywhere near as accurate or reliable as that of Google Maps, but a recent update has improved matters. I've been able to hit most Pokestops with a good degree of reliability since then.
If you want to capture lots of Pokemon, your best bet is to find lure modules. They're hard to mistake on the map, as they're essentially pillars of swirling flower petals. You can purchase lure modules from the store using coins (about 99 cents worth each, with bulk discounts), which you'll need to buy with real-world money. Once used, they attract Pokemon to that area for 30 minutes. The nice part is that everyone in the area can take advantage of them, not just the person who set them. The Pokemon don't run out—although they may leave—so multiple people to capture the same Pokemon, while it sticks around. If you're the more solitary sort, you can use incense, another in-app purchase (which starts about 80 cents per stick), which does the same thing as lure modules, except only the incense user can capture the Pokemon that appear. Neither item is a required purchase, but if you're in an area where Pokemon aren't spawning, either might be a good option.
Some Pokemon are more common in some areas, while others are rarer. You're likely to encounter a lot of Rattatas, Pidgeys, and Doduo, and fewer Magmars and Polygons, let alone the ever-elusive Ditto. That said, there's no harm in capturing the same Pokemon more than once. Doing so gives you some experience, stardust, which you'll need to increase Pokemon levels, and candy, which you'll need for evolution. If you're concerned about filling up your bag, you can just transfer duplicates to Professor Willow, the guy who introduces you to the game, and he'll give you candy. But keep in mind that it's not reversible; once you transfer Pokemon to the Professor Willow there's no getting them back.
The third major landmarks are gyms. These can be found throughout the map, but from what I've seen gyms tend to be concentrated in the downtown areas of cities. There were only one or two in my neighborhood, and some users living in rural or suburban areas have reported having no gyms at all. Gyms are important because they are the sole place you can engage in battles against other trainers, though it's not in real time. Essentially, you are fighting the Pokemon a gym leader has left behind to hold the fort. In the beginning of the game, you won't have to worry about gyms, but once you reach level 5 you can choose a Team and battle to take control of gyms. More on this in a bit.
Naturally, all of this wandering around searching requires that you keep your phone on and your GPS active. There's currently no other way for the app to notify you of a Pokemon, Pokestop, or gym (at least, until the Pokemon Go Plus wearable comes out). This, combined with all the camera usage, results in significant battery drain. For an hour of average gameplay, I lost 30 percent of my battery life. If you're planning on playing Pokemon Go sessions you'd be well advised to carry chargers and spare battery packs with you.
I Wanna Be The Very Best, Like No One Ever Was
Capturing Pokemon isn't enough. If you want to become a true Pokemon Master, you'll need to level them up and have them fight. As I've mentioned before, the primary method of leveling and evolving a Pokemon is by feeding them stardust and candy. There are two numbers you'll want to keep track of: Hit points (HP) and combat power (CP). HP measure how much damage your Pokemon can take in battle before it faints, and CP determines how well your Pokemon will perform in battle. Generally speaking, the Pokemon with the higher CP will win, though weaknesses and strengths also play a role. Anyone who's played a traditional game knows fire is strong against grass and weak against water. You'll want to keep those kinds of strengths and weaknesses in mind.
Currently, Pokemon Go lacks direct trainer versus trainer battles, nor does it seem to be a feature that's likely to come anytime soon. That's a fairly big disappointment, but you're not entirely without options for seeing your team in combat.
As mentioned, gyms are the place to test your mettle, but first you'll need to pick a team. There are three to choose from. Team Instinct, led by Spark, focuses on trusting your instincts and is represented by Zapdos. Team Mystic, led by Blanche, concentrates on evolution and is represented by Articuno. And Team Valor, led by Candela, specializes in being the very best Pokemon trainer, and is represented by Moltres.
Despite the different descriptions and mascots, the teams are pretty much identical, so there's no need to agonize over your choice. However, your neighborhood may favor one team over the others, which makes it beneficial to pick the one that dominates. The gyms in my area are dominated by Team Mystic, so that's what I went with, much to the annoyance of my Team Valor friends.
After choosing a team you can jump right into gym battles. Go to a gym led by an opposing team and you can fight them to become a gym leader. On the occasions when I was able to battle and the app didn't freeze, it was a ridiculously fun. You can launch a battle using basic attacks or charged up special attacks. There's an element of strategy that comes from knowing which attack to use, and when. You can also dodge incoming enemy attacks, swap out members of your team, and use items to heal and revive your Pokemon. Battle is one of the better-implemented mechanics of the game, and one I want to see more of outside the gym.
If you successfully win a gym battle, which I sadly never have, you take over the gym on behalf of your team. The benefits of this are manifold. You get bonuses such as experience points for every day you control the gym, and also get to have one of your captured Pokemon parked on it. Members of the same team can place Pokemon at the location to defend it. Prestige is gained by winning battles and lost by losing them. A gym with higher prestige can be defended by more Pokemon at one time, which makes it harder to capture.
There's no doubt gym battles are one of the most engaging and hands-on aspects of Pokemon Go due to their competitive nature. It's easy to grasp, and while some old hands might grumble about how the battle mechanic isn't ported over straight from the previous games, remember that this is a free app, and Nintendo probably doesn't want to undercut sales of the actual paid Pokemon games. However, it is unfortunate that trainer versus trainer battles haven't been included yet.
It's Always Been Our Dream. Pokemon!
During the course of my review, Pokemon Go proved to be both an incredible and an incredibly frustrating experience. When the servers were up and running, the app didn't freeze, and my GPS was functional, it was fun and addictive. But when any one of those things wasn't working it simply proved to be a waste of time, especially considering that you have to travel in the real world to play. These things would make me abandon just about any other game, but Pokemon Go has pull like no other mobile game I've experienced. Its mixed sense of nostalgia, openness, and social interaction are unmatched in the space.
It remains to be seen if Niantic will lay the foundations for greater success by rolling out patches, bug fixes, and better server support. We've gotten the first two patches already, fixing issues with account security and logins, and the servers are also down less often, so those are encouraging signs. We're still in the exciting honeymoon period of the game's launch, and there's no doubt expectation of additional improvement are causing people to give the game the benefit of the doubt. With that in mind, I recommend Pokemon Go, with the caution that players should expect to encounter all the issues we've mentioned. And despite all of that, it's still the most addictive mobile game I've ever played.
Newbie Pokemon trainers should read Pokemon Go: How to Get Started and Catch 'Em All. If you're a business owner who wants to get in on the phenomenon, you might want to check out Pokemon Go: How the Pokeconomy is Changing Business, One Lure at a Time.