As the Pokémon juggernaut rolls on, so does it continue to branch into different platforms and genres. Most lately, this has been through the currently Switch-exclusive Pokémon Unite (a mobile release is coming soon), which brings the franchise to the world of MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas), a competitive and highly popular genre long associated with PC and mobile. Therefore, Pokémon Unite has been somewhat of a gateway to the genre for lots of long-time console gamers – such as me – who are jumping in based on the Pokémon affiliation. It’s been intriguing to explore the MOBA genre through a Pokémon lens, and I am going to run through my initial thoughts on the game here. As Unite is a free-to-play game, which will be added to and change over time, I have decided to do a 10 Hours With… impression piece instead of a full review, to reflect the current evolutionary state of the game.
Shoot Some Hoop(a)s
For those unfamiliar with MOBAs and their structure – just as I was going into Unite – the main Standard and Ranked modes take place in Remoat Stadium, an arena shaped like a sideways oblong, with three “lanes” at the top, middle, and bottom where the majority of the action is focused. Played from a top-down perspective, you control your chosen Pokémon in your team of 4-5 players, battling wild Pokémon and the opposing team to gain EXP to level up, as well as Aeos Energy (essentially, points) to score with. The former makes you stronger and, depending on your chosen Pokémon, evolve intro stronger forms. Meanwhile, the latter dictates the overall running score and eventual winning team of each game – whichever team scores the most Aeos Energy in the opposition basketball-esque goals will be the victor at the end of the 10-minute playtime. Success revolves around how you balance scoring points against defending your own goals from the other team; this is where a lot of the tactical essence of Unite resides.
So far, so MOBA. However, the Pokémon wrapping does give Unite some unique flavour in how it presents or adapts specific elements of the genre. The level-up mechanic I already mentioned is one example, providing a satisfying feeling of progression and self-improvement familiar to the Pokémon series. Say you select Charizard for the match; you will start out as Charmander, and need to focus on defeating wild Pokémon to evolve as quickly as possible into Charmeleon and then Charizard, getting stronger moves as you go. This is necessary to prevent the other team overtaking your strength and getting the advantage in late-game skirmishes. Alternatively, you can select to start with a Pokémon that is already in an evolved form, such as Lucario or Snorlax – these may have the upper hand earlier on, but then face a tougher time as other Pokémon evolve.
Currently, there is quite a decent variety of Pokémon to select from, spanning the generations and different playstyles. The roster is split into five categories: Attacker, Speedster, All-Rounder, Defender, and Supporter – it’s important to have a good balance on your team. To run through just a few of the Pokémon; Venusaur is a bulky ranged Attacker with ensnaring vines; Absol is a mobile Speedster with a high critical hit rate; Charizard is a versatile All-Rounder that gets more imposing as they evolve; Snorlax is a strong Defender who can deal a lot of damage at close range; and Wigglytuff is an efficient Supporter who can send other Pokémon to sleep and give teammates openings.
The personalisation continues as you level up, as you get choices of two moves for each of your two slots. As these can dictate your playstyle for the rest of the game, they’re important moments, and the slight bit of extra customisation goes a long way to add some more depth to Unite. For example, if you are playing as Alolan Ninetales, you can either go down the route of being more attacking with extra ranged moves, or be a bit more of a supporter with Aurora Veil and the temporary protection it offers your team. It all provides a bit more unpredictability when going against enemies too, as you are not quite sure which moves they went for. As is often the case in these sorts of games, you have an ultimate move that charges over time – here they are the powerful Unite moves that can be key in intense moments; to take the example of Alolan Ninetales again, their Unite move creates a freezing circle that slows and hinders other Pokémon (think Mei from Overwatch).
Modes against CPU opponents are available, but it’s in online matches that the core of Unite resides. That competitive feeling is the fuel to the peaks of excitement Unite has to offer, such as when you work successfully with your teammates to clear out a goal zone and score big points. If possible, I encourage finding a group of friends you can play with, as verbal communication is not only very good for co-ordinating your movements, but allows you to share the moment-to-moment action more immediately. To the credit of Unite, I personally have had very few instances of players disconnecting or being idle, which would leave your team a player down. In general my connection has been smooth too and without jarring lag, and if needed there is even a live count of your FPS on the top left of the screen. In terms of the technical side, it’s been an impressive ride of few interruptions.
Back Into Action
Speaking of movement, one of my issues with Unite is how inherently slow it can feel. Being in enemy territory reduces your speed until you claim a nearby goal, which makes sense, but even the unaffected base speed of Pokémon often feels painfully gradual. It’s only exacerbated by how the actual animation of your Pokémon sometimes doesn’t match the speed they are moving (e.g. when playing as Lucario I ran into this a lot, no pun intended). It feels a bit like being in treacle, and there isn’t much of a workaround. For me, it was very noticeable and harmed my time with Unite – bear in mind I highly value the sensation of movement in games, so this may be more of an issue for me than others. In tense moments such as the final moments of a game though, not being able to get into the action because it takes so long to get across the map isn’t exactly conductive to having a fun time. At times it felt as though this was meant to be a way of balancing how quickly players returned from respawning, but I do not think it’s the optimum way to do it; there has to be a more engaging way to challenge how the player gets back into the fray, perhaps with larger, more complex, or more dynamic map design.
The Quick Battle mode only backs up this point for me, as the 5-minute bitesize matches (which cannot be played Ranked) are set on a rotating selection of smaller-scale arenas. Whether it be the lush and vibrant Auroma Park, or the frosty, urban Shivre City, not only do they look more engaging but they have different map mechanics to shake up your approach. Auroma Park, specifically, has movement pads (think Mario Kart) that affect your movement and make you think more about how you will get from A to B in the quickest way. It’s extremely refreshing after playing so much of Remoat Stadium, and even Mer Stadium (the smaller version of Remoat Stadium) is a nice change of pace. With only one main “lane” and the shorter game time, Quick Battles are more arcade-y and immediate, and feel at home on the portable Switch. In addition, they contain different wild Pokémon to fight – and with such a selection of Pokémon available from the different generations, this is an area where you’d expect variety. It’d be great to see larger versions of Auroma Park and Shivre City for the Standard and Ranked modes, just to mix up the experience a bit.
So, We Have to Talk About Zapdos
As you play more and more games, you begin to recognise the pattern of how matches develop. The start tends to be about searching for wild Pokémon and training yourself up, before then encountering the encroaching team as the two sides of the arena naturally become more intermingled and the battlefield more disrupted. Yet, this is not to say that wild Pokémon stop playing a part – they just do so in a different way. In particular, stronger Pokémon appear that, upon defeat, lend your team temporary advantages. Defeat Drednaw and your team gets temporary shields and an EXP boost, take down Rotom and they’ll go and make an enemy goal vulnerable, or make Ludicolo faint to do more damage against Pokémon with low health (to name just three). Most notably, though, is the appearance of Zapdos towards the final moments of a match, and sadly, this is one of my main problems with Unite as it stands. When Zapdos appears in the middle of Remoat Stadium, whichever team defeats it gains an extra 20 points to score with, all the enemy goals take much less time to score in, and the opposition takes damage. Combine this with how every score in the last minute is doubled, and suddenly a team can completely turn the tide of a match within seconds.
Now, I have no problem with this in theory – a comeback mechanic is important to keep teams motivated even if behind in the scores (which, with no running table, you find out via messages such as “We’re REALLY Struggling!”). The way it has been implemented, though, feels very cheap and rubs the wrong way. This is because it’s whoever gets the final hit on Zapdos that earns the benefits for their team. So, even if your team focuses on Zapdos and does 99% of the damage, one ranged hit at the right moment from a far-off opponent undoes all that, and suddenly they’re in the greatly advantageous position. It happens often and is incredibly grating, especially if you worked hard to get a lead for most of the game, did most of the damage to Zapdos, and then suddenly lose the game because the opposition sneaked the last hit. In my opinion, there is a very simple solution – just make it so whoever does the most damage to Zapdos gains the effects. Then, there is still the opportunity to put a last-ditch effort into defeating Zapdos and turning the match around, but you cannot so easily undo the hard work of another team. Hopefully, this is an area of Unite that The Pokémon Company and developer Tencent are listening to player feedback on, as it’s not just me who is finding this an issue.
Gotta Wear ‘Em All
Switching back to a more positive tone, let’s talk about an aspect of Unite I really have enjoyed – the progression and unlockables. Taking cues from how the mainline Pokémon games have let you customise your appearance more and more over the years, Unite offers a wealth of options to unlock and choose from. After crafting your trainer from a relatively large set of hairstyles, face options, and more, you then get to dive into a vast selection of clothing choices. The range goes from one-piece outfits such as a Snorlax onesie (cute) to detailed individual clothing items – you can really make your trainer your own. Even the Pokémon get in on it, with Holowear that gives them custom skins such as a scuba Venusaur, pilot Talonflame, and pirate Cinderace. It should be fun to see all the different custom skins that get added over time! Being a free-to-play MOBA, as we start to talk about purchasable items we need to start talking about the currency systems tied to them too. Overall, it is quite standard fare for a game of this style, with multiple currencies – some earned in-game, and some purchasable through monetary transactions. Aeos coins are your base currency, earned through playing matches and spent on unlocking new Pokémon and in-game items (more on those in a moment). Next up, Aeos tickets are rewards at the end of the Ranked Season depending on which category you got into (spanning from Beginner to Master), and are exchanged for a wider selection of unlockables, including fashion items. Lastly are Aeos gems, the premium paid currency which can shortcut you to items such as Holowear.
Both Aeos coins and tickets can also be earned through in-game events and challenges, whether it being logging in every day or performing specific acts in-match; at this early stage, it all feels quite generous, but often the test is how sustained that feeling is, and only time will tell. One factor that should contribute is the now-standard battle pass, which at under £10 is quite a good deal for those who are going to be putting a lot of time in; it offers extra currency, cosmetic items, Holowear, and more as reward for playing and completing specific tasks. On top of all this, there is a gatcha-style lottery machine which you occasionally get to spin and receive a random reward from. It really is quite random, as it could be a rare Holowear, or a pair of plain socks (it happened to me, I’m not joking). Overall, there are a lot of systems going on to keep you engaged beyond just the gameplay itself, and they’re a good distraction from the distinct lack of different arenas and game modes – but that can only go on for so long, and the more I played, the less effective a diversion it was. Furthermore, the item upgrading felt a bit pay-to-win; each match you can choose up to 3 items for your Pokémon to hold, each with their own effects: so, for example, the Muscle Band increases your Attack, whilst Leftovers aids your HP recovery. These can be upgraded 20 times, and you can fast-forward this by paying real money. Of all the systems, this is the one which affects gameplay, and having monetisation worked into it leaves a sour taste.
It’s All in the Details
Still, the overall user experience of Unite is positive. Whilst not groundbreaking, the UI design has a cheerful and bright style which welcomes you in; it reminds me of the streamlined interface of bold colours and crisp typography that Sword and Shield introduced so well. Character models share that aesthetic, which increases the appeal of spending time unlocking fashion items, so that you can impress with your Trainer Card and on post-game results screens. Actually, even more in this department would have been good; it feels as though your trainer is often a bit hidden to other players relative to how much you can customise them, and it would be good to see them more in-match – perhaps with the addition of a live leaderboard? You could even do it in the style of Apex Legends, with screens showing players who are doing particularly well. That all plays into my aforementioned point on making the main arena more exciting; currently it has a bit of a grey, empty, public car park feel that isn’t particularly inspiring. Hopefully those other maps in the Quick Battles are a sign of new offerings in the near future.
Live service games such as Unite can really make or break themselves in terms of detail, and again I found it a mixed bag. There has definitely been effort put into covering a lot of scenarios – for instance being able to send text messages to indicate your tactics to teammates; not exactly revolutionary, but Nintendo have sometimes left out staple features in online games in the past, so it is good to see a lot of the expected mechanics you’d expect in an online MOBA. However, whilst there is not too much outright missing on this front, there are still some strange decisions. For example, your respawn time is greatly increased at the end of a battle, to the point where it takes around half a minute to appear back on the map. In many matches I found this took the sting out of the end of a fight, as if I was defeated, I had to mainly just watch events unfold without my own impact on them. Especially when the enemy team gets Zapdos, it just feels like extra punishment…
There is much to like in Pokémon Unite, but I guess the crunch is whether I feel compelled to keep playing. The answer for me is, sadly, currently no. Not because I haven’t enjoyed my time with it, far from it – especially with a group of friends over voice chat, Unite can be a very entertaining way to spend your time, whether it be in casual quick matches or in-depth, intense Ranked ones. My reasons are more to do with exhausting the enjoyment I am going to find from it in the state it’s in right now; I am getting tired now of the same (relatively bland) main arena, and I’ve purchased a lot of the clothing items I like. The actual gameplay is relatively formulaic to the MOBA genre when you look past the Pokémon wrapping – by itself, Unite does not quite grab me enough to keep me playing as is. It is that Pokémon presentation and setting that was the hook to get me in, and it supplemented a solid if unspectacular game for a while; but now that has started to fall away, I do not feel the draw to keep going back. Well, at least for now; I shall keep an eye on how Unite develops, and if they add some particularly awesome skins or otherwise, I may well pop back in from time to time. Let’s speak plainly; if they make Arcanine playable, I’m gonna be right back…