It may only be one app to download, but there are really two Pokémon GO experiences to be had. First, there's Pokémon GO as social phenomenon. Only officially out in the UK for a week, it's already bringing together people of all ages and walks of life. Walk around any city lately, and you'll see goths hanging out in churchyards swapping tactics with suited business-types on a post-work Pokéhunt; shoppers telling kids just out of school where an Aerodactyl just spawned – or often, vice versa.
Groups of people who would probably never otherwise interact are uniting over their shared love of a game, a smartphone being studiously observed while wandering around the signifier of a common interest. It is the great unifier of our times, but for those grumpy sods lambasting people for squeezing a drop of joy out of their free time. Five stars then, for Pokémon GO the social phenomenon.
Unfortunately, there's also Pokémon GO as a game itself. Unfortunate because, at present, it rarely works. Listen to those crowds of people hunting Pikachu and pals far and wide and the common refrain will be "it's crashed again".
The game itself is a glorified reskin of Niantic's earlier Ingress, using location data and augmented reality to turn the real world into a gaming space. Wander the streets and Pokémon spawn around you, prompting you to throw Pokéballs to catch them – albeit without actually battling them as in the Nintendo 3DS games. Points of interest will manifest as Pokéstops on your phone; swipe them and you'll receive items. Occasionally you'll get an egg, which hatches after you've walked 2, 5 or 10km. As a Pokémon trainer, you also choose one of three teams – Instinct, Mystic, or Valor – and fight for control over gyms.
The problem is, very few of these features work. Every action in the game seems to require a server response, and Niantic appears woefully unable to meet the demand for the game. Throw a Pokéball, and more often than not the screen freezes. It will not unfreeze; welcome to your new life of forced app restarts. Trying to find a rare Pokémon? Good luck – the built in tracker, meant to zero in on their GPS location, will indicate every single one is at the maximum distance from you, and never update. Pokéstops frequently won't load at all, or if they do, refuse to provide items. All too often, the game won't even load up, unable to retrieve player data from the servers.
Listen to those crowds of people hunting Pikachu and pals far and wide and the common refrain will be 'it's crashed again'.
There are also plenty of seeming gameplay oversights. Unless it's yet another glitch, actually battling with your Pokémon at gyms – a simplified process of taps and swipes to attack and dodge, rather than selecting specific moves – does nothing to level them up, undermining one of the core principles of Pokémon games. The only way to boost their power is through Stardust, accrued when capturing any Pokémon and spent to increase a single critter's stats. This means capturing a lot of Rattata and Pidgey to build up enough, and that in turn means dealing with lots of crash screens.
Eggs, maddeningly, only hatch if you walk the requisite distance while the app is open, turning the game into an even greater battery and attention hog. This appears to be because the app won't stay open in the background – switch to another app or take a call for more than a few seconds, and you'll have to reload the game. Fingers crossed it doesn't crash again!
If any other game launched with as many problems as Pokémon GO has, players would be outraged, and legitimately so. It's only because of the genuinely wonderful community aspect that it's as beloved as it is. Hopefully, Niantic will address its many problems, and soon. If they can, Pokémon GO as a game will be worth the full five stars it merits as a social experience. Until then, it absolutely doesn't.