It’s remarkable Pokémon Unite has taken this long to exist, really. When you think about the top dogs of the Multiplayer Online Battle Arena (MOBA) genre both League of Legends and Dota 2 have both been there for what feels like forever, and most developers don’t even try to steal their crown.
But Pokémon? That’s a name with an enormous fan base and all the right stuff to make major noise in the same space as those mainstays of the industry. Make no mistake, Pokémon Unite may have arrived under a cloud of negativity due to its in-game currencies and microtransactions, but this one is here to stay.
For starters, it’s got all the right things in place to have a very similar upgrade path to its competition. It’s a little surprising how few Pokémon are in the launch version of Pokémon Unite, but League of Legends launched with 17 heroes, and now has over 150.
Know what else has the potential to have over 150 playable “heroes”? Well, we’re approaching the 900 mark for Pokémon now, and they all have unique traits and move-sets, so if balanced right, this could genuinely be huge.
There are also four maps in Pokémon Unite. Guess what other game has four maps? Hopefully, you’re starting to see a pattern emerge here. Each Pokémon in Unite has been balanced to drop it into a certain archetype. There are tanks with high health bars like Snorlax or Slowbro. Pikachu and Greninja are attackers with low health but powerful assault moves.
You have all-rounders like Charizard and Lucario, too. The support class can inflict status effects and heal friendlies, which is covered off by the likes of Wigglytuff and Eldegoss. Finally, there is even a speedster class, with everyone’s favourite ghostly Pokémon, Gengar. Gengar is great; he’s so big and fast, and… expensive.
You see, you can’t play as Gengar out of the gate. You have to wonder why a game series with a mantra of “gotta catch ‘em all” keeps making you choose between such adorable pocket monsters. But The Pokémon Company has gotten wise over the years: Pikachu is available right up front, so is the wonderful Snorlax. There’s a mix of the favourites and the obscure ones. But I want Gengar, and he costs 10,000 Aeos coins, or 575 Aeros Gems, or to everyone else: around a fiver.
It’s a tough one because, on the one hand, that means to get all your favourite Pokémon in Unite it’s gonna cost you a pretty penny, or require you grind until your eyes are no longer actually eyes. But it’s also not exactly an unprecedented move by The Pokémon Company. This is the company that made bank selling card packs to kids (and adults who now might be writing these words), and has done for many years. This is a company that re-release their older games regularly and re-sell them, and on top of that, put out a “new” game for the Nintendo Switch that runs about as well as I do. And let me tell you, I am not in shape.
But the word “predatory” has been used to describe the microtransactions here. I’ve seen worse offenders in the industry as recently as this week. Not to pick on Tribes of Midgard here, because it’s a decent game, but it has items that are locked behind in-game currency. You can upgrade your Axe to the level 2 version but the third tier is locked in the store. It requires an in-game currency to even have it usable in the game at all.
The issue is that people are used to getting all the Pokémon in their Pokémon game from the start for free. But this isn’t a Pokémon game, it’s a MOBA. It’s a genre that is monetised, and evolves over time. I’d bet the house that The Pokémon Company adds new “heroes” regularly. We already know that Blastoise and Gerdevoir are coming soon. There’s also a third as yet revealed Pokémon on the way as well.
What Pokémon Unite needs right now is support and balance. Already people are favouring Zeraora, Pikachu, and Talonflame, and they are one-shot-killing people due to their overpowered nature. But again, is this any different to what happens when people play League of Legends or Dota 2 well? The deathblow might not come in one shot, but those games let you easily lock heroes down and kill them with no real recourse.
Pokémon Unite has a long way to go to catch up to the big names in the genre, but as a game, it’s already fun and has people talking. It has discussions happening around it regarding the “overpowered nature” of some Pokémon, or how “useless” others are. Yes, it has cosmetic in-game purchases. How else would you dress up a Snorlax with a snorkel and inflatable ring round its cute belly? Yes, you can also buy useless sunglasses and caps for your Pokémon Unite trainer avatar. You can actually test Pokémon before you shell out the in-game, or real-world cash for them.
Sadly, there are also gameplay boosting items that really do bring a massive downer on the whole game. These are the “pay-to-win” elements that are going to need looking at, and either removing altogether, or tweaking. There’s also an extremely slow unlock pace for the Pokémon. Combine these things and you have a community already divided over a free-to-play game. Crucially, pay-to-win mechanics in a MOBA are a no-no, and if that’s not addressed quickly, people will fall away from Unite fast.
But this isn’t “The New Pokémon Game” you expected. This is a MOBA game with Pokémon in it. It’s almost certainly going to come to other platforms, as well. On top of that, it even has “mobs” in it if you want to play as a Jungler. This is the gateway game for younger players, and newcomers to MOBAs. This is the game that makes you think “maybe I should try that Dota-thing out”, so can it really be that bad?
Don’t answer that.
Pokemon Unite is out now.