Pokemon Unite was the game nobody expected. The overlap of Pokemon and MOBA players is not one I would have thought to be extremely high, but then Pokemon is also the biggest multimedia franchise in the world. And also, this title is a free mobile-esque game for the Nintendo Switch with easy-to-pick-up mechanics so even kids could play it. Maybe this could work, but that’s a big maybe.
Developed by Tencent subsidiary TiMi Studio group and published by The Pokemon Company International, Pokemon Unite is a 5v5 Multiplayer Online Battle Arena available for mobile devices and Nintendo Switch. You pick out a Pokemon and do battle by trawling around the arena with other mons, gaining orbs, and then dunking them in the opposing team’s bases to score points. However, of course, that’s what your opponents are doing too at the same time.
So you fight them. Each Pokemon has 4 moves that could be learned, and you can select two of them. As a Moba, you’ll be picking these depending on the role you want to have within your team. It’s an interesting setup since the points objective means it’s less about gaining ground, allowing for more climactic clashes against the enemy team. But it’s also annoying that you’re given so little information about the actual effects of moves. Don’t expect the devs to tell you anything about attack values or special attack modifiers; all you get is the cooldown time.
Aside from the one you pick out when you start the game, there’s a daily rotation of Pokemon you can use. Otherwise, you’ve gotta save up that sweet in-game currency to grab the other playable Pokemon, who you can also pay real money for. Of course, given this is a free title, it’s expected. Throw in so costumes, and this is your typical free-to-play experience.
But the monetization doesn’t end there. Most free-to-play games will have one of these three things, maybe two if they’re feeling extra frisky:
- Pay-to-Win mechanics
- A Paid Battle Pass
Well, The Pokemon Company and Tencent went the extra mile and put the entire unholy trinity into Pokemon Unite. Now a few people have been calling these pay-to-win mechanics ‘pay-to-accelerate’, which is technically true. However, when you are playing in a slower-paced PvP match, the numbers mean more.
Your hold items can be increased in power by items you can buy or earn in-game. Except those latter levels need obscene amounts that a regular player isn’t going to have. And while you can only have three at a time at your maximum, I think it’s an apt comparison to Call of Duty’s rank and create-a-class system. The only difference between Unite and COD is that a few well-placed bullets will kill a dude regardless of how powerful their equipment is.
That element is absent in a MOBA where a paying player can, at launch, have higher attack power and speed than non-paying players, where clashes between players last much longer.
The quick match does not seem balanced on smaller maps as it quickly turns into a curb stomp with no way for the team on the receiving end to catch up. With less ability to grind against other wild mons without being punished by the opposing team, matches are a steamroll in favor of whoever gets to level 5 first.
On the other hand, Matchmaking works great, and for now, it’ll take seconds to get yourself into a lobby. So if you want to try it out, the tutorial will take you longer than getting to an actual game. I found that the most fun came from playing with friends as the battlefield was even.
Ultimately, Pokemon Unite doesn’t have the staying power to hold my attention for long, even if they just introduced Gardevoir. The game preys on the player’s desire to be the very best and rewards those who put real money down with an easier time than others who put in the work. Still, casual matches with friends prove this is a competent MOBA, so hopefully, future balancing makes it more approachable for all players.
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