Greetings readers, Westin Playing to Win back again with a brand new article. It’s been a long time since I’ve talked to y’all and I’d like to say hi again. Since my last article I’ve been exploring other games and interests, including reviving my interest in music collection, and have gotten a much-needed break – but now I’m back and I’m excited to be here.
Today I’m going to be discussing the basics of the new MOBA from TiMi Studio and Nintendo, Pokemon Unite, available on Nintendo Switch and soon mobile. If you’re unfamiliar, MOBAs are Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas, pitting teams of characters in a top-down arena to duke it out and score points while attempting to defeat their enemies. If you’re familiar at all with League of Legends or DOTA 2, this is the exact same kind of game. I’d like this to be an intro to Pokemon Unite in as many senses as possible, for vets and newbies alike, because based on both the traditional Pokemon demographic and my experiences in the game, Unite is likely to be many players first MOBA experience. Today I’m going to be largely focusing on discussing the primary game functions, design, and ideas, rather than going deeper on things like balance or strategy.
When Pokemon Attack (And Defend And Jungle)
The primary basis for Unite is that two teams (purple vs orange) compete in a 10 minute 5v5 showdown sporting event, complete with a cheering audience, in order to best each other. In order to win, players must score goals on opposing teams’ goal zones. In order to score, you need to harvest points that look like poke balls from wild Pokemon that are in locations on the map, similar to creep spawns in other MOBA games. When you have any number, you can walk over to the enemy goal zone and hold X to score a goal, but if an opposing player damages you at all while you attempt to score, your goal gets interrupted. Attempting to score more points at once means you take longer to score, leaving a larger window to be interrupted by your foes. If you are KO’ed by the enemy, you’ll drop a large percentage of your points balls (or all of them if you don’t have many), meaning they can be picked up by the enemy ream and used against you.
Each team has 5 goal zones, two in each of the top and bottom lanes, and one right in the middle in front of their team spawn zone. The two zones in each lane can only have so many points scored against them (80 for the first, 100 for the second) before they’re destroyed completely – which has its own positives and negatives. First, destroying a goal zone is a good thing because it means your team has scored a significant number of points. Second, goal zones have a few key bonuses for the defenders; they provide a passive shield and healing to any friendly player in the area, and goal zones that are connected to others (eg from goal zone 1 to goal zone 2) give friendly players a speed boost, and also give enemy players a speed debuff, making it easier to run to the frontlines or escape a pursuing predator. Lastly, the frontline goal zones routinely spawn Sitrus Berries, which provide a significant amount of burst healing to whoever picks it up. All of these bonuses are lost completely when a goal zone is destroyed, so the first team to lose one is usually faced with a pretty significant loss. The major downside to this is that now there are fewer goal zones to score against your opponents with, meaning you have to get deeper into their lane to score, which makes it harder to get to and run away from.
The act of scoring also comes with a few bonuses for the attacker – scoring a goal heals you, makes you temporarily invincible, and even grants a small chunk of EXP to your next level. If you have unlocked your Pokemon’s ultimate move, known as a Unite Move, it will also cool down around 10 percent to your next ultimate. This is all to say that there are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to scoring and goal zones, which means there can be a lot of information to consider and keep track of just within the context of this aspect of the game.
There are two other important “goals” in the game – creep management, and Zapdos. “Creep management” in a MOBA refers to the concept of making sure your team is harvesting the neutral enemies (in this case wild Pokemon), and making sure your opponents don’t. Wild Pokemon in Unite not only give your team the points to score in order to win, but they also provide EXP points to level up your Pokemon. Wild Pokemon give a fixed amount of score/EXP points that scale over the course of the game. Each lane has a wild “miniboss” that spawns a few times each game that is very critical to the game for each lane. In the top lane is Rotom, which when killed by your team, respawns and attacks towards the enemy teams’ closest top lane goal zone. If it reaches that goal zone, your team instantly scores 20 points on the zone and it is left “defenseless”, meaning that any scoring done by your team on that goal zone is instant and cannot be interrupted. This debuff lasts for several seconds, giving time for multiple teammates to score unstoppable goals. This is a very good way to ensure goal zone destruction. On the bottom, lane is Drednaw, a giant turtle/dragon tank. This one is much harder to kill but arguably has a much better reward since it is immediate and does not require attacking your opponents directly. Defeating Drednaw gives your team over 100 EXP immediately, which is almost always an instant level up in the early stages of the match, a large number of scoring balls, and a hefty shield bubble to each teammate that absorbs a good amount of damage before breaking, making it easy to win team fights within the next minute or so.
Lastly, we have Zapdos. At the final 2 minute mark, a whistle will blow and Zapdos will spawn in the center of the arena. Zapdos is very much a “final boss” type encounter, meaning you can’t fight it alone and definitely want your entire team there, especially since your opponents will likely also be pushing it as well. Zapdos is very hard to kill, with a very deadly series of attacks that have a longer range than you might expect, so be careful or you can easily die to a misunderstood or mistimed engagement. Pokemon Unite uses a last hit system, meaning that kills on wild Pokemon or enemy players go to the specific player that dealt that final killing blow, not whoever did more damage. So if the enemy team deals a large chunk to Zapdos, that’s okay as long as you ensure you finish the job. Whichever team kills Zapdos gets two major advantages. First, each player on that team gains a large number of score balls, usually enough to fill their limit. But more importantly, every single remaining goal zone on the enemy team is left “defenseless” for 30 seconds, making all those fresh score balls much easier to use, and even more importantly, scoring a goal on any goal zone during this time gives your team double the points. This makes Zapdos absolutely critical to the endgame because it will be a major deciding factor in the winning team.
I Choose You, Pikachu!
Now that we’ve gotten the basics of the game logistics out of the way, let’s move on to discussing what everyone wants to know – what Pokemon do I get to play in this game? That’s honestly the most important question in any Pokemon title because Pokemon is the reason people love this series so much.
To start with, of course, you can play Pikachu. It would be a bizarre choice to launch a title like this and not include the mascot of the franchise. The roster of 21 Pokemon is split into five archetype categories – Attacker, Defender, Speedster, Support, and All-Rounder. To quickly summarize, Attackers are very good at dealing lots of damage, Defenders are very hard to kill and fill the traditional tank role, and Speedsters are fairly mobile and have a lot of burst damage, making them good at surprise assassinations on singular enemy players. Support includes Pokemon that have good utility for your team, either buffing/healing your teammates, or disrupting your opponents. All-Rounders covers Pokemon that are solidly good at attack and defense but don’t excel enough at either to fit into those archetypes.
The Attackers include Alolan Ninetails, Cinderace, Cramorant, Gardevoir, Greninja, Pikachu, and Venusaur. All of these Pokemon are primarily focused on dealing sustained damage with their ranged attacks and powerful abilities.
Defenders: Crustle, Snorlax, and Slowbro (with Blastoise “coming soon” according to the official Twitter). These Pokemon are relatively hard to kill and feature varying levels of survival abilities and disruption to the enemy team.
Speedsters: Absol, Gengar, Talonflame, and Zeraora. All of them are very mobile melee attackers that excel at burst damage against single targets, making them difficult to 1v1 safely.
Support: Eldegoss, Mr. Mime, and Wigglytuff. These three are the only supports in the game and are pretty important in keeping your team alive directly through buffs/healing or by disrupting the enemy team.
All-Rounders: Charizard, Garchomp, Lucario, and Machamp. Harder to kill than Attackers and more offensive than Defenders, these Pokemon are the solid middle ground for players who like to cover their bases.
In my opinion, there is a good mix of older and newer Pokemon, covering some essential fan favorites (Snorlax, Pikachu, Greninja, Charizard) and some unexpected picks, though it does seem to heavily favor 1st generation starters and classic Pokemon that could currently be less interesting to newer fans. In order to use Pokemon in a match, you need to acquire their Unite License, which is a fancy way of saying unlocking the character. Completing the tutorial grants you a free Novice Unite License, which means you get Pikachu, Snorlax, Talonflame, Eldegoss, or Charizard for free. Logging into the game before the end of August means you also unlock Zeraora for free. Logging in for the new player daily login rewards will also grant you the Licenses for Alolan Ninetails, Cinderace, and Greninja over 14 days. There is also a Beginner Challenge that lasts until August 20th, with a 7-day challenge that finishes by giving you Crustle for free. Lastly, leveling up your account by playing games will give you Slowbro and Venusaur for free. So that means a total of 8 free Pokemon just by logging in regularly and playing, though this does also entail a bit of a grind and remind to log in for your rewards.
You can also buy Licenses directly through in-game currency – coins, which are given for free via daily login, mission rewards, and challenges, or Aeos gems, which are the direct purchase currency available for real money, and like many other freemium games, offer a much better exchange rate. Pokemon cost 6k, 8k, or 10k coins to unlock, meaning that with all the free coins you get from leveling up and completing missions or challenges it’s fairly easy to unlock 1 or 2 extra Pokemon early on with your coins. But there becomes a drought not long after and it becomes much harder to unlock Pokemon for free, clearly incentivizing you to start purchasing Pokemon directly via premium currency. This can be tough because unless you really enjoy playing one of the free Pokemon or the first 1 or 2 you choose to unlock, it can be hard to get a Pokemon you want to play without dipping into the wallet. This model seems like it will apply to future Pokemon added to the roster, giving me serious doubt about the capability of most players to keep up with roster additions, especially if those new Pokemon are at all popular or good, but microtransactions and cosmetics battle passes (which Unite has too) are the predominant monetization scheme in gaming at the moment. With the attraction, Pokemon has with newer gamers and younger audiences, this is definitely an intentionally predatory model that while seemingly generous upfront, actually forces you to spend a bit to keep up.
In addition to the Pokemon roster, Items are also a major component of your selection. Each player can give their Pokemon 3 held items and one active item for each battle. Held items grant passive buffs to your Pokemon, such as increased attack speed, HP, or resistances to certain enemy attacks or interactions. Active items have to be manually activated in a battle and come with a cooldown. They provide more temporary but powerful bonuses – such as the classic Potion which gives a solid amount of healing, or Full Heal, which removes all debuffs and prevents them from being applied for a short period. These can also be acquired for free by leveling up your account and completing certain challenges and missions, though these are time-sensitive like the licenses, and some items can only be acquired by buying them in the shop with coins or other currency. Items can be leveled up with Item Enhancers, which are a sort of token currency that is used solely to level up held items. As they’re leveled up, held items bonuses improve, with major improvements at levels 10 and 20, with the max being 30.
Your Items Come Out To…
Time to address the elephant in the room – this game was designed with mobile in mind. That means microtransactions plenty, but it also means like many other mobile games, there is an abundance of currencies that range from general to niche, and each has a different exchange rate. Coins are the general in-game currency that I’ve mentioned before, which can be used to purchase Pokemon Licenses, items, and certain cosmetics. Tickets are the second main currency, which is primarily acquired through leveling up and certain challenges, though daily missions may occasionally grant them as well. Tickets cannot buy Pokemon but will purchase any item, held or active, or some cosmetics. Aeos gems are the premium purchase currency and can be used to buy any Pokemon or item in the game, and also most cosmetics. Item Enhancers are technically not a currency but function enough like one that I will include them since they’re so essential to leveling up your held items – these can be acquired by exchanging tickets or premium Aeos gems for them, and also are given occasionally as level up, mission or challenge rewards. I strongly suggest spending your tickets exclusively on Item Enhancers, since other items and cosmetics can be purchased via other methods, especially if they’re available for coins.
Fashion Tickets are exclusively used for specific trainer cosmetics, in the form of clothing though don’t come in large quantities unless you buy them with gems. Finally, there are also Holowear tickets, which are used to buy Holowear for your Pokemon that act as skins. Currently, Holowear is largely tropical or pirate-themed to fit with summer. If you’re interested in cosmetics you have a decent selection to choose from, though the game is still in the early launch stages and there’s still a limit to the styles you can find.
Personally, I think there are far too many currencies that do specific things and can lead to a lot of information to keep track of outside games in order to best use your rewards on things you want. This is definitely in line with other mobile games that have similar designs and is very user-unfriendly. The emphasis on buying currency and the different kinds of currency with different functionalities is a major barrier to this games’ future for what will likely be a very initially large and very casual player base.
All in all, I think Pokemon Unite is an incredibly fun and relatively simple MOBA experience for newer players or people who don’t particularly like MOBAs – the games are short, very brawly, and constantly active with getting players something to do. The gameplay and Pokemon roster are the major selling points for this game. Because it’s free to play, I strongly recommend trying it out. The currency issue and the pay-to-win aspects of the game are major negatives that I foresee being a big barrier to success, and wouldn’t be surprised if they keep players from coming back after more than a few months when the novelty wears off. I’ve enjoyed my time with the game so far but have questions about the longevity that I would like to see answered because I think Pokemon Unite has a lot of potential.