The Pokémon franchise isn’t necessarily a stranger to experimentation. The amount of genres it’s dabbled its hands in is probably rivaled only by that of Mario and is the reason we had an explosive phenomenon like Pokémon GO. I gotta say, though, even with a history of experimentation, nothing prepared me for having my old League of Legends trauma forcibly reignited when Pokémon Unite was announced in the recent Pokémon Presents.
To say the announcement was a might bit tone-deaf would be an understatement larger than Snorlax itself. With a presentation purposefully separated from the bombshell New Pokémon Snap announcement and a week of build-up, fans’ expectations were naturally going to run rampant–which inevitably blew up in The Pokémon Company’s face. That said, however, divorcing myself from what I wanted to see and as someone who sunk hours upon hours of their life to never even get higher than Platinum tier in League, I liked the simplicity of what I saw in Pokémon Unite.
Right off the bat, I couldn’t help but notice how Tencent and The Pokémon Company seem to be taking a unique approach to the MOBA (Multiplayer Online Battle Arena) genre similar to how Nintendo approached the team-shooter genre with Splatoon. Unite appears to take the emphasis off of attacking other players and structures and instead places the focus on a different objective: Catch Pokémon. That’s a concept and objective even a child can grasp, much like the turf-inking in Splatoon. That’s especially important when a traditional MOBA usually has dozens of factors in play at once that undoubtedly daze newcomers.
In Unite, wild Pokémon seem more like a resource to be gathered rather than a military force. The lack of minions in a traditional sense sounds like a welcome reprieve to someone like me who has weaned off of minion management and lane control. Altercations between teams will inevitably break out, but I appreciate how confronting opponents to keep them in check in their “lane” doesn’t seem to be an immediate concern. It’s like Unite is saying, “Don’t think about it too hard. Just get out there and have fun catching Pokémon for now.”
That simplicity seems to carry through into character progression as well. No shop was shown off in the stream and while it’s possible there could still be one in the final game, it seems like the bulk of character development comes from choosing what moves your Pokémon learns and forgets as it levels up, similar to Heroes of the Storm’s ability trees. This takes the heat off of deciding from an overwhelming amount of equipment and instead lets you focus purely on what your Pokémon has to offer. Does this take away the possibilities for the wonky build equivalents like ADC Swain or full AP Blitzcrank? Probably, but at this point I don’t want to learn an intricate new MOBA meta from scratch after finally separating myself from League, and Pokémon Unite seems to be respecting my wishes to just want to get in and have fun.
Another way Unite seems to be respecting the player is by respecting their time. A standard League of Legends match could go on from anywhere between 20-60 minutes, and you can bet your ass the moment you think “Just one more game” is the moment that match goes on for longer than an hour.
Pokémon Unite, on the other hand, is a fixed time limit, a concept that isn’t enacted in the main modes of any MOBA that I know of. While we don’t yet know what that time limit is, it does mean that we’ll know the maximum amount of time a Unite match can go on for. That makes extended play sessions a hell of a lot less likely to be huge time sinks since you know exactly when a match will end. The time limit also ties into the point-based scoring system, which is also fairly unique in the MOBA genre and something I’m curious to see play out.
In the end, was this the Pokémon announcement I was hoping to see this past Thursday? No. Is this something a majority of Pokémon fans will enjoy? Absolutely not. Do those fans have the right to be disappointed? For sure!
I fall in that strange intersection of Pokémon fan and ex-MOBA fan, though, and because of that I can’t just ignore Pokémon Unite. Given the choice of trying this, returning to League, or starting a similar MOBA, I’d choose Unite in a heartbeat. It’s a few years too late and the choice of platforms is puzzling (why no PC?), but it seems to be trying enough new things outside of the Pokémon brand name to at least warrant my curiosity. With any (bad) luck, it may even trap me once again in the trenches that is the MOBA genre.
And I mean, like, we already got a new Pokémon Snap announcement. That’s enough miracles for one month, amirite?