Pokémon Unite turns monster battles into a team sport

70

Games like League of Legends and Dota 2 are massively popular, and have been for the better part of a decade. But they can also be impenetrable to new players and viewers: there are so many characters and strategies that figuring out what’s happening on-screen is a huge challenge. The just-launched Pokémon Unite aims to fix that. It doesn’t just add cute monsters to the genre, but also some clever fixes to streamline it and make things more approachable. It’s kind of like a mashup of a strategy game and basketball, but with a Gengar thrown in.

For the uninitiated, a MOBA — or multiplayer online battle arena, to use the genre’s unnecessarily long full name — is a five-on-five competition where the goal, usually, is to destroy the opposing team’s base. You do this by forming a squad of characters, each with their own unique abilities, which you use to steadily destroy towers and level up so you can push your way into your opponent’s territory. It’s often slow and methodical, a genre that rewards smart decisions as well as quick reflexes.

Unite has many of these elements, including a varied cast of monsters to choose from. Charmander is a good all-around melee fighter, for instance, while Venasaur is better for ranged attacks. There are support characters and ones designed for defense. In a nice twist, many of the creatures will evolve over the course of the match. It’s fun starting out as a squat little Gible and ending the match as an imposing Garchomp.

But the most interesting aspects of Unite are where it differs from the traditional MOBA. For starters, instead of trying to destroy your opponents’ base, you’re scoring points. To do this, you have to defeat wild pokémon that spawn throughout the arena to earn points, which you then take to one of the opponent’s goal circles to score. Drop enough points to destroy a circle and you can move on to the next. It’s similar to how MOBAs usually work, but it’s also a lot simpler to understand. And the system also adds some new drama: if you’re killed, you’ll lose a big chunk of the points you’re holding, which makes things very tense if you have a lot stacked up.

The other nice thing about the game is that it has a strict time limit. Whereas a League of Legends match can stretch to close to an hour if it’s tightly contested, a single Pokémon Unite match takes exactly 10 minutes. Once the timer runs down, whichever team has the most points wins. (Some matches can actually be shorter; I’ve already played a few where the other team forfeited early because of a lopsided score.) The time limit and points system make Unite feel a bit more like a virtual sport, albeit one with experience points and spawning monsters.

This idea of streamlining a MOBA isn’t exactly new. Blizzard tried it with Heroes of the Storm, and Riot did something similar when it brought League of Legends to mobile with the spinoff Wild Rift. But, at least from what I’ve played so far, Unite seems the most approachable. The rules are easy to understand, the matches are short and intense, and the world is already something millions of people know and love. So far, the only real issue I’ve run into is the copious amounts of virtual currency you can earn or buy. It gets weirdly complicated, to the point that you can spend as much time messing around in battle pass menus as actually playing the game. It doesn’t seem like you have to buy anything, but some of the fashion options are pretty tempting.

Right now, Pokémon Unite is available as a free download on the Nintendo Switch, but it’s poised to become even bigger when it debuts on mobile in September (with crossplay and cross progression at launch). Developer TiMi, an internal studio at Tencent, already operates two of the biggest games in the world with Call of Duty: Mobile and Honor of Kings. The combination of Pokémon and MOBA could soon add a third.