Games like League of Legends and Dota 2 are overwhelmingly popular for almost 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 going on onscreen is a huge challenge. The just launched Pokemon unite aims to correct this. It not only adds cute monsters to the genre, but also some smart fixes to streamline it and make things more accessible. It’s kind of like a mashup of a strategy and basketball game, but with an added Gengar.
For the uninitiated, a MOBA – or multiplayer online combat arena, to use the genre’s unnecessarily long full name – is a five-on-five competition where the goal, typically, 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 gradually destroy towers and level up so that you can fight your way through 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 items, including a varied choice of monsters. Charmander is a good all-round melee fighter, for example, while Venasaur is better at ranged attacks. There are support characters and others designed for defense. In a nice twist, many creatures will evolve during the match. It’s fun to start off as a crouching little Gible and end the match as a towering Garchomp.
But the most interesting aspects of Unite are where it differs from traditional MOBA. For starters, instead of trying to destroy your opponents’ base, you score points. To do this, you have to defeat wild pokemons that appear all over the arena to earn points, which you then take to one of the opponent’s goal circles to score. Drop enough points to destroy one circle and you can move on to the next one. It’s similar to how MOBAs usually work, but it’s also much easier to understand. And the system also adds a new drama: if you get killed you’ll lose a lot of the points you hold, which makes things very tense if you’ve racked up a lot of them.
The other advantage of the game is that it has a strict time limit. While a League of Legends match can last almost an hour if it is very contested, only one Pokemon unite match lasts exactly 10 minutes. When the time is up, the team with the most points wins. (Some matches may actually be shorter; I’ve played a few where the other team forfeited early because of an imbalanced score.) The time limit and the point system do Unite feeling a bit more like a virtual sport, albeit with experience points and spawning monsters.
This idea of streamlining a MOBA is not really new. Blizzard tried with Heroes of the Storm, and Riot did something similar when he brought League of Legends to mobile with the fallout Savage rift. But, at least from what I’ve played so far, Unite seems the most accessible. 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 problem I have encountered is the large amount 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 the battle pass menus as you do actually playing the game. to have buy anything, but some of the fashion options are quite tempting.
At present, Pokemon unite is available as a free download on Nintendo Switch, but it’s set to get even bigger when it debuts on mobile in September (with cross-play and cross-progression at launch). Developer TiMi, an in-house studio of Tencent, already operates two of the world’s biggest games with Call of Duty: Mobile and Honor of kings. The combination of Pokemon and MOBA may soon add a third.