I'll be completely honest: I wasn't expecting Pokémon Unite to be a good game. In fact, after its reveal in June 2020, I felt incredibly worried about the performance, presentation, and overall gameplay feel. On paper, as an enormous fan of both multiplayer online battle arenas (MOBA) and Pokémon, I should have been drooling over the possibilities of Pokémon Unite, but that absolutely wasn't the case.
Fast forward to its official release on July 21, 2021, and I've already sunk 10 hours into the game with no signs of slowing down.
Pokémon Unite not only delivers a fun, unique multiplayer game in the Pokémon universe but manages to offer something both casual and competitive fans can enjoy. As someone who's spent over 1,000 hours with games like Smite and League of Legends, I've been genuinely impressed with my experience so far. What some players might simply write off as "baby's first MOBA" has an actual possibility of being a legitimate competitor in the MOBA space.
What sets Pokémon Unite apart from other MOBAs?
If you've ever played League of Legends, Smite, Dota 2, or Heroes of the Storm, you'll immediately feel comfortable with the overall objectives in Pokémon Unite. Much like other MOBAs, you and four players will square off against an opposing team of five in large arenas, which are comprised of top and bottom lanes as well as a neutral center area often referred to as the "jungle." Your main goal is to earn points by destroying the enemy towers staggered throughout these lanes.
Traditionally, MOBAs are comprised of hero characters controlled by players and minions, which are usually just NPC fodder designated to help push lanes. In Pokémon Unite, the minions are replaced with wild Pokémon, which instead of marching down specific lanes are placed strategically around the map. Defeating these wild Pokémon earns you varying amounts of Poke balls, which you'll need to dunk into the opposing enemy towers to earn points. Netting enough points into these towers destroys them and helps your team advance.
In legacy MOBAs like Smite, you simply dispose of enemy towers by attacking them. The emphasis on collecting and depositing Poké balls in Pokémon Unite introduces a distinctive dynamic. The core gameplay is then driven by a compelling dance of fast-paced risk and reward. Gathering more Poké balls before slamming them into your enemy's tower will earn you and your team far more points, but if you happen to be defeated while carrying those Poké balls, the enemy team has a chance to steal them. It's like Capture the Flag with a twist.
While I'm both fond of and familiar with the formula established by classics like Dota and League of Legends, I was pleasantly surprised by Pokémon Unite's ability to exist within the confines of conventional MOBAs while also retaining its identity as a Pokémon game. The quirky, silly charm the Pokémon series is known for isn't negatively impacted by the arguably hardcore ruleset that comes with many MOBAs. This was undoubtedly a delicate balancing act for this team to achieve and shockingly, they seem to have nailed it.
Easy to pick up, difficult to master
Many of the greatest social multiplayer games understand the importance of intuitive controls and fundamental gameplay depth. Pokémon Unite delivers on both of these elements. A brief tutorial for beginners introduces the basic game mechanics and some supplemental advanced tutorials give players a better grasp of the more technical aspects of the game, but ultimately anyone can pick any character and wrap their heads around how they play. This simplicity and flexibility encourage experimentation while ensuring that even if you don't get to pick your favorite Pokémon, you'll still have a good time in the match.
In Pokémon Unite, all characters use the same button mapping for abilities, similarly to Super Smash Bros Ultimate. This makes swapping between different Pokémon a relatively painless experience. While this ensures casual players can experiment with ease, this is also where the gameplay depth really shines for competitive players. Every single Pokémon has a unique pool of abilities to choose from within each match. Finding the right combination of moves can be the difference between winning and losing a game.
Much like competitive play in the mainline Pokémon games, additional strategies and advantages can be applied to your Pokémon by way of held items. As Snorlax, my Leftovers helped me slowly regain health over time, enabling me to stay in lane and defend my towers even longer. When playing as Venasuar, my Wise Glasses boosted my Special Attack, making my Solar Beam much more devastating to the enemy team. Held items substitute the traditional gear system in most MOBAs in a way that feels wholly and genuinely Pokémon. I'm still working to perfect my held item strategies for my favorite Pokémon, but the possibilities here are incredibly exciting as a competitive player.
Does Pokémon Unite have a competitive future?
As I stated previously, my initial expectations for Pokémon Unite were quite low, especially in regards to legitimate competitive play. After spending a fair amount of time with Pokémon's take on a MOBA, I find myself seriously invested in what the future of this title could look like. Obviously, player adoption and consistent updates will be the biggest deciding factors on whether or not Pokémon Unite has a long-term future in the competitive MOBA scene, but early indications are promising. My friends and I are already battle-planning our Pokémon synergy for 5v5 Ranked Matches, which from my perspective, is a fantastic start.
I'll be curious to see how the conversations regarding game balance develop as we move beyond launch. Held items are a staple in the Pokémon universe, but in Pokémon Unite they raise "pay-to-win" concerns as some players will start a match with a clear advantage over others. It's too early to say whether or not that will fundamentally disrupt the game's balance, but I could see them potentially hurting the player base long term as new players may be disheartened by their initial experiences or feel disadvantaged.
Then there's the question of whether or not the game will receive consistent balancing updates for characters. I'm already seeing folks complaining about specific Pokémon and their movesets being wildly overpowered on forums right now. I've been a Crustle main so far and I was MVP seven matches in a row last night. To some, this might mean my favorite character needs some tweaks its damage output, to others it only demonstrates my dominance as the ultimate sand crab main.
Overall, I'm absolutely loving my time with Pokémon Unite and I can't wait for the next batch of Pokémon to drop.
Share your thoughts!
What are your thoughts on Pokemon Unite? Who's your favorite character so far? Let us know in the comment section below! And if you're looking for something else to play, be sure to check out our list of the best online multiplayer games for Nintendo Switch.
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