I’m not a big fan of MOBAs. They’re usually contextless content-driven games that come with all the qualities of every other esport; they feature a toxic, hyper-competitive community, have a lack of joy in the mechanics and play (because all that’s important in these games is scientific balance), and they’re usually so dense in terms of their systems that menus are cluttered to the point that they give me migraines in trying to process it all. There was one MOBA that I got into – the Lord of the Rings one from a fair few years ago now – but that was more for the license than the gameplay. I do like this Pokémon Unite, though. I can see myself spending a fair amount of time with Pokémon Unite.
There’s a slight twist on the usual MOBA. In Pokémon Unite you’re looking to score points by defeating a combination of “wild” Pokémon, and opponent-controlled “hero” Pokémon, which rewards you with balls, which represent points. Then you need to make your way to any of your opponent’s goals, and slam down a basketball-style dunk, which converts all the balls you’ve collected into points. Of course, if an enemy defeats you beforehand you’ll be handing over a lot of those balls, so discretion will sometimes be the better part of valour. There are no mobs as standard MOBAs feature, but you are incentivised to defeat wild Pokémon, as you get just as many, if not more, points from them as you do directly dealing with enemies. Right from the outset, I enjoyed this approach, as it encourages more fluid movement around the maps than the “lanes” system of most MOBAs, and I like the strategy that it encourages.
Pokémon heroes have all been streamlined to have just two special attacks, and a super as well. The special attacks level up and evolve as the Pokémon does in a match, and each Pokémon has their own playstyle and series of abilities, but this is a streamlined system over what some other MOBAs offer. Again, this is a good thing. So many MOBAs throw so much information at you as you play that it’s an unpleasant, tension-inducing overload. With Pokémon Unite, tracking what you’re doing and what abilities you have access to is much more clear, and demonstrates that you can do so without compromising the depth where it counts.
I never thought I would want a Pokemon MOBA but as it turns out, I do. #PokemonUNITE #NintendoSwitch pic.twitter.com/T2B4hd56QN
— Beach Volleyball Olympics Channel 🇯🇵 (@MattSainsb) July 21, 2021
I’ve played a few matches at this point – certainly not enough for me to even contemplate digging into the competitive scene, but I have noticed a few things. Firstly, because matches are shorter, and because wild Pokémon continue to spawn throughout the game, and are the main source of both experience and points, Pokémon Unite avoids the sense of inevitability that a lot of other MOBAs suffer from. With so many MOBAs, by around the 10-minute mark, one side has a decided advantage, and it’s very hard (if not almost impossible) to turn that around against an experienced team. At that point, the remaining twenty or so minutes of play turn into a slow grind towards the inevitable conclusion. In Pokémon Unite, the match is over after ten minutes, and you feel like there’s something you can do to assist your team right until the end.
Secondly, the game is far more accomodating to new players than most MOBAs. On-boarding has always been a challenge for this genre, but Pokémon Unite drip-feeds out the important information, abilities, items and rewards at a rate that makes sure that players are comfortable as they learn the game. In combination with typically colourful, charming presentation, Pokémon Unite is much more accessible than most other examples of this genre. I guess that raises the question about whether this will be to the detriment of the long-term competitive scene that sustains this genre, but for now, people seem to be happy with what they’re playing.
My two objections right now are the range of Pokémon themselves, and that I’m not sure if this is going to end up on the expensive end of the free-to-play spectrum just yet. Pokémon Unite does give you a generous range of Pokémon to start out with, and you can earn the lot of them through play, though it does seem like that will involve either a lot of play, or microtransations. I know I’m already feeling tempted to shell out just to accelerate towards the couple of Pokémon that have caught my eye… though thankfully that is only a couple. Where is Psyduck? Where is Farfetch’d? Perhaps the developers are leaving themselves room to include more iconic (and better) pokémon down the track, but for now… it’s just not what I would have considered to be the “A-team” for the deep, deep roster that the developers had to work with.
Of course, only time will tell whether I stick with Pokémon Unite, and if I do it will be the first “esports”-alligned game that has ever managed to keep me invested. For now, though, I’ve been really enjoying its dynamics. It’s a streamlined MOBA without compromising the strategic interest of the genre, wrapped up with all the usual Pokémon charm.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb