Who would have thought that Pokémon Unite would hit this hard? When I heard the announcement I was optimistic but skeptical, thinking that a MOBA with a lower barrier to entry with Pokemon would prevent it from being a total failure. That Pokémon Unite would actually be good? Definitely surprising. It’s received positive looks from game outlets and players alike finding that a more accessible MOBA is actually really fun to play. As a long time but lapsed Dota player, Unite seems like the perfect gateway to actually get friends to play a MOBA. Goodbye the hundreds of hours required to understand the game instead replaced by a simpler but still rewarding gameplay loop. 10 minute matches? A godsend compared to 45-60 minutes. Add in the Pokémon wrapping and that’s icing on the cake.
Pokémon Unite is structured very similarly to other MOBAs, namely teams of 5 players compete to push toward the other’s home base. The map is broken up into 3 lanes (top, bottom and middle) with creeps (underpowered npc units that you gain exp from killing) and shielded points (often turrets). Unite changes it up a bit by making the middle lane a jungle (i.e. an open area where creeps spawn) and changing the turrets to hoops. Players gather Poke balls by killing creeps and then they can deposit them in the opposing team’s hoops. Essentially the Pokémon are dunking, which is especially true for Pikachu who jumps up into the air and slams it down (the closest we’ll probably get to Pokemon/NBA Jam). Each hoop has a counter of how many poke balls it takes before it’s destroyed, usually 100. The goal then is to try and destroy all of the opposing team’s hoops and block them from scoring on yours (attacks interrupt the dunking animation). You can also steal Poke balls by killing enemies; they’ll drop half of what they were holding. Unite helps add some guard rails to the lanes too. The hoops themselves will heal players from the associated team and the areas behind the hoops drastically slow movement speed for all enemies. Once it’s destroyed though those benefits disappear.
Teams are also made up of distinct Pokémon. Each member of the team has to pick a unique Pokémon, although the enemy team could pick the same as yours. Each Pokémon has unique abilities and stats that affect movement speed, scoring speed, attack damage and health. These stats also dictate what type of role they play. Are they a big damage dealer? Support buffer and healer? A big hp tank? Unite takes these MOBA concepts and breaks them down into 5 classes; Defense, Attacker, All Arounder, Support, and Speedster. Defense are big tanks who are good for starting fights (ex: Snorlax), Attackers are damage dealers (Greninja), Supports (Wigglytuff) provide buffs (healing, speed boosts), Speedsters are glass cannons (Gengar), and All Arounders (Charizard) are exactly what they sound like. The game will prompt players during the drafting phase to pick different types that are best for what the game determines is the ideal team composition. It’s nice in theory, but in practice it seemingly excludes character types. Unite will always want your team to have one attacker, defender and all arounder and never suggests including a Speedster or Support. It’s a minor frustration when the game is warning that a varied team composition of Speedster – Support – Attacker isn’t ideal and suggests adding an Attacker or Defender. Everytime I choose one of my mains (either Gengar or Wigglytuff), Unite suggests that I maybe switch to something else. The other weird part about this is that players may not have enough different types of Pokémon to fill those slots. Essentially you are given 5 Pokemon free and you must purchase the rest through in-game currency, which is either bought or earned (more on this later). I’ve been in many games where it wants an All Arounder which is a type I don’t have.
What’s amazing about Unite is that all of that MOBA complexity is sanded down to a generally easy to understand game. I spent probably a hundred hours in DOTA before I felt like I “understood” the game. Unite was then immediately recognizable. I could see all of the concepts easily laid out for me and picked up the game flow super quickly. For new players, this will obviously take a bit more time but so far the consensus seems that even non MOBA die-hards are able to play competitively. The game has an auto target feature, essential for playing on console, which helps you attack creeps and line up your abilities. Unite’s guard rails around lane buffs and healing centers helps alleviate the punishment of making mistakes. Dying also doesn’t result in a huge penalty either; respawn timers are relatively quick. It also helps that Unite’s time to kill is relatively long so players have the chance of escaping from enemies. Leveling your Pokémon, a huge part of MOBAs, is also relatively quick. Unite is gracious with spreading around exp from killing creeps and taking hoops. Killing players will grant some exp, but it’s actually less efficient to focus on that over killing creeps or completing objectives (DOTA is exactly the inverse). By deprioritizing player’s kills, Unite is allowing for players to catch back up and for teammates to focus on working together to complete objectives.
All of those features amount to a rewarding experience. As a long time DOTA fan I’ve found that I’m preferring to play Unite. The easy to pick up nature and ten minute matches slide super well into my schedule. Imagine completing 4-6 games in the time it’d take to play one DOTA match! I’m curious about the long term “competitive scene” for Unite for a few reasons; gameplay balance and free to play items. Right now the game skews heavily toward attackers and speedsters. Usually in other MOBAs you can counter people playing as “hard carries” (meaning characters that are weak to start but extremely powerful towards the end of a long match) by trying to finish a game early. You can set up a team to counter hard carries during the picking phase where you can see what heroes the enemy team selects. The problem with this is Pokémon Unite doesn’t have an option to view the enemy team’s picks so you’re stuck going in blind. Pokémon Unite’s matches are also locked in at ten minutes, no more and no less. You always have to go the full time meaning you always get to the part of the game where “hard carries,” speedsters and attackers, are strong. Sometimes it doesn’t always matter, the other team has been completing objectives faster and controlling the map, but other times it all comes down to how good your Gengar is. Character balance is also a little wonky, as Pokémon like Gengar, Zeraoro, and Cinderace can absolutely dominate. Both of these aren’t deal breakers and patches are already coming through to adjust hero stats. It remains to be seen though if the game timer especially throws off high level play or if it’s just an adjustment for this specific MOBA.
The other more notorious pieces of gameplay balance are late game incentives and the almighty Zapados. scoring becomes 2x the value in the last two minutes of a match. Depending on how well your team performs during this time players can completely erase leads and it sometimes feels like early game is irrelevant. Zapados also spawns during the last two minutes. Zapados is a high level creep that is at the very center of the map and requires multiple team members to take down. The team that kills Zapados gets 20 points and the enemy goals are completely vulnerable, meaning there’s no timer needed to score a goal. If your team takes down Zapados, that means instantaneous double scoring is a complete game changer. Some players have found that Zapados completely disincentivizes the early game and drags down Unute. I, on the other hand, love the sense of chaos that Zapados brings. The delicate balance of trying to attack it, steal it, or stop the enemy team from taking it is some of my favorite parts of a match. The strategy around Zapados turns matches into a dance around the middle area in the best way possible.
Gameplay positives aside, Unite is a free to play game through and through. There are five separate currency types (including two paid) that are used to purchase everything from Pokémon, player outfits and item boosting. I haven’t even touched on items yet, the most contentious part of Unite. There are two types of items, battle and held items. Battle items are cooldown based tools and they let you do everything from heal, increase your attack, teleport away and other gameplay boosts. The held items are where things get tricky. These items are used to boost your Pokémon stats. You unlock up to 3 equitable slots that allow you to carry items that increase health, attack, sp. attack and other stats. Held items also have item levels and are powered up through a currency you earn called item enhancers. Players will earn item enhancers through playing the game and completing daily objectives like playing matches, winning games and assisting players. Problem is that you can buy these enhancers through an obfuscated way. The paid currency “gems” can be used to purchase “aeos tickets” which can then be used to buy item enhancers. This has led to a lot of people calling the game “pay to win.” This even used to be worse at launch when you could just buy item enhancers without the weird work around. Luckily this doesn’t seem to be a “play to win” case, but having enhanced items will definitely help in 1v1 situations.
The game is still predatory though as the UI is massively cluttered with ways to purchase all kinds of new items. Pokémon also have to be purchased through the earned “aeos coins” currency or through paid gems. Unite was generous with dolling out coins to start and I was able to purchase a Gengar quickly. It then took me two weeks to have enough coins to buy a Wigglytuff (8000 coins vs 10000 for Gengar). The pace is absolutely glacial to accumulate those even at the hour time I spent playing each day. It essentially means that you’ll have less options to play with, unless of course you want to put up that money. Unite is not the first to do this (looking at you League), but it’s certainly a trend designed to get people to spend. It also includes a Gacha mechanic, essentially a roulette wheel that will earn you random rewards which can also be purchased through paid currency. The game is designed to bilk players out of their money and is extremely obvious.
I’m still loving my time with the game even with those big predatory hang ups. It’s found its way into my daily routine and seems like it’ll be supported with new content fairly well. In two short weeks there’s even been a new Pokémon addition. Hopefully nothing tips the game balance into too awful of a direction. And while I gush about the game I do want people to be aware going in how much Unite is set up to steal your money. Uncompromised this is not.