Pokemon Go's Trainer Battles are great for casual fans, not Pokemaniacs
From the moment it was announced, it was obvious Pokemon Go was going to be big. It was a perfect storm of nostalgia, addictive gameplay and accessibility that embodied the series' catchphrase: "Gotta catch 'em all."
Using a mix of GPS tracking and some basic AR wizardry, the game allowed players to venture out into the real world to capture Pokemon wherever they went -- their neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and even their own backyards.
I stopped playing it almost immediately. Catching pocket monsters may be the essence of the franchise, but it's only half the game. Pokemon is also a series about training, competition and battle -- something Niantic's mobile adventure offered precious little of outside asynchronous gym battles.
Now, that's changing: The company officially announced Tuesday that "Trainer Battles" would be coming to Pokemon Go in the near future. In other words, you'll finally be able to directly battle other players.
It might be the most heavily anticipated update yet -- but don't get too excited. After trying an early demo of the new combat system at Niantic's San Francisco office, it's hard not to find the results a bit disappointing. It's not bad, but if you were among the players hoping Pokemon Go PVP would adopt the traditional turn-based battle system of the core Pokemon franchise, you're out of luck.
Pokemon Go's new PVP system will allow you to challenger other players to real-time battles between teams of three Pokemon, but it isn't a wild departure from game's existing combat system. Trainer Battles are more of a multiplayer evolution of the simplified tap-based combat already used for Gym and Raid battles.
Still, Niantic have added a few twists to the system to add more depth and strategy to battles. Most battles will still consist of repeatedly tapping on the screen to activate your Pokemon's basic attack -- but players will now be able to unlock up to two special attacks like solar beam or flamethrower for every Pokemon, giving them more choices in battle.
There's also a "Protect Shield" mechanic that will allow players to block the majority of damage for an incoming attack. Niantic told me that this was core to the new game mode's strategy -- predicting when your opponent might use their high damage charge attack and blocking it with your shield.
Starting battles is thankfully simple. Players can fight the game's NPC team leaders at any time, or engage in battle with other players by scanning QR codes or by inviting a friend to a remote battle. There are also leagues that limit the CP level of Pokemon used, ensuring that lower level teams aren't consistently destroyed by higher level players.
In practice, it's actually a pretty decent combat system for a game like Pokemon Go. Battles are fast-paced and simple enough that they won't take up too much time for players who meet in the wild, but not so simple that you can tap away at your screen without paying attention -- knowing when to use protect or swap out for another Pokemon really can turn the tide of a battle.
It's very much in-line with what Pokemon Go already offers -- simple, quick gameplay experiences expertly designed for casual play. That's not a bad thing, but it does mean that the new Trainer Battle system doesn't offer much for players looking for a slightly more complex Pokemon experience.
For players like me, who are hooked by the Nintendo Switch's new casual, but more traditional Pokemon Let's Go Pikachu and Eevee, and looking for an excuse to dive into the mobile game, that's a bit of a bummer. And if you don't play Pokemon Go, this isn't the feature to get you to start.