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Review: ‘Pokémon Go’ is your charming new addiction

Yesterday, my fiancée and I took a quiet stroll to our local park in Astoria, Queens to enjoy the cool breeze coming off New York’s East River.

Oh, who am I kidding? We weren’t enjoying the weather or taking in the sights. We were staring at our phones looking for Pokémon.

Yes, unless you’ve been living in some alternate universe that has yet to invent the internet, you’ve likely heard about “Pokémon Go.” The first major smartphone game from Nintendo, “Pokémon Go” is an augmented reality (AR) game that lets you capture virtual Pokémon in the real world. And it’s already an inter-generational hit, appealing to gamers both young and old.

Pokemon on the prowl

I’ve been playing the game for nearly a week now. While it’s not perfect, it’s absolutely worth downloading.

A Pokémon invasion

I’ve got a secret that I need to get off my chest: I still play Pokémon games. Yep, I’m 31 years old and I’ve got a Nintendo 3DS in my bag with “Pokémon Alpha Sapphire” loaded and ready to go. So, to say I was excited to try “Pokémon Go” on my smartphone is an understatement.

The game was developed by Niantic, a former subsidiary of Google best known for making a  popular AR game called “Ingress.” “Pokemon Go” is a similar experience: It uses your phone’s camera as a kind of looking glass through which you see the world around you. The game then lays Pokémon on top of that image to make it appear as if they show up in the real world. That’s how you get pictures of Pokémon in people’s toilets like you’ve probably seen on Twitter.

Pokemon in the bathroom

But that’s only part of “Pokémon Go.” The game also uses Google’s mapping technology and your phone’s built-in GPS to virtually put you in the game. As you walk around your neighborhood, your in-game avatar follows your route.

The game also transforms real-world landmarks like popular art installations, churches, and transit hubs into Pokéstops. Tapping on Pokéstops and swiping the coin in the center of the screen gives you free Pokéballs, potions, and Pokémon eggs. I work in Times Square, so there’s a huge number of Pokéstops around me. At home in Queens, though, there are significantly fewer.

More impressive, though, is the fact that you’ll encounter different Pokémon based on where you are in the real world. If, for example, you’re near a river or the ocean, you’ll see more water-type Pokémon. Go into the woods or to a park, and you’ll see more grass-type Pokémon.

Pokemon after dark

The game even uses your phone’s clock to bring out ghost-type Pokémon at night. I’ve also noticed that fewer Pokémon come out during late night hours than in the middle of the afternoon.

Gotta catch ‘em all

The point of the Pokémon series is to capture the tiny pocket monsters and battle them against other trainers and gym leaders as you vie to become a Pokémon master.

But unlike traditional Pokémon games, which feature turn-based battles, “Pokémon Go” uses real-time combat. During a fight, you tap on your phone’s screen to unleash a basic attack. Tap enough times and you’ll be able to use a more powerful attack by long-pressing the display.

Unfortunately, you can’t choose what attacks you use like you can in other Pokémon games. The game automatically chooses what kinds of attacks that tapping and long-pressing perform. That’s a bit of a bummer, because part of the fun of Pokémon is strategically choosing which attack to use in a given situation. You can, however, dodge incoming attacks from Pokémon by swiping left or right on your phone’s screen.

pokemon go at dawn

Capturing Pokémon in “Pokémon Go” also played out differently from other games. Rather than battling each Pokémon you find in the wild until it’s so weak you can capture it (which sounds incredibly cruel, now that I think about it), you simply throw a Pokéball at it and hope you hit it. If your Pokéball connects, you’ve got a chance to catch your target — as long as it doesn’t break free.

The capture system is kind of wonky right now, though. You toss your Pokéball by swiping from the bottom to the top of your phone’s screen. You’ve got to swipe just right to hit your target; bork your toss too many times and your Pokémon will escape. I missed a Charmander the other day and he ran off. The emotional cost of such a loss is indescribable.

Pikachu, I choose you

As you capture Pokémon around your area, your trainer slowly gains levels. At level 5, you can begin participating in gym battles. Easily the coolest part of the entire game experience, gym battles in “Pokémon Go” require you to head to a specific location in the real world and enter a virtual gym. Once you’re close enough, you can either claim the gym if it’s unoccupied, or attempt to take it over if it’s already owned.

When you enter your first gym, you’ll be asked to choose between three teams: red, yellow and blue. If you choose yellow, like I did, and you stumble upon a gym that’s already held by the blue team, you can battle the gym’s Pokémon to claim it for your team.

Each gym has what’s called a Prestige level. As a team successfully defends its gym against attacks, the gym will grow in Prestige, making it more difficult to attack in the future. Teams can also build up their own gym’s Prestige by participating in friendly battles with their teammates.

Pidgey was caught

Similarly, if your gym loses any battles, its Prestige level will drop. When a gym’s prestige reaches zero, it’s open to being taken over by another team.

Of course, like any free-to-play mobile game, “Pokémon Go” offers in-app purchases. Thankfully, unlike “Candy Crush Saga,” you don’t have to pay to keep playing. Instead, “Pokémon Go” offers you the ability to purchase potions to heal your Pokémon and incubators to hatch Pokémon eggs you find at Pokéstops. You can also purchase Pokéballs, but you can also get those for free by visiting Pokéstops, so it’s not necessary.

I want to be the very best

While finding Pokémon and gym battles are incredibly fun, the best part of “Pokémon Go” is the social experience. Sure the game doesn’t let you play with other players outside of gyms, and capturing Pokémon is a solitary experience, but I’ve had more fun playing this game with other people than I have most multiplayer games.

That’s because when you’re out there finding Pokémon, you’re not alone. There are at least a handful of other trainers in your area wandering around doing exactly what you are. Running into another person playing the exact same game gives you an incredible sense of community.

pokemon in times square

While walking with my fiance, we saw a woman around our age give us a quick glance and a smile. As she walked away I saw that she was playing “Pokémon Go” and shouted, “You’re on this too right?!” And she turned and gave the thumbs up. Heck, whole hordes of players have descended on locations around the world that are known to be home to rare Pokémon or especially tough gyms.

“Pokémon Go” might not have a real social element to its gameplay, but getting people together outside in the real world is far better.

A wild Gastly has appeared!

While it’s incredibly popular, “Pokémon Go” isn’t without its hiccups.

Currently, the game is prone to frequent crashing, which can be a huge problem when you’re in the middle of catching a rare Pokémon. It’s also a major battery hog for most people. I’ve personally seen my Galaxy S6 drop by 20% while playing for about 30 minutes.

Worse are the server issues impacting the game. Players are frequently met with a message explaining that the servers are down and to try again later. There’s also a bug that seems to force iPhone players to log in every time they restart the game.

On top of that, the game can get some gamers in trouble as they walk around searching for Pokémon: wandering into churches, not paying attention while crossing busy roads, etc. In one isolated incident, criminals set up shop near a Pokéstop and robbed players at gunpoint.

The key is to be aware of your surroundings while playing and not simply bury your head in your handset.

Just get it already

Despite its initial problems, “Pokémon Go” is an absurdly addictive and approachable game. Chances are you can go out on your lunch break and see people playing at this very moment. After staying out of the smartphone game market for years, Nintendo has finally jumped in headfirst and scored an absolute hit. If you haven’t downloaded the game, just do it already. And if you’re already playing, keep your gym safe, because I’m coming for you.

4 stars

What’s hot: Pokemon are real!; nostalgia overload; taking over gyms; actually going outside

What’s not: Glitches galore; the inevitable story about someone falling into a pit while playing

Platform reviewed: Android

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.