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What is Pokémon GO? The new AR mobile game explained

In case you didn’t notice, on July 6th, 2016 one particularly loud contingent of the internet exploded with excitement following news that Pokémon GO had finally arrived, but if you weren’t part of the furore, here’s everything you need to know about the words on every Poké fan’s lips right now.

What is Pokémon GO?

It’s a new mobile game for smartphones running Apple’s iOS mobile operating system or Google’s Android mobile operating system. It lets players use their smartphones to find, capture and train Pokémon in the real world through a technology called augmented reality.

Take a step back, what’s a Pokémon?

Pokémon are fictional creatures created for an original Nintendo Game Boy game released back in 1996. Within the lore of the Pokémon universe humans who travel throughout the world of Pokémon capturing, trading and battling these creatures are called Pokémon trainers.

The original game featured a roster of 151 Pokémon, but as the brand’s popularity grew so did the number of Pokémon. Today the total cast of creatures stands at 722 (and it’s still growing), spanning seven regions within the Pokémon universe.

Pikachu is easily one of the most recognisable characters in the world

In the real world, the ongoing popularity of Pokémon as a brand has resulted in a wealth of spin-off content and merchandising; including an animated TV series that first aired in Japan in 1997 and is ongoing, a massively popular trading card game, 120 additional video games and even board games such as Pokémon Monopoly.

The yellow electric mouse Pokémon Pikachu, is one of the most recognisable characters in the series, one of the original roster (number 25) and the official mascot for the Pokémon brand. So, as you can see, it’s all kind of a big deal in certain circles.

What is augmented reality?

You might be familiar with VR or virtual reality, wherein a person can view a completely virtual (read: computer generated) environment, with the potential to move around and interact with it in ways defined by the experience. Augmented reality (or AR) is similar in that it features virtual elements, but they’re overlaid on the real world.

Read next: HTC Vive Review: In Depth

In the case of Pokémon GO, as you walk around in the real world you’ll encounter Pokémon that appear in front of you when viewing the world through the viewfinder of your smartphone’s camera.

How do you download Pokémon GO?

If you’re still with us and you’re actually interested in playing Pokémon GO, at the time of writing, it’s currently only officially available in Japan, Australia, New Zealand and North America, with a European launch expected in the coming days. That said there are ways to download the game outside of those launch markets, including the UK, right now.

We outlined the full process in our ‘How to download Pokémon Go for your Android phone in the UK’ feature, but the iOS users amongst you can also download the game early by logging out of the App Store on your iPhone, changing the region of the App Store, attempt to download any free app and using the resultant dialogue, create a separate Apple ID linked to that region, however for the time being, we’d suggest that iOS users simply sit tight, the Android method is much simpler and doesn’t require the setup of additional accounts.

How do you play Pokémon GO?

The design of Pokémon GO pushes players to walk around outside (scary, we know). The map on your phone’s screen will mirror the real-world geography around you, including roads, parks, fields, deserts and bodies of water.

As you walk around your avatar will do the same and when you walk into close proximity of certain landmarks (dubbed Pokéstops) you’ll be able to tap on them. Pokéstops are positioned against real-world locations or points of interest and spinning the icon that pops up with a flick of the finger will dole out useful items like Pokéballs to the player.

The main objective of GO is to find, capture, train and battle Pokémon. To find them you need to walk around and they will randomly appear in the vicinity on your phone’s map. The likelihood of encountering a Pokémon depends on where you are, the time of day and the terrain (i.e. water-type Pokémon will more likely appear near rivers, lakes, ponds and oceans).

Once you’ve found a Pokémon on your map, tapping on it will initiate an encounter, where the Pokémon will appear in front of you within augmented reality. You then have a limited number of chances (which vary depending on your experience, equipment, and the Pokémon in question) to capture it, by flicking the Pokéballs that appear at the bottom of the screen. Hitting the Pokémon with a Pokéball will likely capture it, making it yours (although they can break out at this stage).

Once captured, it’s a matter of leveling it up and in some cases, evolving it to make it stronger. We talk about this process in greater depth in our ‘Pokémon GO Tips and Tricks’ feature.

Building a varied team of strong Pokémon is the key to winning battles, which are fought when you tap on gyms – silver points of interest on your phone’s Pokémon GO map that are usually accented by either red, blue or yellow.

These colours refer to three teams that any player can choose to side with when they reach level five. The more gyms your team controls the better that team does.

When tapping on a rival gym, you can choose to fight the current Pokémon in a battle, which requires you to choose your own Pokémon party and has you swiping and tapping to avoid incoming attacks whilst also trying to inflict damage. Defeating the gym Pokémon will transfer its control to your team.

What now?

Hopefully, you’re now clued in on what Pokémon GO is and you might even be tempted to try it out for yourself. Either way, if you see excited 20-somethings all standing around a hedge staring at their phones, shouting strange words with excitement, you’ll know that ‘tripping balls’ is only one possible reason for their behaviour, the other being Pokémon GO.

Check out our guides to the weirdest places to find Pokémon, and the most inappropriate places to play Pokémon GO


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