Out of energy with Wizards Unite

It has been a big week in the location-based gaming world, seeing the release of Wizards Unite, the new Harry Potter-themed game from Niantic, makers of the smash-hit Pokémon Go. For those who enjoy this style of gaming, Wizards Unite is about as close as we get to a summer blockbuster, big-budget AAA release. I found myself strangely nervous as the game suddenly arrived in the U.S., a day earlier than had been announced. I wanted the game to be good. I’ve played so many clones of Pokémon Go who’ve tweaked the format in interesting ways, and I hoped to see Niantic—with their piles of money—take those newer ideas and run with them.

As luck (sort of) would have it, while I was too busy on launch day to do more than poke at Wizards Unite, the following day I had to take my car in for repairs. Meaning, that while I waited for the garage to do their work, I could run around a big shopping center playing the game. In fact, that morning I played Wizards Unite, Jurassic World Alive, *and* found a geocache. Pretty great morning for me (until the bill for the car came).

Wizards Unite by Niantic

Wizards Unite throws a lot at you from the start. It introduces a bunch of game systems and mechanics without delay, mostly correctly assuming you’ll figure it out later. I found my understanding further muddled by the Harry Potter jargon the game presumptively uses, much of it invented for this game. I can’t imagine how bewildering it would be to pick up this game without ever having read the books or watched the movies. Still, after charging through it all, I started to map many of the mechanics to Pokemon Go’s and found the two games undeniably similar.

My morning with Wizards Unite ended up being fairly short thanks to a particular system in the game that limited my wandering, and that system still plagues my enjoyment of the game even now. (Thankfully I had those other location-based games to play for my car wasn’t ready for a while.)  

I had wanted to wait on this review. There are plenty of bigger websites who have the capacity to offer hot-takes, quick-tips, and the like. I wanted to play the game for a while, think about my experience, and form an opinion over time, but I kept running out of energy.

Wizards Unite by Niantic

“Spell Energy” is a game system that Wizards Unite uses to power most of its players’ actions. To chase away the “confoundables” who are guarding the “foundables” you are to collect, you need spell energy. To fight monsters in fortresses and win wizarding challenges, you need spell energy. You need *a lot* of spell energy for you too-often arbitrarily fail at chasing away confoundables. This is supposedly governed by a difficulty system and your skill at casting spells, but more than a few times I’ve “masterfully” cast a spell at a low-threat confoundable to have it repeatedly fail (or just disappear altogether.) 

Wizards Unite by Niantic

You get spell energy by visiting Inns, which like the game’s two other structures, Fortresses and Greenhouses, are scattered across the real world. When you visit an Inn, you get a small amount of spell energy and the Inn needs five minutes to recharge. These are clearly drawn from the same database of locations that power Niantic’s Pokémon Go and Ingress, for they are all attached to the same statues, public art, real locations of note, and of course corporate tie-ins. In Wizards Unite, those three aforementioned structures share that database, splitting the locations among themselves. What was always a Pokestop in Pokémon Go, may now be an Inn, a Greenhouse, or a Fortress. 

It’s been covered before in great and better detail than I can do here, but like Niantic’s previous games, Wizards Unite has a significant bias toward cities. Because its database of locations is user driven and tied to real-world locations rather than algorithmically populating the world, cities get more entries for play. The problem is compounded by these too-important Inns having to share that database with Greenhouses and Fortresses, their frequency diluted by having to share seeding with those other structures in areas where locations were already too few.

On multiple occasions now I’ve declared that I was dedicating my lunch break to Wizards Unite. “The next hour I’ll walk around playing the game and only this game.” Invariably, like that very first day with the game, I run out of energy within the first half mile despite starting at full. The Inn nearest to my house is a 20 minute walk, one-way. I end up skipping certain confoundables as I walk around because I can’t spare the energy, making my exploration feel hampered and ultimately, frustrating.

Wizards Unite by Niantic
Sorry, dude, but I’ve already rescued you before and I can’t spare the energy again.

I could see some of my friends in the game rocketing up in level and I was confused as to how they were able to do so. After asking them, I realized the issue I was facing. My work schedule has been off lately, and I’ve been working more from home rather than going into the city to be at our coworking space. This weekend I went into the city, opened Wizards Unite’s map, and was flabbergasted by the number of available Inns. No wonder these city-dwelling friends were doing so well. But, it’s not like I live in the middle of nowhere! I live in a suburban town immediately adjacent to Washington, D.C.’s atypical boundary. Even after the city foray my full stocks were once again depleted after a short walk. Wizards Unite has a real and immediate problem with its economy, more so than Niantic’s other works.

Wizards Unite by Niantic
Washington, D.C. and its plethora of inns.
Wizards Unite by Niantic
Could be worse, I guess. This is my parents’ farm in rural Virginia.

I keep veering into dropping Wizards Unite entirely, but a few things, apart from professional curiosity, have kept me going even if each of those positive things comes with a caveat. The game is very polished and quite pretty (ignoring some of the righteous bugs I’ve encountered because the game has only been out a week and I assume they’ll be dealt with at some point). Each of the foundables you encounter comes with its own animation, which despite being overly-long in duration, are often amusing to watch. 

Wizards Unite by Niantic

There seems to be a narrative being built in Wizards Unite, the conceit being based off the appearance of these confoundables and I’m curious to see where the story goes. Story is not something found in many games in this genre. 

Wizards Unite’s augmented reality portions work very well, though still disappointingly inessential. After walking certain distances in the game you can unlock these “portal” experiences where you physically walk into special locations via your phone’s screen. (I’ve previously declared a weakness for AR portals.) These locations are gorgeous and clearly crafted with a lot of love, but are spoiled by being entirely devoid of interaction. After you’ve entered these locations, the object is to poke at a certain number of sparkling motes of light. That’s it. Why bring me to these magical places if I’m not going to interact with them in any way?

There’s quite a bit more I could gripe about Wizards Unite but I think I’ve done enough today. You get the point. Again, I wasn’t even going to write a post about the game so soon. I’ve spent the last couple years playing a lot of clones of Pokémon Go, and while I’ve been disappointed by most, many of them managed to take the format in interesting directions even if their contribution was just the addition of a small feature, or tweaking a game system in an unusual way. It was clear that in trying to duplicate Pokémon Go’s success, they were learning from that game and accidentally building up the design rules of this new genre. It’s also clear here that Niantic hasn’t been paying attention to that growth for if they had been, we’d see a lot of those ideas taken right back from this cadre of competitors. Instead, they’ve dropped a Harry Potter theme on top of Pokémon Go, added even more slot machine game mechanics, and aggressively increased their pitching of pay-to-win microtransactions. 

Wizards Unite by Niantic
Ah yes, now I have *too much* energy. I should pay to raise the cap.

Pokémon Go improved over time and I think Wizards Unite will too. I enjoy taking a long walk with a location-based game, but right now, Wizards Unite doesn’t give me enough energy to do so and it sure as heck doesn’t do anything special enough to entice me into paying for the privilege.