EA’s Harry Potter games have steadily changed from innocent wide-eyed platform games to open-world sandbox adventures, slowly losing much of the game and incorporating more of the film. To fans of the canon, mind, this is most definitely a good thing, and whilst I tremendously enjoyed a couple of the last-gen games it was because I’m a more of a gamer rather than a Potter fan – the recent gen versions have been less about following videogame conventions and more about providing an alternative playthrough of the film’s storyline.
Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is the apex of this line of thought: although there’s the notion of freedom EA absolutely tunnel you through the main singleplayer mode without ever really letting up. When the game first starts it bombards you with the game’s three of four main ideas – collecting, quidditch, duelling and potions – which you wrongly assume to be some kind of quick-fire tutorial. It’s not, this is how the game plays out for most of the length of the adventure.
You’re never forced to do one thing immediately after another, but little else happens unless you do, and even though the world of Hogwarts is modeled brilliantly and becomes open for exploration very quickly, the game even tries to shove quick-access shortcuts on you as if to say – hey, don’t bother walking around the map, just jump straight to the next minigame. Yes, you’re free to ignore the game’s prompts but it would have been better at first to trust the player to want to explore – after all, if you’re buying this game it’s because you’re a fan of the franchise and want to wander around freely, at least at first. Heck, you’re even rewarded for using the shortcuts via some rather generous Trophies.
So whilst the game’s pacing never really slows down and the only reason the storyline has for making you explore are simple means to an end, like fetch quests, EA have worked wonders with Hogwarts. Put simply, for Potter fans this will be like manna from heaven – everything, from your initial midnight encounter with Luna Lovegood to the very depths of the castle is rendered with care and attention the likes of which we’ve never seen before on a game like this. Whilst the actual map isn’t really that big, it does include much more of the Potter world than the last game and it’s better lit, nicely textured and absolutely authentic, to the last brick almost. Places are roughly the right distance away and all your favourite areas, like Herbology and the Quidditch pitch, are present and correct.
Fans will know the way to most places if they choose to walk, but if not EA have done two clever things. The first is the use of Nearly Headless Nick to act as a guide for the lost – a tap of the Select button will bring him drifting by and a cute quip and a twirl of the overcoat and he’ll float ahead of you as you follow him to your destination. Of course, the linear storyline means you’ll only really have one destination but it’s a nice feature for the directionally challenged. The second is the way the developers have chosen to overlay all the menus, signposts and instructions as part of the map space, just like in Dead Space – ingredients, doorway signs and even the options are all integrated nicely – walk up to a door and it’ll show you where it leads to via a nicely done pop-up.
So far, so good. The problems, then, lay in the actual game mechanics. Whilst the storyline stutters and jumps as if it was written way before the film was completed (some of the pre-rendered cut-scenes will mean nothing if you haven’t read the book yet) it’s the very fact that much of the progression is entirely comprised of sub-games. The overarching collect-em-up with the hidden crests is actually handled really well and is quite compelling even if you don’t know what rewards you’ll get before you get them, but the other areas – the quidditch, duelling and potions – don’t really sit too well with each other and feel quite disparate at times.
The Potions minigame is the most successful, an ever increasingly complex set of quick-time style commands becomes quite stressful and taxing towards the end despite starting very simply. The player must select bottles and ingredients that pop up on the right side of the screen with the left stick before tipping, shaking and heating them up with the right stick and then adding them to the boiling pot. It’s quite a fun diversion, albeit quite a jarring one when it’s forced upon you. Quidditch sees Potter as the Seeker, as you’d expect, but this, despite being a breathtakingly beautiful section, is little more than you steering Harry through a series of loops whilst the game plays on around you. Duelling doesn’t quite work either, although the later movesets help turn it from a button masher to something slightly more tactical but it’s still far too easy to win without even getting hit.
Regardless, if the game is aimed at younger players chances are they won’t be bothered with any of the above – each sit nicely within the scope of the story and are thematically correct if not a little distracting. With the map accurately modeled and the visuals nice and fluid it’s a shame that EA couldn’t quite get all the original cast to provide voice work for the game. The likenesses are fine, but when it’s a voice double the difference can break the fourth wall quite easily, and this is especially true with conversations between Ron and Harry. The emotional angle present in the sixth book falls short too – EA’s facial animation system doesn’t always quite get the message across and instead of forlorn and moody the protagonists often just look bored and confused – you won’t get the same connection here.
The music’s spot on though, for the record, and there’s enough of The Half Blood Prince to make it feel like a proper Potter game. The storyline doesn’t last that long but there’s a freeroam mode should you choose to take a leisurely stroll around the grounds to soak up the atmosphere crafted by the often glorious visuals. It was never going to be perfect and a couple of the sections could have benefited from a little tightening during the game’s six month delay but as we said above this is one for the Potter fans who, unless they’re as jaded a gamer as myself – will adore what has been created for them. Not quite a triumph, then, but it’s leagues ahead of The Order Of The Phoenix – and if we’re being cheeky with the scores, hardcore Harry Potter fans should treat this as an 8.