Since the very early days of videogames, publishers have seen the advantages a popular movie license can bring. Throughout the years we’ve witnessed hundreds of titles based on hundreds of different films, and although there are notable exceptions (Goldeneye on the N64 springs instantly to mind), the majority of these games are, to put it kindly, complete and utter garbage.
The Harry Potter series is no different. We’ve had four separate movie tie-ins so far - not to mention Quidditch World Cup – and the one thing that seems to unite them is their astounding lack of overall quality. So it was with an understandable feeling of trepidation that we booted up EA’s latest offering – Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.
The first thing that strikes you is the quality of the visuals. The Wii has been on the receiving end of some truly dire PS2 ports of late, with games like Heatseeker, Call of Duty 3 and Medal of Honor: Vanguard being virtually indistinguishable from their crusty, last-generation relatives. Although HP:OotP isn’t going to trouble the lush visuals of the PS3 and Xbox 360 editions, it’s certainly a step up from the norm and proves that the Wii is more than capable of creating attractive 3D graphics, so long as the programmers and artists are willing to put the additional effort in. Sadly the graphical splendour comes at a price – in some of the more detail-rich scenes, the frame rate isn’t as rock-steady as we might have hoped, but this is a relatively minor criticism.
The first Potter game on the Wii certainly wouldn’t be complete without a healthy dose of Wiimote motion control, and thankfully EA has really delivered in this regard. Spells are cast using context-sensitive gestures and where other games have struggled with this kind of control (Medal of Honor: Vanguard – we’re looking at you), the developers have wisely kept things simple here. The individual commands are different enough from each other to avoid the kind of gesture confusion that could have easily arisen. Casting the famous incantations from the Potter series in such an intuitive and involving manner is going to send most fans into heaven, but even if you’re despise the books with a vengeance, being able to use the Wiimote as a wand is a truly exhilarating experience and the developers should be commended for making such sterling use of Nintendo’s new hardware. It really sets the Wii version apart and we can’t help but feel sorry for those PS3 and 360 owners that will be getting a more attractive game, but a far less immersive experience.
Games that are based on films or books usually fall into the fatal trap of slavishly adhering to the plot at the expense of user freedom and enjoyment. The previous Potter games were certainly guilty of this sin – as was the recently released DS version of HP:OotP. It’s fortunate then that the developers of the Wii instalment have managed to skilfully side-step this issue and in doing so have succeeded in creating one of the most open-ended Potter titles yet.
Taking more than a little inspiration from Rockstar’s Bully (AKA Canis Canem Edit), HP:OotP allows the player a refreshing degree of independence. Obviously the story is still what drives the game forward, but intriguing side quests are in abundance. Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is replicated in incredible detail – EA assure us that it’s an accurate representation of the castle seen in the films, as they were given access to the original movie production blueprints. This is quite a lofty boast and the fact that the layout of the building seems to change from film to film makes it slightly less impressive – if you have the Hogwarts of the first movie indelibly etched in your memory, then the version shown here is unlikely to correlate completely. But this is a very minor quibble, and the environment EA has crafted for HP:OotP is indisputably breathtaking in its enormity – the fact that the player can seamlessly explore this architectural behemoth without incurring any loading times further strengthens the feeling of immersion.
With such a strong emphasis on exploration, it’s a blessing that HP:OotP showcases an extraordinary map feature. Fans of the series will already be aware of the infamous ‘Marauder’s Map’, which helpfully shows the locations of people within Hogwarts in real time. This key plot device now serves as an excellent in-game mapping system. If you happen to find yourself hopelessly lost you can select where you wish to go on the map and a set of footprints will appear on-screen, showing the route to take. The map also helps when you’re tasked with locating a particular character.
We all know that EA isn’t exactly short of a few bob, and this fact usually manifests itself in the high production values found in the games the company releases. HP:OotP is no exception. The music is lifted directly from the movie and is utilized effectively (although it has to be said the ‘main theme’ becomes somewhat annoying after a few hours play), and in a rare move EA has persuaded some of the original actors from the films to provide voiceovers that are unique to the game.
You may be astounded by the high number of positives racking up in this review so far – sadly, that must now come to an end as HP:OotP is unfortunately far from perfect. The stuttering frame rate has already been touched upon, but there are other issues that serve to erode the quality of the game in a manner that is not entirely fatal, but certainly detrimental to the enjoyment of the player. The 3D camera often behaves erratically and the complexity of the environments sometimes confuses it, resulting in quite a few instances of bewilderment as the player attempts to re-orientate themselves within the game world. Harry also gets obscured by scenery, making it difficult to negotiate the more winding and convoluted passageways that Hogwarts possesses. Also, the freedom that the game offers proves to be a double-edged sword – on one hand it allows the player to explore the vast locations at will, but on the other it makes things feel almost too ‘loose’ at times, and some of the quests rely too heavily on traipsing around the enormous citadel to fetch various items.
Ultimately, if you’re a fan of the boy wizard then you stand to get much more enjoyment out of HP:OotP than someone who doesn’t share the same adoration for J.K. Rowling’s fantasy world. Knowing the characters, plots and vernacular is a massive help and allows you to appreciate the vast and detailed universe EA has created. Those of you that have lived under a stone for the past few years and have therefore avoided any contact with the world of Potter will find it hard going, but the gloriously executed Wiimote commands - combined with an appealing and attractive standard of presentation - should be enough to ensure almost universal enjoyment.