Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
As I rapidly leave my twenties behind (less than a week to go now, woe is me) I've started to notice for the first time in my life a few sure fire signs that I'm growing up. I've started doing DIY and visiting garden centres, I've learnt to appreciate a good single malt, my hair is thinning in places I'd rather it wasn't and I've even started growing my own vegetables. It's a worrying time for someone whose life to this point has been lived with Peter Pan's relaxed attitude to adulthood firmly in place. Have the fires of youth been extinguished altogether? Is the next stop really middle age? Thankfully there are still plenty of things that continue to make me feel like a kid even as it gets harder and harder to believe I really am. A great song still makes me bounce around the room like a mad thing, I'd rather watch The Simpsons than the news, the idea of buying a radio controlled helicopter still appeals as much as it ever has and the release of a new Harry Potter film still makes me feel excited.
You'll notice I said film rather than game and the reason for that is simple, while the films have perfectly captured the essence of the world J.K. Rowling so brilliantly created in her novels the accompanying games have been a bit, well, rubbish. This time around though, for the release of the fifth film Order of the Phoenix, EA have gone all out to create a Harry Potter game that aims to ooze authentic Rowling atmosphere from every magic filled nook and cranny. The most important step in achieving that goal has been creating a pixel perfect rendition of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, then giving you free reign over both its exploration and the missions held within. Harry Potter does GTA without the mindless violence if you will. It's this more open-ended sandbox approach that both showcases the games greatest triumph while at the same time serving to highlight its biggest weakness.
To start with the good, Hogwarts itself is fantastic, accurately modelled down to the smallest detail it becomes something of a character in its own right as you get to know its hallways and secret passages. It's so good in fact that while re-watching the third movie, Prisoner of Azkaban, at the weekend, the layout of the school on film was familiar enough from my time spent with the game that I felt like I knew what was coming around every corner. Central to the whole thing is the Grand Staircase complete with moving stairs and walls filled with paintings that come alive as you walk by. It's every bit as impressive in-game as it appears in the films, its air of old fashioned British private school with more than a hint of magic setting the tone perfectly for the rest of the beautifully realised school. It's not just the buildings that feel familiar though, you'll come across a wide cast of regular characters too. From staff members to pupils they're all scattered around the place ready to ask favours or set tasks. For the most part the standard of the voice acting is top notch and although not all of the cast members from the film reprise their roles (Emma Watson's Hermione being the most obvious and disappointing omission) the on screen action is never let down by any cringe worthy performances and there's a pleasing amount of nice little character moments that will amuse fans.
Such is the scale of the magical campus that simply finding your way from A to B could have been a tricky prospect were it not for the cunning use of the Marauders Map. When a mission or destination has been selected on the map the direction you need to travel in is marked on screen by a line of footprints stretching from Harry in the direction he needs to go. While sometimes the footprints don't quite show far enough ahead and have a tendency to get lost on dark floors it does feel perfectly in keeping with the magical world you inhabit, beating a big pointy arrow or an on screen compass any day.
Since the use of magic naturally plays a big part in proceedings it's pleasing to see that EA have taken the time to ensure the feel of spell casting is right. A touch of the right analogue stick sees Harry draw his wand and then it's up to you to wiggle the same stick again to cast whatever spell you're aiming for. Each spell requires a different wiggle but none of them are too hard to pull off and all feel strangely natural after a few attempts. Be it a quick double push forward on the stick to push things, a clockwise rotate to repair them or a rapid up and down movement to set light to anything flammable it soon feels obvious. The visual similarities to Harry's on screen actions give a nice feeling of cause and effect too as well as hinting at how much fun there is to be had with the Wii version where the already wand-like Wii remote seems perfectly designed for such antics.
Of course creating a fantastic world, filling it with entertaining characters and having a well thought out control scheme doesn't make a great game. You also need some actual content to tie all that together. Unfortunately it's those bits that HP5 doesn't do quite as well. The most instantly noticeable problem is the way the story is handled; while a two hour film can be forgiven for having to nip and tuck things here and there, a ten hour plus video game should at least be able to make things coherent for anyone still to read the book. Yet, even within the opening half an hour, huge chunks of story are skipped or only vaguely hinted at leaving even the central storyline about recruiting Dumbledore's army and the arrival of the new defence against the dark arts teacher Dolores Umbridge poorly explained for anyone not already in the know. To make matters worse and as if to prove that narrative and structure were a bit of an afterthought once the rest of the game had been finished, the missions you embark upon are depressingly mundane considering the fantastical possibilities a school of magic should offer. From helping other pupils with their homework and rescuing an escaped owl to hiding Fred and George's dodgy goods and collecting potion ingredients there's nothing here to set the heart racing and all generally revolve around going to a location and using a spell or two to get the desired item or effect. That's not to say there isn't fun to be had doing all those things, it's just that the mechanics thinly veiled under many of them are so similar that they get repetitive after a while which is a shame. It's also all incredibly easy, with little or no risk of death or even failure for most of the game it's very much a question of simply having the time and the inclination to play through it rather than there being much of a challenge involved in the process. There's also a disappointing lack of combat and, while there's nothing wrong with that in principle, it's a kiddie friendly game after all, you can't help wishing you were let loose with the spell book and wand a bit more often. When you do eventually find yourself in a duel things are also never quite as fun as you feel they could be. The action itself always feels too slow while the offensive spells at your disposal never have the same fizz and crackle about them as they should.
As with all good sandbox style games there are a variety of tasks to complete outside of the main storyline. Teachers, other staff members and even paintings offer mini quests and puzzles to pass the time and there's always a game of Wizard Chess or Exploding Snap to be played if you fancy something different. You can also tidy up the school as you wander around it using your many spells. While this can be fun to start with there's only so many statues you can repair, torches you can light and paintings you can hang before you start to feel a little put upon and wonder why no-one else is bothering to help.
Graphically it's a mixed bag, the underlying engine does its main job fantastically; Hogwarts is huge and looks beautiful throughout. Just as importantly the whole thing is delivered seamlessly with not a loading screen to be seen. There are some camera issues that niggle from time to time but for the most part the action is presented flawlessly. Characters look great as you run through the halls and the snippets of dialogue you over hear as you pass other pupils in the corridors all help to flesh out the world giving the whole thing a sense of life. The only real problems start when the same game engine is used to deliver the close up cut-scenes. Characters that looked lovely from a distance take on a glassy eyed animatronic waxwork feel up close not helped by the fact that these scenes are cut into the action 'live' as it were meaning the camera has to try and deal with characters who aren't always in the ideal position for the scene in question. This can result in some strange instances of Harry talking to walls or characters not being visible in shot at all when delivering their lines.
Ultimately, as with any game, it comes down to enjoyment, if you're having fun then the game is doing something right somewhere regardless of its flaws. By that criteria HP5 is a success, speaking as a fan of both the books and the films I had hours of undemanding fun exploring Hogwarts, meeting familiar characters, and using the plentiful spells. Had I not been a fan no doubt I'd have soon got bored by the repetitive nature of the missions, the endless wandering to and fro through the same corridors and the lack of combat or real danger of any kind. But then if I wasn't a fan I'd probably not be playing the game anyway and that's the dividing line really. HP5 is a game that knows its target audience and plays up to them perfectly, it provides fans with an enjoyable interactive romp through the world of the book and film. It's never demanding, its goes out of its way to be friendly, in fact it's the gaming equivalent of curling up with a good book and a mug of hot chocolate, but surely that's kind of the point. As a standalone video game it's a solid but not fantastic entry into a crowded market place, it's not even the ultimate Harry Potter game you've perhaps dreamed about and as such the final score reflects both of those points. However, what it does provide is a gaming experience that's the closest you're able to get to truly feeling part of the magical Harry Potter universe. For that harmless escapism alone it deserves praise, especially from anyone who wishes their childhood was just a little bit closer in the rear view mirror.