Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Welcome, students, to another extraordinary year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry - as presented by interactive rendition licence-holders EA, in the manner to which all who have played an EA tie-in will now be accustomed. Solid, I believe is the word that best describes this latest effort - linked heavily with the film on release since early June, and whilst you won't be getting many surprises here, there will be mercifully few glaring let-downs either. Of course, in the first instance being a fan of Rowling's ubiquitous Potter is pretty much essential, and a knowledge of the world if not the source novel also helps if you're to follow and enjoy this whistle-stop tour of the original story as much as possible.
What we're offered is an instantly recognisable movie-turned-game based firmly in the somewhat trite 'action-adventure' genre, offering mainly linear progression through a spate of puzzles, conflicts and exposition sequences, whilst all the time following the original plot loosely, and never getting overly complex, difficult or indeed inspiring. One for the 'younger gamers', would be the most obvious apologia for the simplistic and unchallenging mores of the game, though given Potter's juvenile audience we find it difficult to argue with this synopsis on this occasion. That being said, due to my particularly inept nature, there were one or two levels in the game which found me, well, stumped. Being stuck on an early level in any game is obviously frustrating, but add to that the ever-present humiliating factor that the game in question is aimed in the majority at the under 15s market, and you may find yourself in a rather bad mood. Still, if you possess more hand-eye coordination than me (and lets face it, it's not difficult), then you should have no problems; however, if you join me in the shallow end of the gaming ability pool (and I'll be the one with the armbands on), we can at least look at the bright side: if you didn't have a healthy amount of hatred for Professor Snape from reading the books or seeing the films, you certainly will after being caught a million times blundering stupidly about the corridors. Although I'm sure I can't be blamed for this; all there was at my school to catch kids out of lessons was a particularly lecherous CDT teacher, none of this 'suits of armour emitting purple rays of light while a disgruntled wizard parades up and down' milarky. Mind you, it was a state school.
Purists may find that some of the puzzles and sequences presented do wander rather too far from the plot, but in many ways it is these same instances that actually offer the most interesting gameplay, exposing the film and novel's weaknesses as a premise for building an interactive 'experience'. That said, you are offered a good general overview of the story, even if it isn't as expertly paced as the book or film. Atmosphere is generally something EA recreate well in their cinematically-inspired offerings, and The Prisoner of Azkaban certainly carries some of the more ominous and frightening undertones with which the book marked a maturation from the original two novels.
Not only is the dank and mysterious ambience of Hogwarts presented expertly, but graphical effects and audio also combine well to offer a sense of place and mood; the flowing capes and shifting pictures prove especially noteworthy, not to mention the haunting omni-present flames flickering on walls. The voice acting is also good and authentic when compared to the film, though certain all-too frequent phrases will begin to grate at times, in the customary fashion. If, like me however, you have a particularly strange obsession with actor and writer Stephen Fry (though I'm not too sure if this something many people would admit to), it will be more than worth keeping the sound on to hear his cut scene narration from the actual books, delivered of course, with a magnificent and positively magical grandeur. Unlike past titles in the series, you can also take control of Ron and Hermione in addition to Harry, and during certain sequences you'll want to switch between characters often to perform certain tasks (young Hermione can squeeze herself through smaller spaces, for example, and lovable ginger mockney Ron can open secret passage ways that the other two cannot). On other occasions however, as the unfolding story dictates, you will only be able to control one character like previous outings. The extra mini-game Duelling club is also fun for this reason, where you can switch between characters to fight your opponents, which is useful when one of your team conveniently gets their head turned into a pumpkin. These playable duelling characters are not limited to the three main kids either, as you can play as three members of Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw and Slytherin as well as everyone's favourite, Gryffindor.
In the game proper, individual characters also have specific spells - a nice touch - and as usual these can be mapped to action keys as required, reflecting the largely intuitive standard of the controls. A bit of spit and polish does seem to be missing at times, mainly where load times and occasional visual glitches are concerned, however the game is always slick and easy on the eye, as indeed we've come to expect from all titles emerging from the House of EA.
Having looked at both the PS2 and Xbox versions of this game, I can safely say that the Xbox version is, as expected, comfortably the prettiest of the two, also benefiting from slighty better (though still annoying) load times. The PS2 does have a trick up its sleeve however in the shape of the extra EyeToy-enabled mini-games included, something of a coup for Sony even if the majority of said games are little more than Potter-branded takes on already familiar EyeToy games (but to a Potter-maniac market where everything from sweets to toothbrushes can be found with a token flash of lightening or pair of broken specs, these shall probably be snapped up eagerly as stunning examples of ingenuity).
The Prisoner of Azkaban won't be winning any awards for innovation, but then it could be suggested that EA are merely making a game for a specific audience, most of whom probably wouldn't have appreciated anything too original or taxing anyway; thus making it hard to condemn EA's apparent cynicism in putting together what is clearly a linear and formulaic cash-in timed perfectly to ride the movie-induced Tsunami to the top of the charts. What could have been disappointing in this case seems merely fitting.
Fun for the young 'uns and hardcore Potterites, The Prisoner of Azkaban could never be described as a "gamer's game". Instead it ticks a number of very basic and previously-defined boxes with unbending efficiency, throwing in a few commendable moments of surprising fun, drenched in the usual superficial fineries (the visuals, recognisable characters, plotlines, set-pieces, et al) with which many an EA game has plied its trade in the past.