E3 09 – Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince: better than you’d think

Harry Potter and the Huge Castle
See a movie and game by the same name? Chances are the game is going to be terrible, regardless of the quality of the film – it’s an unfortunate and generally consistent unspoken rule in video games, although classics like Goldeneye and Spider-Man 2 have proven to be exceptions.  Is Harry Potter’s latest movie game as exceptional as the boy wizard himself?  Let’s just say that the half-blood prince is half way there.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a mash up of four different styles of play, featuring an adventure/exploration engine, a dueling battle mode, an on-the-rails racing Quiddich mode, and a potion making mini-game mode.  About half of these hit the mark of quality franchise gaming pretty dead on, while the other two, while not terrible, seem to crouch just under the bar.

Let’s start with what the game definitely got right: open world. Lead designer Chris Roberts led me through a few parts of the full-sized Hogwarts castle featured in the game. “It’s based on the blueprints from the film set,” he told me, “also off all of JK Rowling’s notes!” According to Roberts, the castle layout used in the game was approved by Rowling, making it the official complete layout of the fictional school of witchcraft and wizardry.  Fans will appreciate the detail, as they will be allowed to roam free through the castle and get a real feel for what it might be like to be a student at Hogwarts.  Roberts even joked that after playing the game, fans will notice actors in the movies walking down the wrong hallway to get to the great hall or their classes.

While wandering into the castle, you evoke charms to solve puzzles and collect items.  Want to get an item too large to go through the passageway you see it through? Break it with a spell, levitate the pieces through the opening, and repair them on the other side!  This is where you experience the main story, encounter characters, and explore side quests.
While wandering around the castle, you might be challenged by another student, or encounter a student being bullied – responding to these brings you into the dueling system – the game’s combat element.  Harry and his friends are equipped with a variety of combat spells, each activated by specific motion controls.  Simply flicking the Wii Remote activates Stupify, the standard attack, crossing the controllers in an X in front of you activates the defensive spell, protego. Throwing the controllers down disarms your opponent, throwing them up levitates them, and so on – spells can be unlocked and assigned to motions as you proceed through the game, and it’s a pretty fun and intuitive action element, although a little simple.

The last two elements are a little simple, although perhaps important the the story.  Playing “quiddich” is an on the rails flying game, the player can modify portions of the hero’s path, but the overall destination is pre-determined, not unlike starfox.  Here you fly though designated rings and avoid obstacles- it’s not badly executed, but it feels like more could have been done here. Likewise the potions portion of the game has a little less action, but serves an important purpose – potion making is a large part of the storyline of “the half blood prince,” and the developers wanted to address this in the game.  These portions of the game see Harry mixing potions together in a refined “cooking mama” like environment – the player points to the screen to select ingredients, tips the Wii Remote to poor the proper amount in, and mixes up the whole batch with circular motions.  The sequence seems well-enough for what is is, but won’t appeal to everybody. The big fault of potion making? It only serves to drive the story forward – it would have been nice be able to mix potions together for use in battle.

All in all, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince for Wii seems to be slightly above the bar of most rushed movie franchise games, but it defiantly appeals to fans. Exploring the castle is fun and interesting, and the gameplay is decent enough to hold your attention for at least a little while.  Potter nut? This might be worthwhile for you, so keep an eye on it.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is due out later this month, about two weeks before the film.