If Harry Potter happened to be a real adolescent wizard, you could forget all that “Wingardium Leviosa” nonsense. He’d have found some far more interesting and useful spells to cast. Like “Bum-fluffium Begonius” for example, or “Conjuria Two-Litreo Bottle of Ciderium.” And perhaps “See-throughius Blousera” – although there’s every danger he’d wear his wand out by over-casting that particular one.
It’s immediately obvious that EA has made an effort with this latest Potter offering from the moment you first step into Hogwarts, with its grand staircase splendidly rendered complete with swivelling stairwells and walls plastered with living oil portraits.
The game invokes a rich atmosphere. The graphics are impressive, particularly the character’s faces which are accurately rendered on the real-life actors, yet they’re not PC-demanding even at the highest resolutions. The sound is highly immersive too – the echoey corridors and background chattering from the classrooms almost makes you feel like you’re back in school – and the dialogue is well scripted, with a smattering of genuinely amusing lines thrown in. There are some polished production values here.
The story centres on Harry’s struggle to unite the wiz-kids of Hogwarts and teach them practical magic, as the school itself has eschewed the practice of spell-casting in favour of theory work. And with Voldemort’s latest dastardly scheme looming large, there’s no time to take any chances. You’ll spend much of the game running around the many buildings and courtyards of Hogwarts, speaking to various students who all have tasks for you to perform in order to get them under Harry’s tutelage.
Many of these missions are fairly simple, merely requiring you to find the person or to fetch an object for them. Some are more involved (slight spoilers follow), such as using your invisibility cloak and breaking a vase to distract and sneak past some guards in order to steal an object from a teacher’s study. Others have you clambering about in platformer-style puzzles, or facing bullies in wand duels with a range of offensive and defensive spells.
The spell system in Order of the Phoenix will be familiar to those who’ve played Black & White, as it’s a similar, mouse gesture-based system. In other words, you move the mouse up and down, side to side or in a circle, the various different motions corresponding to specific spells.
This generates quite a hands-on feel to casting, although the downside is that initially it can be quite tricky to get the movements right. We spent ages on a quest that required us to burn through some overgrown vegetation with the “incendio” spell because we couldn’t get the gesture quite right all the time. Eventually we discovered the trick is to move the mouse slowly and steadily on the final stroke upwards, but the game doesn’t give you any clues to that effect.
Plain remembering all the different mouse gestures isn’t easy in the beginning, particularly when you’re under a bit of pressure fighting a duel. Often we found ourselves waving our wand about like we were conducting the London Philharmonic through a speed rendition of the William Tell Overture, in an effort to try to cast three quick “stupefies” and an “expelliarmus” on our opponent.
If the mouse controls are finicky at times, the movement controls (the keyboard must be used unless you have a dual analogue stick joypad) are worse. They’re just plain clumsy, and often we found ourselves running into corners, getting stuck on pillars and generally just bumbling about. The set camera angles, which cut away to awkward views at times, don’t really help, either.
As you run haphazardly around the school corridors, there aren’t just tasks to attend to, but also many extras to be found. A shattered statue can be repaired with a quick “reparo”, or a living portrait’s riddle can be answered to discover a secret door. Doing all these many bits and pieces earns you discovery points, which power up your spells and unlock extras such as videos. There are loads of these to find, plus three mini-games to sample including a particularly addictive version of marbles.
You can’t accuse EA of being stingy on the content front, although some of the quests you undertake are mind-numbingly straightforward, so won’t keep you busy for long. Still, if you’re a Potter fan, seeking out all the hidden bits and unlocking all the extras will keep you busier than a female tennis champion’s beauty therapist.
Company: Electronic Arts