If you've seen one Harry Potter game you've seen them all, that's how it's starting to feel when I put in the latest offering: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for review. I've given the game quite a hefty play-through and whilst not a big fan of the Potter franchise or the games I can say it kept me entertained enough to want to play it.
If you've been in the dark recesses of an abyss or something for the last few years, you've probably dared to try one or two of the previous Potter movie-to-game releases and been less than impressed, I know I was. So it was a bit of a shock to find myself enjoying this one as much as I did; now I'm not going to be an instant Potter convert just through one game.
The controls are fairly easy to get to grips with on the Xbox 360 version and you don't feel like you're fighting the control system or camera (much) to play the game. Where this game shines over the previous fare is that rather than try to recreate the same tired and tasteless formula over and over again, they went for something new.
No lame games of Quidditch or less than stellar fight sequences.
This is a game about side-quests and exploring Hogwarts. A Hogwarts I might add that has been created from the actual floor-plans and blueprints used in the movie. This is as true to Hogwarts as you're going to get on a video game (until the next game arrives and proves me wrong) at the moment and I really am impressed with how it's been brought to life.
It lives with students moving around and interacting with each other and Harry, this interaction varies depending on your House and adds a nice bit of interactivity to the proceedings instead of having a dull and listless cast of NPC's.
The attention to detail is staggering and the painting in the hall act like the ones in the movies, they have the whole sandbox environment laid out and gone are the linear levels and load times. You can learn six non-combat magic spells that allow you to fly (Wingardium Leviosa), repair broken stuff and so on. As you can imagine with a complete Hogwarts from the movie to explore there's quite a few unlockables and places to use those spells.
Moaning Myrtle's Room of Rewards does just that, you can get secrets and various unlocks by doing odd-jobs around the school as well as just exploring and messing around with your magic spells. I love sandbox environments and that's probably why this game appealed to me a lot more than the previous fare (linear and boring games).
As you can imagine, Hogwarts is big, it's vast and it would be easy to get lost. There's no HUD so EA have put in the Marauder's Map (one of the best things about Harry Potter even for a non-Potter man like myself) that functions in a very Saint's Row style where you mark a location on the map, close it and then follow the padding-footprints to your chosen destination. Its little touches like this that saves a game from mediocrity.
You can track people or locations this way.
The game is split into two halves really, before Christmas break where you'll be running around doing about 30 or so tasks and recruiting Dumbledore's army and after when you're making Professor Umbridge's life a complete hell and awaiting the return of Mr. V, yeah, some people tell me he's known as: He Who Shall Not Be Named, but there was no way I was going to type that out, ah, rats.
So with this entire sandbox exploring, side-questing and superb Marauder's Mappage the game is perfect right? No, it's not. When you're casting spells for instance the control on the 360 suffers when you have to tilt the stick up and down. It seems fine when you rotate it and spin it for certain magic, but for the basic up/down, Harry sometimes gets confused bless him.
The combat is as flat as a pancake (no surprises there) and you'll be battling Slytherin henchmen and bad guys. You'll even go wand-to-wand with old V himself of course. There's an assortment of protection and defensive spells but they don't really do the magic from the movies justice. Combine this with a fiddly casting system and you begin to see where the game falls down. If I wanted to waggle my joystick there are far better games to do it in.
I remember the days of breaking Kempston Joysticks on sports games like Daley's.
The game is also let down by less than spectacular graphics in the cut-scenes and close-up dialogues. The graphics in game are fine when they're whizzing about and you don't focus on things for too long. Once they get close and you start looking at the details, they look more like the kind of people you find in an Urban City come Saturday afternoon who might be listening to Goth or something.
It's either that or the cast for a new Dead Rising game. Whichever way you colour it, the stunning background of Hogwarts is let down by the fact that the developers didn't bother to really tidy up their models or bother to switch between hi-res and hi-poly for cut-scenes and low-res low-poly for gameplay.
There are graphical glitches, some misplaced textures and a few jaggies here and there. For the Potter fan you'll look past these and love the game no doubt, but for the rest of us we can only look at the flaws and wonder why EA continue to miss things like this. Harry also has problems opening some doors; this seems to be an intermittent and annoying glitch that has a macabre sense of digital humour most of the time, happening to inconvenience you when you really need a quick exit.
The sound and so forth, dialogues and various spot effects are decent enough since they have a whole library of sounds by now and actors are getting more and more involved in the processes of games. The music is great, though it does tend to drown out the game sound from time to time.
All flaws aside this outing for Harry is the best yet and I recommend it to Potter fans as well as anyone wanting to explore Hogwarts. It will be interesting to see how the next game shapes up since this one raised the bar a little.
Only time will tell.