Harry Potter may be nearing his end with the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, but gamers are only just getting their first taste of Harry's fifth year at Hogwars in Electronic Arts' Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix.
Order of the Phoenix is more of a cinematic experience than anything else, as much of the game transpires through cutescenes that are littered with exhaustive amounts of exposition. Fans who have seen the film already may like the different take on some of the segments (as the game takes some liberties with the established canon, much like At World's End did two month's ago - and seems to be a staple of video games adapted from film), but some may find it irksome.
When the game actually allows the player to control Harry or other member's of Dumbledore's Army (known as the D.A. hereafter), much of the gameplay is like a traditional adventure game set against Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. The Wii Remote functions like your wand when you draw it out; spells are cast by making certain movements with the controller. Depending on the situation you are in, you will have two types of spells at your command; combat spells for situations where you need to take action, and basic movement spells which allow players to push or pull objects, lift them in the air, or outright repair them.
While this concept is definitely more engaging and engrossing than playing with a standard controller, much of the effect is ruined due to some response time issues. Rather than Harry's wand moving with your own as a you swing the Wii Remote, players have to input a command with the Wii Remote and then wait a second for their on-screen counterparts to mimic the command. During simple tasks like lifting a table and moving it around a room to reach a book on a shelf or trying to place trophies back in their cases and repairing the broken glass, this issue does not rear its ugly head.
The problem is when Harry is in combat situations, and speed and response time are crucial. Early on in the game is a sequence where Harry, Ron and Hermione have to rescue a girl from two bullies. The sequence evolves into a courtyard battle in which players need to use offensive and defensive spells to both protect Harry from direct attacks, and to counter attack their opponent. Unfortunately, this sequence was much more difficult than it needed to be because of the rather unresponsive nature of the controls. Additionally, moving around seemed to add to the delay of trying to cast a spell as Harry's wand had to be re-drawn out and then the correct motion made again.
Besides the combat issues, there is a segment in the game where Harry has to recruit members for the D.A. Unfortunately, this involves tracking down students across the massive school, but thankfully the map does more than just reveal the location of each student in the school, it also activates (when a place or person is highlighted on the map) a guide system that shows footprints on the ground indicating which way to progress. This segment of the game more or less serves to get players familiar with the entire campus as later on they will need to be able to traverse it quickly and effectively as the objectives become more difficult.
Since the game is a sandbox title rather than a straightforward action title like previous Potter games, Electronic Arts sought fit to throw in a side-quest system based upon exploring Hogwarts and uncovering secrets or accomplishing certain tasks. As Harry and his friends uncover more of Hogwarts' many mysteries, the Room of Rewards will fill up with more artifacts, and eventually will unlock new content in the game. Additionally, these "Discovery" points will boost the power of spells you can use, much like a leveling system.
While the objectives in the game may not be to everyone's liking, Harry Potter fans, and perhaps non-fans, will appreciate how much work Electronic Arts put into the recreation of Hogwarts. Much like other sandbox games, players are not required to simply move forward with the objectives at hand, but rather, can explore the castle and interact with the students to perhaps unlock other sidequests and mini-games. With the setting of the game, the concept is very appropriate and should please adventure game fans, not to mention Potter fanatics.
Order of the Phoenix boasts some pretty decent visuals for a Wii title, especially with the fact that the entire Hogwarts school is recreated with amazing accuracy and attention to detail. Corridors never get repetitive and each area of the castle has a distinct look - fans of the films will definitely appreciate being able to finally see how some of their very scenes in the movie connect to other areas of the castle. Just knowing how the entire castle is laid out, including how students went about their daily business, is something all Potter fans will cherish and admire. Some of the areas feature breathtaking scenic views, although when the camera pulls back at points, there is a noticeable drop in the framerate.
Character models are pretty accurate. In-game sequence make it difficult to appreciate the accuracy, but cut scenes, which focus more on close-ups of the characters, are where players can truly get a full feel for the level of detail given to the environments and characters. Nothing on the level of the other next-gen consoles out there, but still fairly impressive and not victim of the other ports which have been marred by less-than-stellar visuals on the Wii. In other words, Electronic Arts didn't half-ass the visuals on this version; they truly gave it a fair amount of attention.
The score is mostly ripped from the famous film soundtrack and compositions, though most of the time the music is subtle and mysterious, much like the mood of most of the game. Action sequences pick up the pace and more familiar tunes can be heard, drawing players further into the alternate reality. Sadly, some may land back on their feet hardly when they hear the voice actors who have replaced some of the principle cast. In general, the voice work is pretty decent, but some of the random student dialogue becomes repetitive and annoying, such as the occasional "Potter Stinks" taunts from Slytherin rivals. Perhaps, maybe, Electronic Arts was merely trying to replicate what Harry had to deal with in his daily life?
There's not much to say about the story since it's best to go out and read the book or see the film if you want the full effect, but the game does take some liberties with the established canon. Order of the Phoenix's story is one of the deeper and more meaningful of the series, but is a bit less action oriented than its predecessor, which might explain the change of direction for this game. The game does offer numerous expansions to sequences that happened off-screen in the film, so the complete Harry Potter fan, who's read the book and seen the film already, will definitely get a good deal of extra tidbits otherwise not revealed in the other mediums.
Electronic Arts included a difficulty option with the game so that novices, or younger players, could have just as enjoyable of an experience as seasoned gamers who may appreciate the more difficult settings. Our play session with Harry Potter took us around 20 - 25 hours to reach the finale of the game, though a great deal more time could have been devoted to exploring Hogwarts more and discovering a few more secrets. The game also includes an auto-save feature, which can be toggled off, so that players can stop at anytime and start again relatively close to where they left off. When players return to their game, usually the last cutscene will replay out to provide a reminder as to what the player should do next, almost like Electronic Arts programmed a Remembral into the title.
The title definitely appeals to the Harry Potter fanbase, but it has enough that it can stand on its own two legs when it comes to adventure gamers seeking a rich experience. Casual gamers probably will be turned off after a short while, especially once the novelty of the Wii controls wears off. Aside from the previous gameplay issues mentioned, the only other problem noticed was the lack of a camera control system, as the game features an auto-camera. Players can re-center the camera behind Harry at anytime, but during some sequences, especially in tight spaces, the camera work could have been better. Still, a very solid title which provides perhaps a little too much cinema and too little gameplay, but overall a worthy effort from Electronic Arts.
Final Verdict - 7/10
Overall an enjoyable title for most, and definite must-have for Potter fans. Some more casual gamers may find the game boring after only a short time. Hardcore gamers may find the response issues with Wii Remote induced actions to be too bothersome to want to finish the game.