We don't have our pocket calculators handy, but we're pretty sure that the Harry Potter franchise has made more than a gajillion dollars since author J.K. Rowling rolled out the first book. The story of the Boy Who Lived and his trusty friends has captivated millions, whether the tale has unfolded on paper, on the silver screen, or on the boob tube in wholly interactive form. The worldwide phenomenon has of course been designed by Rowling, but both Warner Bros. and Electronics Arts have done their respective parts in maintaining the wizarding craze, WB with a series of blockbuster movies and EA with a stream of complementary videogames for all major platforms.
EA's Potter titles have in previous years aspired to marry the magical themes, lovable characters and familiar storylines of the related books and movies with the proven play mechanics and level designs of games like Zelda. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets was the first title to exercise this strategy and ironically it remains far and away the best. Each successive entry into the series has for puzzling and disappointing reasons somehow gotten sloppier and in turn less enjoyable.
Perhaps this is why EA has with its latest take on the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, decided to move the boy wizard into an altogether different gameplay direction. We're not going to beat around the bush. The result is an offering that feels dumbed down. Simplified for younger gamers, if that's the terminology you'd prefer. And as longtime Potter fans, we find this to be a questionable design choice, especially since the material of the fourth book is clearly tailored for older, smarter audiences. And yet, despite these potential issues, Goblet of Fire is a solid action-adventure interpretation of the latest Potter movie, and we're confident that it will gel well with most kid players.
A Darker Story and a Simplified Approach
For serious Potter fans, Goblet of Fire represents a noticeable shift in the series -- a tip of the hat to the millions of readers who were themselves growing up with main characters Harry, Hermione and Ron. This may very well be the darkest and least forgiving book in Rowling's ambitious series, and the Warner Bros. movie certainly reflects that with its own gritty re-imagining complete with moody, shadowy visuals and themes. The EA-developed game likewise captures the more serious atmosphere by closely following the original storyline, but it is not so closely glued to the book or movie that it fails to have an identity of its own. Actually, EA has enabled the game's complicated tale to unfold in very polished, storybook-style cinematics that connect the gameplay sequences in a highly entertaining manner. These cinematics show a level of care and polish that was sorely absent in some previous Potter games.
Goblet of Fire begins as the book and movie do. Shortly after a spirited game of Quidditch, the Death Eaters attack, and Harry, Ron and Hermione are left to fend for themselves. The title throws players directly into the action, which has itself been significantly altered from its predecessors. The non-linear, open-world freedom that made exploring Hogwarts and related areas at one's own leisure has been deleted, which is disappointing. It was this independence that helped make the gameplay worlds decidedly more immersive and believable in the other Potter titles and we'd be liars if we indicated that it isn't missed. But to its credit, restricting the gameplay environments has allowed EA to shower the areas that gamers do explore with a level of sparkle not usually seen in a Potter adventure. Prisoner of Azkaban was too often overrun with glitches, framerate inconsistencies and other signs that it was half-baked. Goblet of Fire, in contrast, shows very few of these shortcomings.
Still, players looking for a deep and wholly challenging gameplay experience will undoubtedly be in for a let down because Goblet of Fire goes light on difficulty and heavy on straightforward action. Gamers select their favorite character between Harry, Hermione and Ron, and then begin a level. The three characters are for a good chunk of the game inseparable, which means that oftentimes they work together to battle enemies and solve minor environmental puzzles. If players choose to control Harry, computer AI will automatically manipulate Hermione and Ron by his side. The game doesn't really bring anything fundamentally new to the table. Rather, it plays like a traditional hack-and-slash title with a simple spell system thrown in for good measure. This might be the right formula for younger players, but even if that's true, it still ignores a major portion of the Potter fanbase.
The gameplay mechanics in place do work well. Moving one's chosen character around the levels and fighting enemies is intuitive and enjoyable, if easy. Many of the stages scroll to the left and right, as well as forward and backward, but gamers never have control of the camera system. This is occasionally a problem because there are times when players will want to see what lies ahead, but can't. Worse, every so often enemies will attack off-screen before the on-track camera eventually spotlights them. The spell system serves up a variety of different incantations, all of them recognizable from the books and movies. Depending on the levels, Harry and friends can perform all sorts of satisfying jinxes and charms, from Carpe Retractum, Wingardium Leviosa, Aqua Eructo and Accio to Inflatus, Ebublio and Lapifors. The different spells are visually stunning because EA has taken the time to surround them in beautifully animated streams and detailed particle effects. However, the process of performing spells has been so far dumbed down that gamers will barely even need to think before they cast. Spells are not chosen by the player, but by the situation. If a fire needs putting out, Harry's wand will automatically shoot Aqua Eructo and spray water on the flames, for example. This design choice translates to a speedier, action-oriented gameplay environment, but we happened to like the element of deciding which spells to use for different situations in previous Potter games, and we're sorry to see it ditched. EA has at least partially made up for the omission by injecting an added layer of control over the actual movement of spells. Harry can cast magic to levitate objects, and players have full freedom of control over them as they float through the air. Some puzzles even require that Harry and friends levitate caldrons in order to send them crashing into nearby walls for satisfying explosions.
The character AI in the game is passable, but has a bad habit of being stupid. Computer-controlled characters are often necessary allies in some spells. Harry might not be able to perform a spell adequately without the help of Ron and Hermione by his side, in other words. Mostly they're good about being helpful, but every so often they fail to react quickly enough, or position themselves directly in front of an object that needs moving, which can be frustrating.
The levels themselves are impressively varied, big and usually fun to navigate. Players will start off at the World Cup Campsite, and explore everywhere from the exterior of Hogwarts to the Forbidden Forest, Prefects' Bathroom, Herbology greenhouses, and more. More than halfway into the adventure, Harry will even have to separate from his friends to compete in the Triwizard Tournament, which is the focus of the book and movie. Here, new gameplay types are revealed, including some very entertaining broomstick flying and underwater swimming stages.
The game engulfs players in pretty worlds constructed to closely resemble the movie sets. Harry, Hermione and Ron are just a little bit older now and their polygonal models show the increase in age. The characters move through animated, interactive environments -- some with foreground vegetation and others with heavy rain, for example -- and the scenery regularly changes. Easily the most impressive graphic elements, though, are the advanced particle and lighting effects, which spark and illuminate around spells, effectively driving home the power the wizard magic. The game strives for 30 frames per second and usually hits it. Unfortunately, there's no progressive-scan support on GameCube or PlayStation 2.
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