It's Harry's six year at Hogwarts, which means that in addition to fending off attacks from He Who Shall Not Be Named and his growing army of Death Eaters, he's battling puberty and awkward moments with the opposite sex. Just like IGN's Mark Bozon. Now get this: there's a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher who might just hold the secret to Lord Voldemort's mysterious past and in turn spotlight a character weakness that Dumbledore and Potter can capitalize on. Meanwhile, Ron, who now looks like a red-headed linebacker, continues to bicker with Hermione as the two of them struggle to define their ever-changing relationship. Harry is the Captain of the Quidditch team. Draco Malfoy might be conspiring with the Death Eaters. And on top of everything else, the Boy Who Lived has come into an extremely handy potions book penned by the Half-Blood Prince. What does it all mean?
If you seek a deep understanding of these plot points then by all means read the book because frankly the game offers only a perfunctory examination of Harry's sixth-year story. Rather, it usually grasps only at pivotal developments from the novel and movie of the same name and rushes you through them on the way to the next potions class, Quidditch match or duel with some overzealous, overconfident Slytherin or murderous Death Eater. Thankfully, what the game lacks in storytelling, it makes up for in the presentation of the school itself, which continues to be a huge, believable, wholly immersive entity that you will inevitably be able to thoroughly explore at great, satisfying length.
I believe that this year's Potter for Wii is more refined than its predecessor in most regards and yet I've given it a slightly lower score because it also feels like more of the same and the novelty of the Wii controls has worn some. The story features additional intrigue, filled with the aforementioned sinister themes and the threat of real doom. Harry whined his way through Order of the Phoenix, a truth I found disappointing, but now he's accepted his responsibilities, stopped dwelling on the past so much and moved forward. EA glosses over most of these developments via clumsily strewn together cut-scenes -- some rendered, some real-time -- in which blank-faced characters stand emotionless and spit out lines.
There are some high moments -- the voice acting comes off as genuine and movie-esque as far as I'm concerned, and I especially appreciate plot points worked into game mechanics. For example, as Ron finds himself intoxicated by a love potion, you must control the smitten character while he bobs and weaves slowly through Hogwarts, pink hearts floating all around him. And to cure him of this spell, Harry must mix together a potion in class, which is a separate gaming component, equally entertaining. The game provides good entertainment for Potter fans when story bleeds seamlessly into gameplay and I therefore wish this happened more frequently and with less transparency.
Half-Blood Prince is divided into four parts, including exploration, potions, dueling and, topping it all off, Quidditch. The action switches predictably between these elements and eventually shows repetition -- if you go a half hour without mixing together some magical elixir, you will wait for the looming cut-scene introducing a potions test. If you explore the castle for too long, you will find yourself dueling with a wizard at some point, or whisked off to a Quidditch match another. Portions of Hogwarts remain locked until you've completed these various challenges and thus Harry's sixth year at the school unfolds in a much more linear fashion than you might expect, both good and bad. Good because it means EA is able to guide you along to the next big event. Bad because you lose some exploratory freedom and in turn diminished suspension of disbelief.
Where Half-Blood Prince succeeds better than any Potter game before it is in the construction, scope and connected presentation of the school. It's astonishingly huge and incredibly detailed. It's one-hundred percent immersive. Indeed, as a longtime Potter fan, I could ignore all of the gameplay mechanics and simply walk around the school, taking in the realistic animated paintings of the Grand Staircase, the stonework of the Owlery, the interactive draperies littering the Gryffindor hallways or the immense grassy landscapes separating the school from the Quidditch Pitch. So if you're a fan of the universe, you will be impressed if not altogether dazzled by the recognizable architecture and locales that you can fully explore in detail as you never could in either the movies or the books. Significantly enhancing the experience is the introduction of Nearly Headless Nick as your guide. Tap the minus button and the hilarious ghost will lead you to your next locale, bantering all the while -- a vast upgrade over the sometimes-off footsteps in last year's title.
Gameplay controls, though, while certainly adequate, are not nearly as compelling as the make-up of the universe. Harry continues to control like a drunk hippo, turning slowly and clumsily, prone to bumping into walls and so on. The developer even created an animation for the character that allows him to trip and fall to the ground, interrupting game flow for five seconds. To EA's credit, some movement improvements have been introduced. For instance, Potter can now run, helpful when he's not taking secret passageways and shortcuts to jump from one part of the school to the next. Simply hold down a button and he'll sprint along Gears of Wars style; the screen even blurs with a fish-eye camera. It's very effective and actually feels pretty good, although maneuvering the wizard while he's moving at this pace is imprecise, to say the least. Better is the implementation of the Wii pointer to both control the camera when necessary (hold down a button and point around the screen for quick, easy viewpoints) and to select items on the fly. It's an intuitive system and a welcomed inclusion.
The controls are by no means superb, but they work just well enough that you can forgive their shortcomings and inconsistencies as you explore the school, a process that continues to be a lot of fun. EA has developed a lengthy fetch quest around exploration, too. There are 150 Hogwarts Crests scattered throughout the school and you can collect them all if you're a completionist -- becoming one will transform a five-hour game into an adventure that runs roughly twice as long. Obtaining some of the crests is easier said than done, too, because you will need to reconstruct them and levitate them about in order to properly gain access to them. Sometimes you will have to collect dozens of mini-crests in order to amass a single crest -- it'll be tedious if you don't care to see the school in its entirety, but you won't mind if you're a devout fan.
Potions class is the probably the biggest mini-game-style addition to this year's title. Throughout the course of the game, you'll be challenged to mix up nearly 20 varying concoctions that require you to pour and drop liquids and solids into a boiling pot and pray for the best. Potter's never been a potion superstar, but with a little aid from the Half-Blood Prince, he's outperforming all of his mates, including Hermione -- much to her dismay. As you mix potions, the viewpoint changes to the first-person and you use the Wii remote to execute everything. On the other consoles, this is done with analog sticks, which is not nearly as immersive, in my opinion. Point at the screen to grab onto the items you need, pull backward and they'll lift up, then simply make pouring motions with Nintendo's controller to do the same on-screen. Seems easy as you read this, but that's not always true. There are dozens of unique ingredients and they all require a steady hand. If you pour too much, the screen will be engulfed by smoke and you'll need to shake the nunchuk to clear the air. As you advance, you'll very quickly cycle through various elixirs even as you drop in items like dead rats to create all sorts of potions, and you'll do it to a countdown timer. It can be intense. And while it's sometimes frustrating because you can't always easily identify the correct bottle for the job -- they sometimes look alike -- you will come back until you get it right.
Dueling is an improvement over last year's game, but there's room for yet more refinements, especially since Half-Blood Prince does not yet utilize MotionPlus and the benefits gained by it. (The game has more or less been ready to go since last year, but EA held it to coincide with the release of the feature film, also delayed.) You can choose from six spells, including Expelliarmus, Charging, Petrificus Totalus, Protego and Levicorpus, but are allowed only limited access to them. Potter cannot, for example, run about the school casting spells at everything and everyone he sees, a mild disappointment for someone as twisted as me. Instead, there are context sensitive situations, duels being one of them. Engaged in a match of magic, Harry can dodge forthcoming attacks, shield himself and blast back. Spell casting feels especially tactile with the WII remote.
Fact is, like Star Wars lightsaber battles, wand magic was one of the first actions that sprang to mind when Nintendo's controller was unveiled and EA has done pretty well with it here because you literally throw spells forward, which feels great. The drawback to duels is that, early on in particular, they're too easy -- you can spam opponents with blast after blast and they're practically defenseless. This decreases some as you advance and opponents become more formidable, but you can ultimately cast Levicorpus on foes, they'll dangle upside-down, and then you can obliterate them.
Finally, there's Quidditch. You don't so much maneuver Potter about these tournaments as you guide him with the Wii remote. Point at the screen and the seeker will fly toward the on-screen reticule. The action unfolds on a set path and your goal is simply to lead Potter through a series of stars in order to obtain the snitch before another can. It's fast. It's action-packed. And while it's simple, it's fun. Later Quidditch matches ramp up in difficulty and you will inevitably have to fight off the opposition, bumping flyers out of the way, so that Harry can soar through stars.
It's a competent control scheme and a unique play mechanic. It works well. But at the same time, I can't help but wonder if a more direct control scheme might prove even more enjoyable. Quidditch is at least partly alluring because of the freedom of flight it allows -- the ability for Potter to soar around the stadium in every direction in search of the snitch. That freedom is removed from Quidditch in EA's Half-Blood Prince for a more restricted path.
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