Two years ago, I nearly pooped my pants. See, Harry Potter and the Order of Phoenix came out on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 and it didn't suck -- in fact, it was pretty good. If you're just joining us, that's pretty much unheard of when you're talking about movie-based games. Now, with another H.P. movie bearing down on us, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is coming to your favorite videogame console. Can EA defy movie-to-videogame logic one more time?
The answer is "yes." While it doesn't blow the previous title away by any margin, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince improves on the stuff I liked in its predecessor and makes for a pretty fun game.
Reading is for Muggles -- check out our video review.
If you're interested in this title, chances are that you've already read the books and are awaiting the movie. Still, I'll do my best to summarize what's up this time around: Harry, Ron, and Hermione are back for their sixth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, everyone's abuzz about the latest happenings in the world of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and Draco is up to no good. Sure, that sounds like every Harry Potter story, but this time things are really bad.
If you've read the books, you know what those bad things are, and if you haven't, this game really isn't going to explain what's going on. See, rather than have you play through the events of the movie, Half-Blood Prince just kind of uses them as touchstones. Sure, you'll participate in the big battles and see videogame cutscenes depicting key moments, but these events won't really be properly explained nor will they carry the appropriate impact. You're not here to play the movie; you're here to live in the movie's universe.
What does that mean? Well, just like last time, you'll pick up the controller and become Harry in a fully realized Hogwarts. If it's in the movies, you can find it in this hallway-for-hallway recreation of the school. When you first start the title, sections of the building will be locked due to the latest You-Know-Who scare, but completing the game's events as they come quickly unlocks the place so that you can run around and do whatever you want -- which breaks down into the categories of making potions, flying, dueling, and exploring.
Making potions is probably the most inventive mini-game in the title and gives you 16 brews to create in your trusty caldron. While most of the game is played from a third-person perspective, potions put you into a first-person mode... with invisible hands. See, icons pop up on the left side of the screen and you choose the corresponding ingredient with your on-screen cursor. You'll grab a beaker, move it to the pot, and pour it in. All of this is done with your controller's joystick (left to select the ingredient and right to move it) and thankfully ignores Sixaxis altogether. As you get deeper into the game's potions, the steps to create concoctions such as Fertilizer and Wiggenweld multiply and become more complicated. You'll need to bring the cauldron to a boil, wave off smoke, make ingredients bubble before adding to the stew, and stir up the contents.
This potion stuff is pretty interesting. On the one hand, it's just a game of Simon Says, but it's actually quite challenging when you get going. Some of these elixirs have a really small window of success -- you need to pour/shake/stir until the concoction is a certain color -- and you'll need to be on your toes to hit the mark. Add on the fact that there's a timer that's counting down and losing extra seconds every time you screw up (like when you accidentally spill on the table or miss dropping a piece of dung into the pot), and it's going to be hard to pull off a five-star performance. Thankfully, if you do get rated one-star, you can redo a potion as many times as you like, but it's not necessary to progress; you just need to finish it in some respect. Sometimes it can be very difficult to know when you're about to pour or drop something, but the mode is still fun.
Another nice addition this time around is flight. In Half-Blood Prince, Harry's the captain of the Quidditch team, and as such, you're going to need to log some time on your broom. Rather than give you free rein over the world, flight is very controlled here. You're chasing the snitch and the camera is always heading in whatever direction the gold ball is. This means you're not really controlling where you're going, but you're controlling where on the screen you are -- left, right, up, down.
What keeps this from being boring are star checkpoints throughout the match. You need to fly through these stars so that you keep time in your reservoir. If you miss a couple, the checkpoints will start going from green to red. If you miss a bunch, the red ones will expire and you'll have to restart the level. Basically, this is a timed race more than it is a Quidditch match, but it's still fun. Sadly, these things can go on a bit too long and it's a bitch to try and fit through the Quidditch goals when you have to, but it's still a fun experience overall and it looks good to race through the air and kick at other players trying to knock you off course.
If there's one thing Order of the Phoenix sucked at, it was wand-to-wand combat. There were a ton of spells, but the joysticks weren't that responsive and the battles never felt that fun. Things are better here in Half-Blood Prince, but it's still not perfect. Here, you have six spells -- Stupefy, Protego, Expelliarmus, Petrificus Totalus, Levicorpus, and Charging -- that are performed with the joysticks (and only the joysticks, as the Sixaxis commands aren't around this time). You can move at a normal pace with the stick or leap from side to side by using the triggers.
This system works fine and is head-and-shoulders better than the last scheme we saw, but once you get Levicorpus down, you can pretty much roll any opponent you find by lifting him or her into the air and slamming Stupefy after Stupefy into his or her chest. It looks pretty and trying to score five-stars on the post-match rating will require a bit of planning, but you can just spam your way through these games if you like. An added bonus? You can face off against an in-house friend in head-to-head duels if you like. You choose from characters such as Vincent Crabbe, Ginny Weasley, and all your other favorites and go at it. The matches last longer than the computer battles, but it's more a game of waiting for your opponent to screw up than you outwitting them, so I don't know how much of a draw it will really be.
Let's have some fun. This beat is sick. I want to take a ride on Harry's broomstick.
Also interesting about combat is that this game uses a health bar. Last time around, immersing you in the movie-like experience was the name of the game so there weren't any circles depicting how you were doing -- you had to watch the characters. Personally, I enjoyed that more, but this isn't distracting or anything; it's just a personal preference.
You shouldn't think that EA's backing off immersing you in the Harry Potter world, though. Last time, inky footprints lead you to locations you picked off your map, but now, Nearly Headless Nick will pop up to show you the way to whatever location you're looking for. Also, I enjoyed that area names are now written on walls as you approach rather than the pop-up tile like in Order of the Phoenix. Plus, Harry can run and jump this time around. He's a real boy!
Just like Order of the Phoenix, exploration is a humongous part of this game. The story-related stuff can be polished off in about four or five hours, but there's going to be a lot left to do for Harry Potter nuts or people who are Trophy/Achievement whores (see: me). See, the game has 150 Hogwarts crests hidden throughout the school. Now, 125 of those are stuck on walls, tangled in bushes, and so on, but the other 25 need to be earned. You'll be walking around a hallway, see a lantern or bird with a rainbow-like glow around it, and need to wave your wand at it to get some mini-crests to fall. When you collect these mini-crests, a meter fills. Fill it up and you get a full crest to add to your collection. Aside from making you scour every room, these crests also begin unlocking additional options for you as you amass a collection. Sometimes it's new people to duel with and sometimes it's the ability to create the Love Potion. If crests aren't your thing, there are a ton of badges to earn for cranking out potions quickly, being the best flyboy you can be, and so on.
While it's not really a badge or anything you get to show off, this ability to explore also rewards you with seeing things you never would've if you just played the game strictly by the numbers. Although there's no reason to do it in terms of the game's tale, you can go into the Charms classroom and see Flitwick as well as climb high into the Owlery. Locations such as these don't serve a purpose other than a dose of fan service and I'm all about that.
Obviously, Potter's far from perfect. While the school looks good, you're going to be taken aback by some of the facial animations in this game. When the camera's close up on a talking Ron or Hermione, faces have a tendency to look like creepy robots. On top of that, none of the sound-alikes sound all that good, although the musical score is outstanding and you're going to hear that more than the lame voices. Again, you shouldn't be playing this game to get the movie's story, but these snafus definitely take you out of the experience. Thankfully, the moving staircases (which are much more responsive this time), the Herbology classroom, and so much more are around to keep you in the world of Hogwarts.
If we're looking to fuel the never-ending battle between Xbox 360 fans and PlayStation 3 fans, the Xbox 360 runs better than the PS3, which suffers from slowdown and framerate drops now and again when the action gets really heavy. On the other hand, the camera in both versions will awkwardly stretch Harry and Luna's bodies when they run up the hill at the beginning of the game.
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