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Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Graphics: 6.4
Gameplay: 5.9
Sound: 6.2
Control: 5.7
Replay Value: 6
Rating: 6.1

Harry Potter has become a legitimate modern-day phenomenon and J.K. Rowling now has enough money to purchase a small assortment of countries. The latest book and movie, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” have performed as expected and raked in more cash, although once again, we’re left with a somewhat lackluster video game effort. It figures that the bespectacled boy-wizard can conquer just about every entertainment venue besides games; perhaps the avid Harry Potter readership just doesn’t enjoy immersing themselves within fantasy worlds and letting their imaginations run wild. …wait. Shouldn’t this be the perfect setting for a video game? Well, yeah, but that doesn’t mean we get a polished production; all it means is that we get another average, flawed, semi-entertaining but largely disappointing effort that loses its luster within the first few hours. Unfortunately, it’s even a step back from Order of the Phoenix, which wasn’t half-bad. Perhaps the biggest problem with Half-Blood Prince is that it just lacks a sense of direction; it’s as if everything you do plays like a side-quest or disconnected task.

The graphics are decent, but they suffer from some clipping during cut-scenes and a general lack of polish. The good news is that none of the drawbacks we found would have a significantly negative impact on the desired audience for this game; we get the feeling that younger fans won’t be noticing the fact that Hermione’s hair keeps disappearing into her shoulder. And if they do notice we figure they won’t care. Furthermore, there’s plenty of surrealistic detail that fits the creative atmosphere, and although we sometimes found the design of the Academy somewhat irritating, the graphical presentation is pleasing albeit unimpressive. Character detail could’ve been a little better but we liked some of the flashier effects that accompanied the more elaborate spells, and for the most part, there’s nothing that detracts from the overall experience. We just get the feeling that if EA had really wanted to, they could’ve made The Half-Blood Prince shine with these uber-powerful consoles at their disposal. Another layer of refinement and an added sense of fluidity would really vault this game into the “solid” and even “accomplished” category.

The sound benefits from great voice acting (not surprising) and a decent soundtrack that will certainly remind you of the movies. These days, one can expect professional voiceover work in games based on films, just because the actors and actresses are often willing to lend their voices to the interactive medium. The sound effects drag this category down a few notches, though, as lackluster audio tends to cover the combat and general movement with a boring blanket of blandness. Flying around in the Quidditch events and dueling is fun, but the balance between music and effects is iffy and we wanted a bit more in-your-face effects when faced with certain harrowing adventures. But much like the graphics, there isn’t anything inherently bad about the sound, and as there is always plenty of dialogue, the game typically puts its best foot forward. However, we get the sneaking suspicion that not enough of the movie’s music is included in this game; the tracks were clear and professionally composed (of course), but they got a tad repetitive. Where’s the rest of the soundtrack?

As we mentioned in the introduction, the biggest issue we have with the game is its perceived lack of direction. This, combined with the odd camera mechanic idea and the clunky control, makes Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince a marginally entertaining yet ultimately unfulfilling experience. It goes without saying that if you’re not familiar with the ongoing Harry Potter storyline up until this point, you’ll be fairly lost as the plot unfolds in this new installment. Just in case, we’ll keep all spoilers out of this review – as we always do – and simply focus on the gameplay and control, which is of the utmost importance, as usual. When you first start, you will zip around on a broomstick and fly through star-shaped checkpoints that grant you additional time, all in an effort to catch that magical item that zips along in front of you. This is something you will do quite often once the game gets rolling; you’ll compete against other teams in the Quidditch events in the arena at the school, and it’s fairly straightforward. The control is a little loose but other than that, it’s not exactly challenging and it won’t take long to master the flying aspect of the gameplay. Then you’ll learn about casting, which relies heavily on analog movements…

For instance, to lift something, you press up on the right analog and then shift it back and forth one time. Once lifted, you can move it about with the left analog stick and even throw it by tapping up on the right analog twice. There are other familiar spells that fans will likely remember from past entries in the franchise, but the primary casting focus settles on the Dueling, where Harry will square off in a one-on-one battle with a foe. It could be a friendly duel with another student (beating increasingly difficult students in the school will yield rewards) or a dangerous fight with an enemy, and this is where the game slips a bit. The camera sits very close to Harry and just to over his right shoulder, so while it’s not first-person, it’s still a zoomed-in third-person style. It would work if the movements weren’t quite so slow, and the dodging left and right (with the L2 and R2 buttons) is slow and cumbersome. You have to cast spells to attack, and while this starts out simply enough, the more intricate attack spells take a little too long to execute, and if there are environmental obstacles, that can pose additional issues. Aiming, due to that camera angle, can also be problematic. It’s a good concept and one this series needed, but it just doesn’t work very well.

The lack of direction we speak of is sort of a good news/bad news situation: on the one hand, everything remains fresh on a fairly consistent basis. While you do participate in the three main aspects of the gameplay over and over (potion making, dueling, and flying around on that broomstick), you rarely do the same thing twice in a row. On the other hand, the story tends to jump around a lot and because the main quest only consists of these separate gameplay segments – with some minor exploration and puzzle-solving worked in – the player tends to lose focus right from the start. It’s almost as if we’re not really following a cohesive story, but seeing snippets of the plot here and there, and participating in gameplay portions that aren’t directly related. You do get a chance to explore the school and find all sorts of secrets, but for the most part, you go from place to place and become involved in the necessary gameplay events that do get a bit tedious after a while. We typically enjoyed the cut-scenes and interacting with other characters, but that’s primarily due to Rowling’s ability to create interesting characters that hold our attention.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince attempts to provide a nicely paced, diverse adventure that would appeal to all fans of the series, but it never really finds its footing and stumbles halfway to the finish line. The controls are slow and clunky, the technicals are passable but never really shine, the story and progression through the game is erratic, and we think the potion making part will prove frustrating for some of the title’s audience. You still have that goodly assortment of great characters and the quality voice acting, the fact that there isn’t anything particularly bad about the production, and a setting and style that is faithful to the books and movies, but it’s not enough. If you are a fan or know of a fan who loves anything related to Harry Potter, we suggest waiting until this one drops in price. It’s just not worth $60 but for the hardcore fan, it’s probably worth a budget purchase. If you can find it half-priced somewhere when the holidays roll around and you’re a Potter nut, it’d be okay for a rainy day.

7/20/2009   Ben Dutka