Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix Review
If you haven't heard of Harry Potter, the place you live in is very dark, and very quiet. And if you didn't expect a video game to go along with every single movie in such a popular kids series, than you quite simply don't know anything about the industry. Therefore, it was no surprise to any of us to see Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but as it's the first on the PS3, we were certainly hoping to see something pretty darn impressive. What we got was a game that would appeal to most any fan of the popular franchise, but probably wouldn't turn any other heads. Of course, given the gigantic number of Potter followers out there, this probably isn't a problem for EA, but we do have to clarify one thing right off the bat. If you're not one of those people who have read - and thoroughly enjoyed - the books, watched the movies, and played previous games, than we won't be able to recommend Order of the Phoenix.
In some ways, the visuals are surprisingly good, especially in regards to the gameplay and detailing throughout your appropriately large environments. As you spend most of your time in Hogwarts, it's great to see excellent design, color, and ambiance, and while the characters aren't quite as good, EA manages to capture the epic fantasy feel of the films. Strangely enough, this is one of those rare occurrences where the in-game graphics actually outstrip the cut-scenes, which simply aren't as polished or accomplished. During battle or when you're just running around and exploring (which you'll do a lot of), you'll often be overwhelmed by the sheer size and scope of the school. However, while that may sound like a drawback on the surface, it's really not. The world of Harry Potter has always been about wonder and amazement, and the player will generally be gazing about in awe at his very engaging environment. But this only applies to the younger gamer; veterans won't be blown away by any stretch of the imagination.
The sound, much like the graphics, work toward a very noble goal: enhancing the "absorption factor" of the game. Although the visuals aren't super refined or ultra-flashy, they contribute to the overall realism and authenticity, and that's exactly what the sound does. The voice actors are very good, the sound effects - while a touch erratic - are clear and diverse, and the soundtrack is fittingly epic in style. The balance tends to suffer during cut-scene-to-gameplay transitions, but that's only a minor complaint, and it doesn't significantly impact the gaming experience. Sometimes it felt as if they could've included more music during especially action-oriented sequences, but at the very least, the tracks are of the very highest quality. It helps when you have a movie of top-notch caliber, just because the astute developer will take advantage of many sounds and soundtracks already in place. EA has done just that, and while they didn't take it to the next level (and they should've), the sound works well. Plain and simple.
You will follow the adventures of Harry, Ron, and Hermione during their fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry believes that big ol' meanie who every Potter fan knows is back, but the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor refuses to teach her students any defensive spells. Therefore, it's up to Harry and Co. to strike out on their own and learn some crucial abilities. If this sounds familiar, that's because it's essentially the same premise as the movie - surprise, surprise - and you'll spend a lot of your time watching cut-scenes, listening to dialogue, and completing a lot of tasks. Unfortunately, the latter aspect is also its biggest drawback: there are over 35 little chores for Harry to complete throughout the course of the game, but too many of them seem arbitrary and tedious. You spend far too much time wandering back and forth through the school, finding this, fixing that, helping so-and-so, or delivering some borderline trivial message. It's almost as if the developers were scraping the bottom of the barrel in order to provide the player with action and activities.
On a more positive note, that very film-like atmosphere allows the player to feel as if they're actually in a virtual Harry Potter world. The students sprinkled all over the school react differently to Harry and his friends depending on their relationship, the teachers all have very distinct personality traits that are faithfully recreated on screen, and your skills are in line with the actual story. You will first learn the basic spells; 6 non-combat spells before acquiring the more powerful spells for battle, and these include Depulso (push things away), Reparo (fix broken things), and Wingardium Leviosa (pick up and moving objects). You can actually use these spells all over the school's campus: for example, replacing fallen paintings and magically re-assembling a busted statue will yield discovery points. There are thousands of points to collect, and not only will they make Harry's spells more powerful and effective, they will also allow him to learn new abilities as well. If you get enough, you can begin unlocking secrets in Moaning Myrtle's Room of Rewards (yes, she's out of the bathroom in this game).
Obviously, you will be doing some combat. It's not great, but it can be entertaining primarily because of the nice variety of spells. In addition to being able to set enemies ablaze, you can also stun them with Stupefy or freeze them in place with Petrificus Totalus, which adds a bit of strategy to battles. But novices may not like the fact that there is no HUD, because unless you keep a close eye on the proceedings, you really can't be sure how close everyone is to keeling over. Harry will drop to one knee if he's hurt, for instance, but sometimes it can be difficult to see how close to death your enemies are. It's painfully obvious when you've lost, though; Harry will simply flop down on the floor and it's Game Over. It's not a bad system, but we do wish a lot of the battles were more involving, more challenging, and more urgent in nature; unlike the story, we rarely felt caught up in the action. We appreciate the amount of attention paid to the realistic depiction of the storyline and environment, but perhaps they could've dumped more effort into the combat.
As for the controls, they typically feel a little loose and unresponsive. Maneuvering Harry throughout his adventure isn't exactly tough, but it can be a bit frustrating when you're forced to move quickly. You can run by holding down the X button, but the command just doesn't seem to happen as quickly as it should. Executing the spells is simply a matter of moving the right analog stick in a certain pattern: once a target is selected, you can press up and then left to right for the Leviosa spell, for example, and that functions nicely. Once you have all the spells, though, you'll realize that too many of them closely resemble others, which means you'll sometimes cast one spell when you meant to cast another. Still, you'd have to mess up pretty badly, so good players won't have much trouble. In the end, the control works just fine, but it's not as tight as we would've liked...then again, in comparison to other movies-turned-games, the control is actually pretty damn good.
The entire game will take you about 10-15 hours, but you may grow tired of running around in circles, completing menial tasks. The voices are great, the world is both lively and well-designed, the graphics are better than average, and the controls are decent, but unless you're really mesmerized by this virtual world, you'll probably grow bored long before you reach the conclusion. At the very least, though, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is definitely a solid choice for big fans of the series, and perhaps that's all EA was going for in the first place. It just isn't the kind of title we'd recommend to avid gamers looking for a high-quality and singular action/adventure experience.
9/7/2007 Ben Dutka