Currently scheduled for release toward the end of June, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is an action adventure game based on both the upcoming movie and the 2003 book of the same name. The game promises to be less linear than most of Electronic Arts' previous Potter-inspired offerings, largely because it's designed to "support" the aforementioned film and fiction rather than simply repackaging them. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will remain true to J.K. Rowling's writings, of course, but while exploring Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, you can expect to run into characters who don't feature in Order of the Phoenix but who you'd expect to be there according to earlier books, for example. During a recent meeting with Electronic Arts, we had an opportunity to see the upcoming game in action on various platforms, although we weren't allowed to get our hands on the controls on this occasion.
Before being shown any gameplay, we were told that with Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, EA is attempting to move away from the increasingly narrative and linear gameplay formulas of previous Harry Potter games. You'll spend a lot of your time exploring in and around the huge Hogwarts campus as you attempt to locate and recruit the members of Dumbledore's Army, and you'll find plenty of other things to do along the way. We're getting ahead of ourselves, though, because as those of you who have read the book will know, Harry is expelled from Hogwarts after using magic outside of the school to defend himself from Dementors. The fictitious English town of Little Whinging where that attack took place is where your adventure will get underway, and it's also where you'll learn to use the game's new gesture-based system for casting spells via a tutorial in which you--as Harry--appear to be teaching someone else about magic.
The gesture system in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix lets you cast spells by drawing one of eight different shapes that will do different things depending on whether or not you're in combat at the time. The Nintendo Wii and PlayStation 3 versions will let you "draw" these shapes in the air simply by moving the Wii Remote and the Sixaxis controller as if they were wands, while the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 2 games will use an analog stick and the PC game will use the mouse. Experimenting with magic will be encouraged since it's a great way to earn discovery points and become more powerful as you progress. During our demo, we saw plenty of examples of Harry using spells to gain discovery points, including summoning food onto tables, lighting fires and enchanted candles, rebuilding broken statues, sweeping up leaves (uncovering one of the many collectible hidden emblems in the process), and levitating pears that had fallen from a tree into a fruit basket. Some of these "discovery" opportunities will be quite obvious, while others will likely be found only through experimenting with spells in different areas and on different objects.
Other things to do as you explore Hogwarts will include completing side quests for other students and for a number of the talking portraits that adorn (read: cover) the walls of the school. Completing tasks for the portraits will often unlock shortcuts that help you get around Hogwarts more easily, which any of you who have seen the school in the movies will know should be really helpful. The work-in-progress in-game map of Hogwarts that we saw looked a little confusing, so we were relieved to learn that after using it to locate the next area that you want to visit, there will be an option to have footprints leading the way there appear in front of you. All of the locations we saw during our demo--including a large hallway filled with paintings and moving staircases--were instantly recognizable from the movies, which isn't surprising given the level of access to movie sets and the like that the development team has been afforded. Textures have been scanned in direct from the movie sets in many cases, and they look particularly impressive on the Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. Ornate rugs look threadbare in places, portraits and other paintings have realistic canvas textures, picture frames and trophies are gilded, dining-hall tables look old and well-worn, and brass candelabras boast shiny, reflective surfaces. The PlayStation 2 and Wii games lose a noticeable amount of detail, but they still look good.
Regardless of which of the three difficulty levels you're playing on, you'll be able to turn to Ron or Hermione for clues and advice anytime you're unsure what to do next. And if you get really stuck, you might get a visit from Nearly Headless Nick, who'll more or less tell you how to proceed. That Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix even features three difficulty settings is significant, because while previous games have appealed almost exclusively to younger fans, this one promises to cater to a somewhat broader audience. The difficulty levels might also go some way to adding replay value to the game, because playing on harder difficulty settings will give you access to more powerful spells.
You'll need those spells, because Harry has plenty of enemies at Hogwarts, such as Draco Malfoy and the rest of the students from Slytherin house. Toward the end of our demo, we were shown a combat sequence in which Harry, Ron, and Hermione went up against Malfoy and three of his friends outside gamekeeper Hagrid's hut. It was difficult to determine exactly which spells were being used during the lengthy battle that ensued, but there were magical projectiles flying all over the place, and at one point, Harry was able to magically suspend Malfoy upside down in the air and then use a spell to temporarily disarm him. Although you'll be playing as Harry for most of the game, we're told that other playable characters will include Fred and George Weasley, Sirius Black, and Albus Dumbledore.
Somewhat more civilized confrontations with other students will take the form of wizard chess, gobstones, and exploding snap competitions, which can be played at anytime during your adventure against increasingly challenging opponents. Further information on Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is scarce at present, save for the fact that you'll get to explore two quite different versions of Hogwarts, depending on whether Dumbledore or the evil Dolores Umbridge is serving as the head of the school. We were given a sneak peek at Umbridge's version of the school, and we noticed that plants were dying and the sounds of birds singing had been replaced with noisy ravens. We look forward to bringing you more information on the game as soon as it becomes available.