The Harry Potter series of books has captured the minds of both children and adults alike. The movies haven't disappointed either group, and are among the highest-grossing films of all time. For some reason, though, the video games that have been released alongside the movies haven't been able to reach the same level of quality that the movies and books have achieved. The latest game, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, continues that trend. There's a faithful re-creation of the Hogwarts campus to explore, but once you've seen the sights, there's not much else to do. Even the most diehard Potter fans will grow tired of seeing the grand staircase as they return from their umpteenth fetch quest.
Order of the Phoenix follows the story of the book and the movie of the same name. After narrowly avoiding expulsion for using magic in front of a muggle, Harry finds that Hogwarts' new defense against the dark arts teacher seems to have it out for him. To make matters worse, Voldemort is threatening to rear his ugly mug again, and Harry fears that the school will be unable to defend itself. With the help of Ron and Hermione, Harry rallies the students together to form Dumbledore's Army in an effort to ready them for a fight against the dark lord. This all makes perfect sense if you've read the book, but the story's exceedingly difficult to follow if you haven't read it because vast segments of the story are told via brief full-motion video cutscenes and newspaper clippings. It's easy to understand how a three-hour movie might have to leave bits and pieces out, but it's puzzling that an eight-hour game can't tell even the most basic aspect of the story.
You'll spend nearly the entire game controlling Harry. Ron and Hermione will be by your side the whole time offering hints on where to go or what to do next. You'll also encounter nearly every recognizable character from the Harry Potter universe along your journey. The game starts off with a tutorial where you'll learn basic spells like wingardium leviosa (levitation), reparo (repair an object), accio (pull an object toward you), and depulso (push an object away) by helping people fix broken dishes, pack their suitcases, and move furniture--not exactly riveting stuff. You cast spells by pressing the right shoulder button to take out your wand and then pressing specific face buttons to cast. This sounds easy, but it's difficult to target specific objects because the game often refuses to let you, even if you're looking right at the object. Some spells also take two button presses to perform and won't work if you don't time them properly, so you're forced to try again or end up casting the wrong spell.
Later in the game, you'll learn combat spells. These are cast in the same way as noncombat spells, but there will be only a few instances where you'll need to perform these combat spells because there's hardly any dueling in the game. This is probably a good thing, because the combat isn't very good; you just cast the same spell over and over again and hope the other person's health runs out before yours.
Once you've learned some basic spells, it's off to Hogwarts, which is faithfully re-created in a game for the first time. The Hogwarts campus is absolutely huge, which is both a blessing and a curse. Fans should really get a kick out of seeing the grand staircase in motion and candles floating above the tables in the great hall, as well as sneaking into Moaning Myrtle's bathroom. But traversing back and forth across such a large area quickly becomes tiresome. Once you find the proper passwords, you can use the passages behind paintings as shortcuts, but they don't cut that much time off the journey. Another problem is the in-game navigation system. You're given the marauder's map that lists all of the different areas on campus. Once you've highlighted the place you're looking for, footprints will appear on the ground to lead the way. Unfortunately, either the footprints don't appear far enough in front of you, or they don't appear at all so you're constantly forced to stop and wait for them to appear. The camera will often switch angle midstride, so you don't know which way you're facing. This doesn't help matters much.
You've got a huge campus and healthy number of spells at your disposal, so you'll no doubt be doing all sorts of awesome things in incredible, mystical places, right? No. You'll run all over Hogwarts collecting items, putting out burning plants, fixing things, and helping people with their homework. This is how you spend the entire game. It's literally one fetch quest after another. Being able to pick the quest you want gives the illusion that you've got the freedom to do what you want, but the game is extremely linear in that there's only one way to accomplish any given objective. And sometimes you'll be performing the same exact task over again, such as when you're helping to disable the school's intercom by moving benches then pouring a potion into the speakers. You do this not once, not twice, but five or six times, each time in a different room.
Performing one menial task after another would be bad enough on its own, but other issues conspire to make it worse. The game does a decent job of showing you where people and places are, but once you've met with someone, you're quite often on your own when it comes to figuring out how to help him or her. There also seem to be several glitches where the game won't recognize something you've done, or events won't trigger.
In the console versions of the game you could break up the monotony of the fetch quests by playing chess, exploding snap, and gobstones. You can't do any of that here. You can, however, play a deathmatch-style game against the CPU or against friends via ad hoc. It's little more than running around a small area casting spells against up to three other human or CPU opponents and it's not very exciting, but it's better than fetching a book out of the Hogwarts library.
Visually, Order of the Phoenix is all over the place. Many areas of Hogwarts, such as the grand staircase or great hall, look spectacular and are very detailed. However, many of the hallways look the same and are largely empty. Combat spells look really cool when you cast them, but there are so few duels that you'll rarely get to enjoy seeing the spells in action. At first glance, character models look just like their movie counterparts and are quite nice. But once you see them in motion, you'll notice that they all look kind of like zombies. Things are even worse in the cutscenes that utilize the in-game engine. Characters stare blankly off into the distance and their mouths don't move when they talk. Having the actors from the films voice their characters in the game goes a long way toward immersing you in the experience, even with the shoddy cutscenes and script. It's odd though that much of the in-game dialogue seems to be missing. You'll quite often see text on the screen that indicates the characters are talking, but you won't hear anything. The familiar musical score is here and suits the game perfectly, which kind of makes you wonder why it was used so little.
It's hard to imagine that the video game version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix will appeal to anyone. Older fans of Harry Potter will enjoy exploring Hogwarts for a while, but they'll soon be bored to tears by the low level of difficulty and the tedious objectives. The younger set will also get a kick out of seeing the sights and will appreciate the forgiving difficulty, as well as the simplicity of the tasks at hand. But they'll quickly grow tired of using their favorite character to perform a seemingly endless parade of chores. If being the most famous wizard in the world were this boring, there wouldn't have been more than one book.