Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Hands-On Impressions
Use your Legilimency skills to find out how the upcoming Harry Potter game is shaping up. Or just read this hands-on preview instead.
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Have you ever wished that you could wave around a magic wand, proclaim "Accio TV remote!" and have your remote control come flying directly into your hand? Or perhaps your little brother is bothering you. How awesome would it be to cry out "Petrificus Totalus" and make him freeze up like a Popsicle? No, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince will not let you repair your own glasses with a wave of the Wii Remote and a shout of "Oculus Reparo," but it will come closer to simulating spellcasting than the Harry Potter games of yore. We met with Darren Potter (no relation) at Electronic Arts during E3 2009 to see how the game is shaping up, and got some one-on-one dueling time in as well.
Darren Potter (we'll call him DP to avoid confusing him with the game's protagonist) told us that Hogwarts will be freely explorable and dutifully modeled using a version of the graphics engine that powered 2007's Order of the Phoenix game. And honestly, we're impressed with how the game looks. We saw detailed stone walkways and towering columns that faithfully re-created the look of Hogwarts as portrayed by the film tie-ins. Character models are vastly improved over the previous game. In Order of the Phoenix, lip synching looked bizarre and unnatural, and character models were stiff. Now, Harry moves around authentically, and improved facial animations make looking at Hogwart's student population a pleasure. Throw in some terrific spell effects, nice lighting, little touches such as lens flare, and lovely environments, and you'll find that Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is one of the better-looking upcoming Wii games. Even better, once you load up the game, you won't experience any other loading times as you explore the school.
As we already reported in our previous coverage, you'll spend time collecting crests, both small and large, as you wander around the school. Of course, you'll be living the events of the novel and film throughout, but you'll be able to put the spells that you learn in practice when collecting these items. In some cases, collecting crests may require you to solve puzzles, or may require that you learn new spells. There are 150 crests to retrieve in total, 125 of which are large crests that you collect in one go. The other 25 are cobbled together by collecting minicrests. In the case of minicrests, you will spot identifying halos around lights; flicking your wand will release the small crest pieces, which are then combined with others to form larger crests.
However, DP impressed upon us that the action elements of the game have been improved greatly over the last Harry Potter game. These elements are manifested in three ways: flying, dueling, and potion making. First stop: potions. You'll make a variety of potions, and you'll mix them using intuitive motion controls. For example, should you need to pour liquid from a beaker into your cauldron, you use the Wii Remote to simulate the action. You can pour quickly or slowly depending on how you tilt the remote, and you stop pouring when the potion reaches the target color. If you pour too much, your concoction may emit smoke, which you'll need to fan away. Sometimes, you'll need to shake the ingredients before adding (be careful not to overshake and cause the liquid to fizz and bubble over), or perhaps you'll need to fan the flames of your Bunsen burner. All of these activities are simulated using the remote.
Next up was Quidditch. As in the film version of Order of the Phoenix, the most recent Harry Potter game didn't feature any Quidditch play. DP mentioned that the large majority of young players that they talked to didn't care about playing other positions on the Quidditch pitch; they just wanted to play as Harry, who plays the Seeker position. So once you mount your broom, you'll be chasing after the snitch, and the gameplay occurs on rails, though there is plenty of leeway to move around as the game guides you along, roller-coaster-style. It's like a Time Attack mode in that you fly through rings to add time to your diminishing timer. The more time you have, the closer you get to the snitch. You use the Wii Remote to guide Harry along, and if other players get in the way, you can bump them out of the way. Like potion making and dueling, you'll experience these events during the main adventure, but you can also access them through clubs available from the main screen. That means if you just want to jump into the action gameplay without dealing with the exploration, you're welcome to do so. However, not every club is available from the beginning. For example, in the build of the game that we saw, the Slythering dueling club had yet to be unlocked, though we could enter the Ravenclaw, Hufflepuff, and Gryffindor clubs.
Finally, we got to the dueling. For this section, we grabbed a Wii Remote and Nunchuk and prepared to Expelliarmus the heck out of DP. There are six total spells at your disposal: Expelliarmus, Protego, Stupefy, Petrificus Totalus, Levicorpus, and, uh, Charging (yeah, that one made us scratch our heads too). You can play an AI opponent, but now for the first time, you can go head to head with a local player. One stands close to the camera at one end of the dueling platform with his or her back to the camera, whereas the other player stands at the opposite send, facing the camera. DP acknowledged that this might give the player closer to the camera an advantage, though we still managed to win the two-out-of-three challenge from the far end of the platform. As you would expect, you use gestures to cast spells, and the motion controls worked well during our short time with the game. Every flick cast the spell that we intended, and the screen filled with lovely particle effects and beams of light. We particularly enjoyed seeing Harry dangle in the air after we cast the Levicorpus spell on him. (For what it's worth, because this is a movie tie-in, the spells are implemented in the way they appear in the movies. For those of you who have noted, for example, that Expelliarmus is not nearly as violent as the movie portrays it, well, you've been warned!)
We're pleasantly surprised at just how well Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is coming together. Only the Wii version was on the E3 2009 show floor, but the game will also appear on the PlayStation 3, PC, Xbox 360, Nintendo DS, Sony PSP, and PlayStation 2 (though we're unsure how those versions will compare to the one we saw). Either way, if you're a Harry Potter fanatic, stay optimistic, for this might be the game that finally breaks the string of lackluster Potter titles.