This latest offering from EA Bright Light is completely underrated and is actually worth playing...once.
The words "Harry Potter", and "good game" have never really been synonymous with each other. In the past nine years of Potter games, very few were even worthy of the franchise that they had been born under, and only a couple were even any good to play. The main shortfall that basically ruined the games was the way studios were completely confined with a tiny budget, terribly short deadlines, and a complete reliance on the MOVIE versions of the books. The potter universe is one that would line up perfectly with the medium of electronic entertainment if executed correctly. It is one of the only universes that literally ANYTHING is possible. How do you screw up a game in which you are only confined in the story, and the story is one of the best in recent history?
Well, worry not potter fans, EA Bright Light studios has finally endeavored to deliver the goods in terms of the Potter Phenomenon. Their latest offering, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (HPHBP), takes the open ended world of Potter and delivers it in a much more simplified and straightforward way. The open world concept has been fairly contrived of late with the introduction of non-linear game play. HPHBP makes no effort to look nonlinear in any way. The campaign is dead straight and very much in line with the book, but obviously uses some discrepancies from the movie such as the Christmas attack that had the player fight both Bellatrix Lestrange and Fenrir Greyback. But there are some plot points that make no sense, for instance, after Ron gets poisoned, harry should be knocked out in a Quidditch match and sent to the hospital. This sets him up to discover where Malfoy is going at night, but nitpicking aside, the story stays true to the book.
Several new additions make the trek around Hogwarts less of a chore and more of an adventure than in the last installment. The spasmodic and glitchy footsteps that guided Harry's last endeavor have been scrapped. To replace them, EA has reintroduced the Griffindor ghost Nearly Headless Nick to be Harry's shepherd around the castle. This new addition proves to be extremely effective, as is the new AI path finding code which allows for less retarded walking around in circles and more direct paths. Nick guides the player with a ghostly grace through the castle's numerous passages and shortcuts. All of which cut the place to place movement time by a considerable length which was one of the nails in the coffin of the previous game. The shortcuts that were available for you to find in HP 5 are completely open for you in this game which gives both a feeling of cleverness for continuity, and a little feeling of laziness for giving an open invitation to not explore the castle and to plow on through the "red carpet" of the story with gay abandon.
The voice acting in this game is mediocre at best. Harry and Ron sound very similar to their silver screen counter parts, but some others sound kind of robotic, and in the case of Bellatrix Lestrange, just plain stupid. Snape carries a weird dry monotone throughout the game, while Dumbledore sounds as though he's got a pillow stuck in his throat, or a squeaker. The rest of the characters have very few lines in the game, but on the whole, they play their parts well. In the end, the shortcomings of Belatrix really take the cake for me, I couldn't help but laugh at how bad she sounded!
The writing on the other hand is superb! The lines that really stand out are the ones that actually made me laugh, and for such an unknown game, it really carried quite a few moments that made me chuckle. But all in all, the sounds coming out of the characters were nothing compared to the ambient music that flowed with you the entire game, which brings me neatly to my next point.
One of the key things about the movies that I really like is the musical score. It manages to have the same feel and charisma as the world it represents, and now, in the year 2010, any person under twenty five will instantly recognize the harry potter theme. EA has introduced the same magical soundtrack to this new installment. The classical and choral accompaniment flow beautifully with the calm melancholy of the daily pursuit of mini-crests, and seamlessly changes to froth like a boiling potion when the action heats up. That's not very "exciting" that it switches so fluidly, but I enjoy the subtle accents that emphasize every spell and interaction with the world. The music is a definite highpoint in the game, but even if you don't like classical music, the atmosphere it creates is still undeniably impressive.
The main action of the game is the duels that the player is forced to do in order to learn spells and progress in the game. These duels are fairly imaginative, and very well scripted. The controls are sharp and offer very intuitive battles with other wizards. The spells that the player is given are very simple and effective, there is one rapid fire spell that can be charged to multiply the effect, a massive "shotgun" spell that knocks the opponent off their feet for a given time, and two paralysis spells that constrict the opponent or hang them by their feet for a small duration. This diversity allows for some very cheap tactics that make duels far too easy. One must merely knock back the opponent, and hit them while they're down with a charge up spell and presto, battle over. There is, of course, a shield charm which for a brief moment blocks incoming spells, but it is very clunky to use in my opinion and it's far easier to ground and pound your enemies. The only complaint I had was that the mouse was a very clunky way to control the spells, the movements had to be almost perfect to get the desired effect, but as soon as I switched to a 360 controller, I was slapping kids left and right with the explosive Expelliarmus charm.
Potion making is also an important cornerstone in this title. The potion making system is fairly simple to use but beware when trying to drop solid ingredients in, it is very easy to miss the cauldron and lose the challenge. The trials are timed and the player is given instructions, like heating the potion to a desired color, or adding "rat spleens" or "dragon dung" to it. Some potions prove very difficult to make due to some awkwardness with the mouse. When using a Microsoft Xbox controller, however, things become so much easier. Moving bottles and ingredients becomes a breeze, but it loses the feel of "hands on potioneering" that I had when I used the mouse, as though I was actually carrying the bottles and rat spleens. The main downfall of this "minigame/challenge" is how frequently it's forced upon the player. I enjoyed it the first couple times, but after a while, when the potion required 55 different ingredients and 15 bottles to be spun around until bubbling, I got bored and annoyed very quickly.
The final main addition to HPHBP is the inclusion of flying on broomsticks, something that had been absent from HP games since Chamber of Secrets for the original Xbox. The player is asked to once again strap on the gear of a Griffindor Quidditch player and chase after a small golden ball called a snitch. On the whole, I think that the flying Idea was a stupid addition to elongate a terribly short game. Overall, it's really simple to get through the flying sections, but there are 2 every time. Its more fluff than substance, and its also the only time that loading screens show up in the game, which is quite remarkable considering the depth of the environment and the scale of the castle and the grounds.
In conclusion, this last submission to the Harry Potter franchise is quite an underrated game, The music and story carry the adventurous mister Potter to places where ghosts are his personal tour guides, and committing assault is as easy as tapping the left mouse button. A lot of really great things that were put into place in HP 5 are completely cloned for this new game, this includes the castle model, the portraits, and the general AI. The shortcuts literally cut about an hour from your play time that would have otherwise been spent looking for crests and allow you to plow through the main story without giving a damn about the potions club, dueling club, or flying club. However, you can completely forgo the shortcuts and make your way through the castle burning plants, causing irreparable property damage, and slapping hanging banners. Of course if you didn't take some time to do that I'd call you a cold hearted bastard so I'd estimate a 10-15 hour play time for "recreational gamers" and probably about 20-30 for the excitable adolescent child that you would obviously be buying this for, assuming that they want to do EVERY little thing possible.