The most disappointing thing about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is that it fails to capture the essence of the story it's trying to tell. While the revamped third-person shooter gameplay stays engaging throughout most of the campaign, the context that it's framed around is paper-thin. There is no attempt to tie the onscreen action to the motivation of the hero performing it; nor is there a coherent and engaging narrative to complement the gameplay and inject some sense of purpose. Crude character models, bad voice acting, a fragmented storyline, and a variety of bugs transform the richly detailed and minutely imagined world of Harry Potter into an experience as colorless as one of Professor Snape's lessons.
The final journey facing Harry Potter is not an easy one. Darkness, loss, and death now fill the space once inhabited by classes, Quidditch, and dorm-room chitchat. There are no more schoolyard adventures, traipses through the forest, or twilight romances by the lake. Instead, Harry, Ron, and Hermione must venture past Hogwarts into the cold, wet English countryside, tracking down and destroying the remaining parts of Voldemort's soul. This is the picture painted so clearly and heartbreakingly by J.K. Rowling's final Harry Potter book and so unceremoniously represented here. Not only does the game's story take liberties with the canon (when did Harry, Ron, and Hermione ever venture inside an abandoned factory?), but those elements of the story that are reflected accurately are portrayed through short, fragmented cutscenes that look dire and are completely unconvincing, making the story confusing and unclear for those unfamiliar with the books.
Important plot points are glossed over in favour of combat, and the game does very little to explain what drives these characters to do what they do. What's more, cutscenes have the emotional range of a teaspoon, to use Hermione's own words. What is supposed to be one of the most touching moments of the final book is reduced to a cutscene so brief and so badly acted you can only laugh. The character models also leave a lot to the imagination and are plagued by awkward movements, a perpetual stiffness of the hair and clothes, and out-of-sync talking, not to mention extremely limited dialogue--Ron is particularly fond of shouting "We can't do this!" during every single combat sequence at regular intervals, which is annoying at first and completely soul-destroying by the time you finish the game.
Looking past the problematic storytelling elements, the gameplay itself is fun for the most part, especially if you can look past the fact that you won't be doing much else. The third-person shooter makeover sees you controlling Harry from an over-the-shoulder perspective, with a targeting system and cover mechanic also at his disposal. Most of the combat is free-flowing and rapid, however some camera issues stop it from being a completely rewarding experience. In some parts of the game, the camera becomes uncooperative and results in extreme close-ups, usually when you're moving in and out of cover or navigating within small spaces. This is something that almost always ends in disaster--it's impossible to determine the direction of killing curses when the whole screen is filled with the bottom left-hand corner of Harry's blue jumper. What Harry "shoots" are various spells; each spell's intensity increases over time, with Harry levelling up throughout the campaign and eventually unlocking 10 spells overall, including Expelliarmus, Expecto Patronum, and Petrificus Totalus. The spells are assigned to a spell wheel that you can either cycle through using the right bumper or bring up as a radial menu. The targeting system also works smoothly and is responsive throughout the whole game, activated by pressing the left trigger to lock on with the reticle, and the right trigger to shoot. The fact that the display features no health or magic bar (with health obtained from various potions dropped by defeated enemies) also helps to make the experience smoother and more immersive, at least during those parts when the camera isn't acting up.
Most of the game is composed of Harry, Ron, and Hermione moving from place to place, fighting hordes of Death Eaters (Voldemort's cronies), Inferi (dead people), and Snatchers (rudimentary bad dudes). Combat takes up the entirety of the gameplay, leaving no room for the more imaginative exploration and puzzle-solving that featured strongly in earlier Harry Potter games. To compensate for this, you're required to take part in four sets of mini challenges at certain points in the game--each set is made up of three short challenges that have no bearing on the story and involve Harry defeating a certain number of enemies or surviving an oncoming attack. These challenges are pointless and quickly become tedious, and there is no motivation to complete them other than that you cannot continue in the single-player campaign without doing so. Adding to this annoyance are occasional gameplay bugs found throughout the whole campaign, the more interesting of which include invisible walls and odd AI behaviour (hey, death eater, why do you keep bending over that desk at 30-second intervals?). There is also very little diversity in enemy non-player characters--there appear to be only three types of Death Eaters and three types of Snatchers, with absolutely no difference between the character models, which means you're often fighting an army of clones. Again, this doesn't help with the immersion aspect.
While shooting the place up like you're Yosemite Sam can be satisfying, it doesn't make for a very convincing Harry Potter game. Harry is a tortured, confused, and deeply anti-violent adolescent. It's true that these traits don't exactly make him the perfect video game character, but the game hardly even tries to represent the weight behind the choices he makes or the gravity of what he is facing. There are only two instances in the whole campaign when a certain kind of sensibility shines through. The first is during the first-person mode that's triggered when Harry puts on his invisibility cloak (accessible at any time by pressing the Y button). Someone put a lot of thought into this element--not only does the camera actually work smoothly in this part, but while Harry is wearing the cloak (encouraged in situations where it's prudent to be stealthy rather than go in guns blazing for fear of being overpowered), you can hear his slow, frightened breath in your ear, as if you were under the cloak with him. It's a wonderful touch. The second instance occurs during a Tim Burtonesque sequence that tells the story of the Deathly Hallows through shadow puppetry. While this is taken directly from the Deathly Hallows film, it is reproduced here with a softness and grace that is both visually stunning and emotionally arresting.
Outside of the main campaign there's a Challenge mode and a Kinect mode that uses Microsoft's new motion-control system. Challenge mode includes 20 tasks based around survival, stealth, and time attack goals where you must survive attacks for a certain amount of time, or defeat all enemies using only one spell, and so on, in easy, medium, and hard difficulties. Although there are online and offline modes, the challenges are the same, with the only difference being that you are scored in online leaderboards after you complete a task if you choose the online mode before starting.
Kinect mode includes 22 challenges: 12 single-player and 10 two-player offline co-op challenges. The theme is the same as in the other challenges: you must survive attacks for a certain amount of time, or defeat all enemies using only one spell, and so on. While the challenges start out being fun to play, it's not long before your right hand feels as heavy and limp as a dead fish. The gameplay in these challenges consists of an on-rails shooter-type scenario: you have a third-person view of Harry as he moves of his own accord on the screen, with his wand arm mimicing your right arm as you perform the movements that pop up. These are fairly basic: shooting requires a simple flicking of the right arm towards the onscreen target or swiping your right arm across your chest as if you were performing a backhand in tennis; charging spells require you to hold your right arm above your shoulder for a second before flicking it forward; protective spells require you to raise both arms in a stopping motion; and finally, throwing potions requires a simple ball-throw at the screen with the left arm (there doesn't seem to be any option for reversing these controls if you are left-handed). The challenges aren't very long, but don't expect to be able play more than three or four in a row. Dedicated Kinect leaderboards can be accessed through Xbox Live, and there are achievements linked to completing these challenges. You're only able to cast five different spells while using your hand as a wand in these challenges, and you never get more than two spells per challenge. The single-player campaign spell upgrades are also absent.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is an easy game to forget. Shooting bad guys with little context is enjoyable for a while, but soon enough it becomes impossible to ignore the same problematic aspects present in the last few Harry Potter games--occasionally bad camera, bugs, and a distinct lack of narrative cohesion--resulting in a barely there adventure that does little justice to the source material. The action is functional, but not particularly satisfying, and the elements that represent the core appeal--the story, characters and universe--fail to live up to the Harry Potter name.