The Harry Potter series of books has captured both the minds of children and adults alike. The movies haven't disappointed either and are amongst the highest grossing films of all time. For some reason, the video games that have been released 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 are told via brief rendered 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.
Though the game's box says you'll get to play as Sirius Black and Dumbledore, you do so for less than five minutes, so 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 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. On the PC, PlayStation 2, PlayStation, 3, and Xbox 360, you cast spells by pressing a button to point your wand and moving the right analog stick in a specific pattern. Rotating the stick clockwise will cast reparo, pressing down twice will cast accio, and pushing forward twice will cast depulso. You can also use the keyboard and mouse on the PC and this works fine. On the Wii, you'll hold the remote vertically then tilt it forward to cast depulso. To perform wingardium leviosa, you'll raise both the Wii Remote and the Nunchuk to lift the object then move the controllers around to maneuver the object. This works surprisingly well, and it makes it feel as if you are actually casting spells, which goes a long way toward making the game more enjoyable. The PS3 does use the Sixaxis' motion controls, but tilting and twisting the controller as you hold it in your lap doesn't add much to the experience.
Later in the game, you'll learn combat spells. These are cast in the same way as noncombat spells and mostly use the same patterns. But there will only be 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, and it's tough to tell if you're actually hitting someone. Even during the last fight, you just stand there casting the same spell over and over, waiting for a cutscene to signify the end of the battle.
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 a map that lists all of the different areas on campus, as well as the location of each person you need to find. Once you've highlighted the person or place you're looking for, footprints will appear on the ground to lead the way. Unfortunately, the footprints are black, so they're difficult to see; they don't appear far enough in front of you, so you're constantly forced to stop to wait for them to appear; and the camera will often switch angles midstride, so you don't know which way you're facing.
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 spend most of the game running around trying to inform everyone as to the whereabouts of the room of requirement. You'll pick a character on the map, follow the footprints, and then tell people about the meeting place. In almost every single case, they'll have a reason for why they can't go. Of course, you've got to help them. This means you'll run all over Hogwarts collecting items, moving benches, 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. For example, at one point in the game, you must help a kid find five talking gargoyles. Now, you've encountered several talking gargoyles to this point, but for some reason, you can't tell the kid this and you must find the gargoyles again. Not only are you doing something you've already done, but the map doesn't show you where these gargoyles are, so you're forced to scour the entire campus in an effort to locate them.
When you're not playing the role of messenger boy, you'll spend much of your time cleaning up Hogwarts by putting statues, paintings, and urns back together. You can also search behind curtains for giant chess pieces, move blocks to find hidden plaques, light torches, and even sweep floors. These tasks are actually pleasant diversions for a short while, and you can unlock extras by performing them. But the tasks speak poorly for the game as a whole when sweeping the floor is a highlight. Another way to pass the time is to play chess, exploding snap, and gobstones. Gobstones (think marbles) and exploding snap (pick out matching pairs of cards) are simple but fun. Chess plays similar to Battle Chess and is actually quite engaging--if you've played chess before. The game will show you the moves that each piece can make, but there's no tutorial mode, which may leave many younger players clueless.
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, they face the wrong way, their mouths often don't move when they talk, and they'll appear then disappear from view for no apparent reason. The PS3, 360, and PC versions look the best. Other than lower quality in-game cutscenes and some nasty aliasing, the PS2 and Wii versions hold their own, though the PS2's frame rate is pretty iffy at times. 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. 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.