Oh God, I’m such a pervert.
Everyone who has read a Harry Potter book will naturally gravitate towards a specific character. Unfortunately, I started with the films before I read the books, which solidified the characters into the film versions. This has made Emma Watson/Hermione rather appealing. Or she was until I played this game.
For as long as the films have been going on, EA has been churning out Harry Potter games to varying degrees of success. It was quite easy at the start, the intended audience being of the age where the merits of the game aren’t too important so long as their favourite characters are present. As the audience matured so did the source material, however, and likewise the games have been forced to keep up.
Half-Blood Prince takes an unusual road into Harry Potter this time. The old games, to the best of my recollection, were centred around Harry wandering around Hogwarts and throwing magic at magical creatures while collecting cards and frogs and things, with the odd bit of Quidditch chucked in for good measure. Half-Blood Prince takes the essence of this and fragments it into three repeating minigames and an exploration section.
The first minigame is duelling. With wizard-on-wizard action (NO, bad me!) being rather central to this entry in the series, the game has attempted to emulate this by introducing an interesting take on combat. Doing away with the magical creatures, fights are now locked into a sort of face-off situation. It’s one-on-one and face-to-face like you would expect of a duel, and you’re tasked with dodging or deflecting your opponent’s spells, all while battering them into submission with ones of your own. It’s remarkably entertaining for something so fundamentally simple, and reasonably well animated. I was actually pleased, for instance, to find that the dodge move looks hilariously clumsy rather than a heroic dive, and knocking an opponent on their rear has the same realistic quality to the animation.
Unfortunately, the clever will soon realise that duelling is far too easy. Putting aside the fact that you will invariably have a lot more health than your opponent (if you’ve been doing the exploration sections like a good little fanboy/girl) there is a certain spell in your arsenal that will cock up everything. Expelliarmus is your knock-down spell and, while perfectly dodgeable, will send your opponent into a splayed heap on the ground, from which they will take a good while to extricate themselves. All the while you can continue to pound them with Stupefy, or charge it up for massive damage, and the fight will probably be over before they find their feet again. You don’t have to do it, but why wouldn’t you?
Minigame two is potions, and I hate it. I don’t hate it because it’s a bad minigame, it is in fact probably the best one. You follow instructions on the screen, adding various wizardly ingredients to your broth, heating it, stirring it and whatnot until it goes the right colour. It’s a nice little balance of accuracy and speed. The reason I hate it, however, is because of the lack of perspective. Until I played this game I never realised how hard it must be to have one eye. The depth perception in the game is preposterous, and I was constantly missing the pot over and over again, which led to many explosive failures and utterances of ‘I swear this has never happened to me before’ (stop it!). The only flaw in that specific minigame, and it more or less killed it for me.
Thirdly, we have Quidditch. This is a very simple obstacle course really, flying through star-shaped gates that pop up as the game ushers you around the pitch. Occasionally you will have to dodge the grandstands or smash into some young upstart who’s tickling your snitch, but it’s mostly about accuracy. It works well enough, decent enough controls, but it does sometimes feel as if the sections are a little too long.
And, really, that’s the whole game. You follow the story of the film, I suppose, but you always manage to stumble into these three games, sometimes even taking up the optional challenges scattered around the castle. They are all stuck together back the aforementioned exploration bit, which rewards you with upgrades for scouring the castle in search of shields. It would be a nice distraction from the main quest if the castle weren’t so hard to navigate. Thankfully, Nearly-headless Nick is always on hand to direct you back to your story node at a simple key press, a node that will always be too far away for my liking.
There is, however, a rather large issue that underlies the game and, while not actually game breaking, is really rather annoying. Half-Blood prince is just a Wii game with a higher resolution. This is immediately apparent, for example, in the controls. With the exception of walking, everything is done with the mouse. That’s not too bad for the most part, it works well with the Quidditch for instance, but there are moments where it is very obviously designed for a pointy-wand-thing with an accelerometer. Potions is the main offender, but duelling gets a smattering too. Pouring various ingredients into the pot is done via the WASD keys, whereas in the Wii this is done by making a pouring motion with the remote. This allows for a more precise way of adding ingredients that you just don’t get with the PC controls.
The graphics are noticeably Wii-ish too. Although I dare say they would be good on Nintendo’s little white plinth, on the PC the characters look like strange plastic sex dolls (oh now, honestly!) brought to life by some magic darker than even Voldemort possesses. The eyes are lifeless, the hair strangely cemented and the whole school seems to be staffed by pubescent robots in wax skin. The characters look like their real-world counterparts in the same way the exhibits at Madam Tussauds do: technically identical but utterly lifeless.
If you’re a Potter fan, however, you won’t care. If you can identify which character is which, that will probably be all that matters. The minigames, while repetitive and a little frustrating at times, are genuinely fun at first, although the more hardcore gamers will get bored quick. However, ultimately, this game cannot be held to the same level as more polished titles like The Sims or Call of Duty or anything remotely along those lines. What this is, plain and simple, is a cash-in.
Does it work? Yes, actually. For a Harry Potter game it is well put together and fun, just don’t expect that fun to last forever. Of course, you’ll only buy the game if you’re a big fan of the series anyway, so you won’t care. It doesn’t break the characters, it doesn’t fly in the face of established canon, it’ll fill the hole it has been designed to fill. It’s not going to win over fence-sitters, but the die-hard fan will find something to keep them occupied.
(Screenshots have had to be borrowed, my bloody sister thieved the game disc before I could take my own. Sorry!)