Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: EA Games
Release Date: June 26, 2007
The usual critical complaint doled out for films based on Harry Potter novels is that despite quality casting, excellent direction, good scripts and top-notch special effects, they are too faithful to the books to make perfect movies. The book has been copied into a movie rather than the book being adapted to film. The key here is that notion of adaptation, the idea that not every nut and bolt of a lengthy novel need make it into a feature-length film. But the Harry Potter movies are a unique quandary, much like Peter Jackson's films based on Tolkien's work: In order to ensure box office and DVD success, the movies must pander in great measure to the source material's fanatics. Some detail or subplot excised for expediency's sake will play well to general audiences but turn off the hardcore crowd, killing the film's word-of-mouth advertising. The same complaint can be made about EA's Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the PS3, a faithful reinvention of a film which is a strict version of a book.
The best way to approach Order of the Phoenix is head-on, as a video game, but the newly minted Harry Potter legend towers so far over anything dare speak his name, it's difficult to do that. In making Order of the Phoenix, EA was surely saddled with too many obligations: to the book and film, and to the core fans who will by default read the book, see the film and buy the game. To their credit, the developer has done fairly well with the hand dealt them, but they've failed to, or been unable to, rein in certain parts of the Harry Potter experience for the sake of making a good video game.
A chief gripe from some critics is that Rowling's novels are repetitive, recycling the same plot themes not only across serial novels but also within the same novel. And they're full of too many dead-end digressions that may masquerade as red herrings but ultimately just run their course to no purpose. The same people claim that every doorstop of a Harry Potter novel would make a decent average-length novella if you boiled it down to its necessary elements. The same goes for Order of the Phoenix as a game. While the game has a plot — the book's and movie's plot, of course — to propel it forward, there are numerous digressions with which to keep up in order to unlock "secrets," or bonus material, and do necessary things, like increasing the power of Harry's spell-casting abilities. These duties include not only raising curtains to reveal mysterious armor-suited statutory, but also casting spells here and there to repair broken urns, light torches or, get this, even make up beds or flatten rumpled hallway carpets. For these things you are awarded with points that unlock bonus material in the rewards room and, more importantly, ramp up that spell-casting skill; it's even fun for the first hour into the game, zapping this and that, yet you'll soon feel you're performing rote chores with no logical connection to increasing Harry's talents as a young wizard, taking up too much time off your main agenda in the bargain.
There's the single worst element of Order of the Phoenix: the trivial portions of assigned tasks consume far too much time for no good reason, save fidelity to the source material. Hogwarts, the wizard's school's campus, is huge. My eldest child is a fan of Rowling's Potter novels, and I've seen and even enjoyed, despite often excruciating detail-flogging, a couple of the films: I already know Hogwarts is huge. Had I been born magical and attended Hogwarts, I surely would have flunked out, as it's too much walking — believe me, you'll soon mash the run button and keep it depressed — getting from the Owlery to the library to the Defense Against The Dark Arts classroom. After a few days of all that walking, I'd have taken to my dormitory bed for the rest of the term. That's another thing: the walking, running, prodigious foot travel. This is a millennia-old order of wizards; if they can't work out a reliable teleportation spell, you'd think at least they'd get the flying thing down. That would save a load of wear-and-tear on the oxfords.
In gameplay, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is divided sharply down the middle; in the first half of the story, you collect your team of like-minded junior wizards, learn spells, increase the power of your spell oeuvre and teach those spells to your compatriots. As mentioned, charging up your powers involves doing a lot of things that are fun for 15 minutes. Collecting your team — really just informing about 30 of them of a secret place to meet — is sometimes as straightforward as merely locating them and talking them into it. Other times, you have to help them with some trivial task — completing a homework assignment, mailing a package via owl courier, retrieving or hiding some item, feeding magical creatures native to the grounds — before they'll agree to meet. Much of this is fetch-and-bring architecture: you walk a thousand miles all over Hogwarts to get what they need, and then you walk a thousand miles back to give it to them. Successful completion of these tasks usually involves a roundtrip, which again, with no mechanism for swiftly getting from one place to another, becomes drudgery. Sometimes, too, you'll trip over a specific non-player character or two and wind up assigned a couple of side-quests; yes, there'll be lots of pavement-pounding involved.
The second half of the game is where the action is much more interesting, and it would be a great deal more worth it if you hadn't gone through such tedium before you do something important. Linearity in games is fine and is in fact a staple of some great first-person shooters, but Order of the Phoenix pushes my tolerance for do-this-before-you-can-do-that design, even though at first blush, with the whole of Hogwarts to run around willy-nilly, the game appears rather nonlinear. The terminal half of the game revolves around Harry leading his team of young wizards' efforts to save all things magical from a looming evil pulled at random from the threat-to-Harry-Potter-world card file. You're able to do some more entertaining things here: actual combat, as much as allowable in a fantasy story suitable for children; some broom piloting (why can't we use those things early in the game to get around the campus?); and the consequences of your adventures finally matter.
To the development team's credit, the actual gameplay mechanics are solid. The controls are relatively simple, feel natural,and although your list of known spells builds along with the right analog-stick actions required to perform them, you'll easily remember them, and in most cases first casting the wrong spell doesn't have catastrophic results. There's also a handy spell reference with definitions and casting instructions in the pause menu. Although it might be my imagination, there is apparently included a play-balancing scheme, because as the power of your spells increases, the business of casting them on the first try becomes easier. It's hard to find fault with any element of the spell-casting system, which is intrinsic to the gameplay; even the targeting system is largely dead-on, selecting the object or individual you most need to wham-o with your magic. (There is a SixAxis motion-control option for spell-casting. It's turned off by default, for good reason.) There are manual targeting controls for switching around, as well. There's no camera control at all, but only in rare circumstances did I miss it.
Movement is fluid and easy. The only problem is, the lovely Hermione and dorky Ron follow you around like the flu, often refusing to quickly get out of the bloody way when you change direction or must backtrack. Jam-ups between characters are frustrating. Navigating Hogwarts, what with all those grounds and the 17,000-floor Great Hall accessible only by 350 of those famous moving staircases, would be a nightmare if the developers hadn't done such a fine job implementing the Marauder's Map, well known to Harry Potter fans: push the "select" button, up comes the map; using the right button on the d-pad lets you identify people, targets of your tasks; the left directional button brings up a list of locations. Literally X, or the "X" button on the SixAxis controller, marks the spot. Close the map and ghostly footprints — which I'm afraid sometimes look like bloody footprints trailing away from a murder scene — lead the way. Using the Marauder's Map, jaunts around Hogwarts are easy, if interminable.
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix's graphics befit a current-generation HD title. The campus itself is nicely rendered, often stunning when the camera pans to a sweeping vista and provides a more than acceptable game simulacrum of the film's environments. Spell-casting animations are pretty, if simple, and character models are good. The movie's principal actors are easily recognized. But while the cut scene animations aren't onerous or terribly awkward, and the scenes themselves are nicely woven into gameplay, when you control the characters the gameplay animations are a bit jerky; sometimes, you'll think you're playing a robotic double of Harry Potter rather than the real deal.
Audio is a highlight in this title: It's cinematic. From the musical interludes to the various mundane and magical sound effects, everything is in outstanding order in digital surround sound. The voice acting is quite capable, again a credit to the development and production team, as the films have set a high standard in this area. You will perhaps notice that the secondary junior wizard characters, some of whom talk as if they've spent too much time sucking down quad-shot lattes at the Hogwarts Starbucks outlet — not noted on the Marauder's Map: EA missed a co-marketing opportunity — while others may be hitting the prescription sedatives a little hard.
The unlockable bonus material is mostly video content, including interviews with the game's development team and some of the actors from the movie, strictly the purview of the Harry Potter faithful. As a gamer first, you may prefer an unlockable rocket launcher, or at least a rocket-launcher spell, but you won't get one.
Repetition. Repeat after me: repetition! This is the problem with Rowling's novels and, as a result of close adherence to strictly adapted material, also the principal failing of the films. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the PS3 is designed to closely follow the film, but I can't give the game a pass merely on the defense that the source material is flawed. It is, after all, a video game, a different medium, and greater effort to adapt rather than copy would have yielded a far better title. Children of a certain age who are Harry Potter fans — that's redundant, isn't it? — will love this game. Between the combination of great HD visuals and outstanding digital audio, the kids will find themselves transported into both the movie and the book, able to do all the things heroic Harry does, even if much of that is endlessly jogging around the massive Hogwarts campus as if cursed to do so. Buy it for them; they will love you for it.
Adults who appreciate enough the cozy, fantastical elements of Rowling's novels and their movie equivalents will probably have a harder time bearing the video game version, and if you don't care a whit for Harry Potter, you'll be pulling your hair out long before you get to the good stuff. Certainly it seems all the world are Harry Potter fans, but that's not the case. If it were, this game would score far higher; the title is quite good in many departments, especially considering we've come to expect shove-them-out-the-door-for-extra-profits movie tie-in titles. But on balance, when there are many excellent, enthralling adventure games for both children and adults lining shop shelves, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix doesn't quite meet muster.
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