Publisher: EA Games
Developer: EA Bright Light
Release Date: June 30, 2009
Based on what was a flawed but earnest Order of the Phoenix game adaptation of the Harry Potter film of the same name, I am tremendously disappointed with The Half-Blood Prince. At least EA Bright Light doesn't beat around the bush: You'll know from the opening titles what misery you're in for. Right off the bat, the audio track stutters and skips in places, and this doesn't let up through the whole game, be it cut scene or actual gameplay. You're also asked to set your default language at the outset. It's typical enough for a multi-region release, but in The Half-Blood Prince, the setting is not stored; you'll get the option to set the default language every time you start the game. I suppose I'd be thrilled by this feature if ever, from one day to the next, I lost all my English. I could play in French. But as uncommon an event as this is for me, resetting the default language every session is just a superfluous annoyance amidst the common annoyance of waiting for a game to start. This kind of presentation oversight is an ominous sign of wretched things to come.
The visuals in The Half-Blood Prince fail to meet the reasonable standard set by the game's immediate predecessor. Sweeping vistas and architectural models in and around the Hogwarts campus appear washed out, wan and pale, as if the magical campus is deathly ill. Character models aren't as sharp as their earlier incarnations. Animations are especially wooden, giving the familiar characters a lifeless, Stepford quality.
For a game designed to deliver a cinematic experience, the audio production is crucial, and here, The Half-Blood Prince fails utterly. The Dolby Digital audio production is a mess. As mentioned, the audio track drops out often, no matter the context. I tested the game with two different Dolby Digital decoding amplifiers, from different manufacturers, and the results were the same. Spoken dialogue does not sync well with facial animations. Channel emphasis is designed as if you're playing in a refrigerator box rather than a living or game room.
The control system is horrid. For movement, it's often frustrating trying to maneuver Harry to a position where he can get what should be an easy bonus pick-up. In the spell-casting dueling mode, dodging seldom works; worse, spell-casting via the dual analog sticks usually requires a couple of attempts to get it right. And this is a duel! It's like a Wild West gunfight in which your Colt pistol only fires every third pull of the trigger.
The Half-Blood Prince adds a potion-making element to the Harry Potter games universe. It serves as both a story progression requirement and, via the Potions Club, an unnerving, stale mini-game. Although successful potion-making is relatively easy thanks to an almost too-forgiving timer, it's an awkward chore. There are numerous ways the potions feature could have been implemented in a fluid, fun way, but EA Bright Light struck on none of them in designing this part of the game.
The developers have made a few improvements, thankfully, to the gameplay of Order of the Phoenix. Again, Hogwarts is rendered about to scale, making long treks back and forth across campus environs the order of the day. But gone are the difficult-to-follow ghostly footprints in aid of navigation. Instead of ghostly footprints, we get a real ghost, in the flesh so to speak. Nearly Headless Nick, summoned with the Select button, serves as your counsel and guide for locating destinations for completing various game objectives. He says the same things and cracks the same miserable jokes over and over again, but he knows where he's going and he's sharp enough to pick up the pace when you elect to run, so you don't outpace your navigator and have to double back to find your way.
One of my most severe criticisms of Order of the Phoenix was the fact that so much of the game required long, long, long transit times, making you feel like Harry was running extended wind-sprints at high school track practice. There were, however, some shortcuts through paintings on the walls, activated by pressing the X button to announce a secret password. The same are here in The Half-Blood Prince, but there are a lot more of them. You have to unlock them in story progression, but for the most part, they unlock quickly, typically by the second time you have to jog out to some particularly distant locale.
Unlocking various goodies and upgrades is established by collecting crests. Some are right there on the ground or tucked away in easily accessed corners. Others are placed on roofs or walls and require advance spells to reach. The alternative route to racking up crests is mini-crests, which quickly add up to full-blown crests. Any objects on the Hogwarts campus marked with a prismatic aura will give up its multi-colored mini-crests if you cast the levitation spell on it. Sure, it makes no sense that levitating a fixed object you can't actually levitate would cause mini-crests to spill out, but at the start of the game, the levitation spell is the only Harry Potter mojo available, so at least you can start collecting these items right away. The greatest problem with this pick-up scheme: There are too many objects marked by auras. If you're bent on collecting as many crests and mini-crests as possible, you'll spend ridiculous amounts of time just getting from one end of a lamplit corridor to another. Fewer mini-crest objects yielding a greater number of the little buggers would have been the way to go. As it is, collecting mini-crests is almost like, and almost as tortuous as, level-grinding in a Japanese RPG.
The Half-Blood Prince lets you captain the Gryffindor Quidditch team and play as the seeker. (I know, it's all Greek, isn't it? But Harry Potter fans will know exactly what I'm talking about.) Playable Quidditch should be a boon to any Harry Potter game — it even had a dedicated title a few years ago, Quidditch World Cup — but EA Bright Light's implementation is so poor that they could have done away with it a week into development. Rather than create a real sports games, even on the small scale with limited features, Quidditch in The Half-Blood Prince is nothing more than a mini-game in which you mount your broom and fly through stars. Fly through more stars faster and you'll eventually win, likewise winning the Quidditch match for Gryffindor. In my experience, you'll always win, which defeats any feeling of challenge to something so simple that it begs for a bit of difficulty. You can bump opponent seekers around a bit, but it merely comes down to flying through all those stars over and over and over again until, blessedly, you catch the golden snitch, putting an end to the whole ordeal. Of course there's no interactivity whatsoever in catching the snitch; it's a canned animation.
The Half-Blood Prince offers Harry the opportunity to sign up for various clubs: potions, dueling and flying. This is so you get extra chances to practice all those things that you found so boring in story mode.
Terribly flawed audio, bland visuals, cut scenes that make no sense in the context of the preceding or following gameplay, miserable Quidditch, horrible potion-making and awkward dueling all add up to make this title a train wreck from which you can look away. Harry and Potter and The Half-Blood Prince certainly has cast a spell on me: Stupefy!
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