Publisher: EA Games
Developer: EA Bright Light
Release Date: July 2009
By now, if you're a Harry Potter fan, you've probably heard the unexpected news about the next movie. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the sixth in the seven-movie series, was due to come out sometime later this year, but for reasons as of yet unknown, was pushed back a staggering six months until July of next year. This leaves the inevitable Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince game tie-in with an interesting quandary. It can release as scheduled in November, giving die-hard fans a chance to see what the movie will be like ages before it hits theaters, or it can take six extra months to polish and clean the game.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is going to follow a similar concept to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, turning the wizard school of Hogwarts into a giant open-ended sandbox area to explore. Order of the Phoenix's Hogwarts was difficult and frustrating to explore, but from what I've heard about the Half-Blood Prince version, it's going to be a lot more user-friendly, which is a great relief. While Hogwarts itself wasn't available in the E3 demo, I got to ask a few questions about it that helped alleviated my fears. It's going to be accurate to the movie, but also made significantly easier to explore, cutting down on the frustration that was so common in Order of the Phoenix. Perhaps the best change is that the near-worthless footprint guide from Order of the Phoenix has been replaced by the ghost of Nearly Headless Nick, who will provide a much more visible and easy-to-follow guide around the world of Hogwarts.
While the exploration wasn't available at Hogwarts, I did get to try three of the new features in The Half-Blood Prince: Potions Class, Quidditch Matches and Wii Dueling. The first of these, Potions Class, has appeared in some forms in prior Potter games, but has a significantly increased presence in The Half Blood Prince. In the movie, Harry finds a mysterious Potions textbook belonging to someone calling himself the Half-Blood Prince; it's filled with notes and tips that make Harry's potions far more effective, ensuring him an easy A … as long as he follows the instructions. Of course, as you can deduce from the title, the Half-Blood Prince's identity is important to the plot, but as far as Potions class goes, he is just there to ensure that Harry becomes top of his class. Half-Blood Prince has you do this by playing a mini-game involving following the instructions from the Prince's book.
The Potions Class screen is a table, covered with various potions ingredients, which you then place into a bubbling caldron in the middle of the table. The Wiimote serves as your all-purpose tool here. You can grab caterpillars, pour potions into the cauldron, and even use it to stir the brew until it is the proper color. It helpfully vibrates when you're doing things correctly, allowing you to easily achieve high rankings. Since you've got a magic textbook, however, the name of the game isn't just accuracy, but speed as well, which is where the Nunchuk comes into play. Once you've picked an item up with the Wiimote, you can slowly guide it with the pointer, or use the Nunchuk's analog stick to rapidly move it over the cauldron. Of course, fast movement is more inaccurate, and doing that will make it more likely that you'll drop your ingredients on the floor and lower your score. You'll also have to be extra cautious once you hit Advanced Potions, where explosive and dangerous ingredients are added to the mix, and you'll have to be very cautious not to shake volatile potions too much. Do so, and they explode, and you have to waste valuable moments shaking the Wiimote to clear smoke away from the screen before you can continue.
Quidditch is another game that has been in earlier Potter titles, although it has been scaled back due to the ever-increasing danger provided by Voldemort and his followers. Despite the encroaching darkness in "The Half-Blood Prince," Harry still needs a bit of time to relax, so Quidditch will be making a comeback in the Half-Blood Prince game. For those unfamiliar with the sport of Quidditch, it's basically a bizarre combination of cricket and basketball played on broomsticks; the rules are borderline incoherent, but they make for great action scenes. Harry is his team's Seeker, a member of the team who has a single purpose: find and collect the Golden Snitch, a tiny winged golden orb that flits around the field like a hummingbird on steroids. Catching the Snitch ends the game and gives the capturing team an unbelievably huge amount of points, almost ensuring a win; naturally, Harry is probably the most important member of the team, and the Quidditch mini-game acknowledges this.
The entire Quidditch mini-game is basically a rail shooter, without the shooting aspects. Harry flies along a linear path, following the Snitch as it dodges around the playing field. Catching the Snitch seems fairly easy on paper. You guide Harry with the Wiimote's pointer and have to make him fly through rings. Each ring brings Harry closer to the Snitch, and each missed ring sends him further away. If all you had to do was fly through rings, it wouldn't be very difficult, so there are a few obstacles thrown in your way. One is the opposing Seeker, who will attempt to slam into you and knock you out of the path of rings, and the only way to stop him is to slam right back into him with a quick jerk of the Wiimote. While the opposing Seeker was the only real threat in the demo we played, we've been promised that other nasty dangers will occur, such as Bludgers, powerful black hard plastic balls that exist only to knock riders off their brooms. Catching the Snitch quickly earns you an extra-high ranking, which in turn unlocks bonuses, such as concept art and clips from the film.
Finally, you've got wand duels, which are duels between wizards who are quite steamed at one another. It can either be friendly or dangerous, depending on whether it's two students in school or an evil dark wizard fighting the magic Auror police. Either way, they involve both sides using the full force of their magic to defeat the other and emerge victorious. The Order of the Phoenix wand dueling was a bit awkward and not very fun, and so The Half-Blood Prince is cleaning things up quite a bit to ensure that one of the most important aspects of the Harry Potter world isn't one of the most tedious as well.
Casting your basic attack spell is quite easy. You flick the Wiimote, and it shoots a blast of energy toward your opponent. However, it isn't quite as easy as that to defeat an enemy, since enemies can either use the Nunchuk to dodge and get out of the way, or cross both the Nunchuk and Wiimote across his chest to create a shield that repels default blasts. However, your dueling skill isn't limited to basic spells, as by the time of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, even the Hogwarts students have advanced to being fairly rad magicians. You've got four additional spells beyond your regular attack. Holding the Wiimote up above your head charges your regular attack, with each character having his or her own unique charge attack. Harry was capable of firing a trio of fast-moving projectiles, while his rival Draco Malfoy could launch a huge barrage of weaker shots after charging. The other three spells are the same for each magician. Flicking the Wiimote to the left or right casts Petrificus Totalus, which froze the enemy in place for a few seconds, rendering him helpless against further attacks. Flicking it down casts Harry's signature Expelliarmus spell, which knocks down an enemy. It's faster than Petrificus Totalus, but doesn't last as long and is easier to dodge. Finally, flicking the Wiimote upwards casts Levicorpus, which forced the enemy to hover in the air and allowed for easy hits or the prepping of a charge blast.
Honestly, I was stunned at how well the Wii implementation worked here. Casting spells was a breeze. In the demo, I was given control of Harry, and the EA showman took over Malfoy. After a few moments of practice, I was able to cast every spell with ease, and the battle ended up being fairly fast and frantic, with both me and the showman firing spells, dodging blasts, bringing up our shield spells, and generally doing everything we could to stay up. As we got to the third round, I realize that I was having quite a bit of fun. It wasn't the be-all end-all of gameplay, but it was a really excellent implementation of the Wii's unique controller and Harry Potter gameplay. Remembering the spells was easy and using them was easy, but it felt natural and mimicked the motions on-screen. If this sort of implementation is at all representative of what the majority of combat will be like in The Half-Blood Prince, then the Wii version is going to be the top of the bunch when the game finally hits shelves.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is shaping up extremely well. The majority of my complaints from The Order of the Phoenix has been addressed, and the three gameplay types I got to try were all surprisingly fun. The Wii implementation was fantastic and easy to pick up, and while it may not be a game that challenges hard-core games, it's simple enough for younger players to pick up, while fun enough that their older siblings or parents can play the game with them. Assuming that Hogwarts itself is made more user-friendly, The Half-Blood Prince is going to be miles ahead of the last title, especially on the Wii. The big question is, of course, whether we'll get it this November, or if Potter faithful will be forced to wait until the movie hits theaters to scratch their wand-swinging and snitch-catching itch.
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