Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Oh, EA. It’s so easy to hate them, Publisherzilla, and their empire of exceedingly mediocre games. However, their sheer output has to be admired, and occasionally, a game is released that is genuinely good. It’s the same deal with movie-licensed games; the sheer overabundance of them can make it easy to overlook the good ones. What are the odds that the fifth Harry Potter game based on the film series is both an EA game and a good game based on a flick? It sounds like a miracle, but then again, I guess that’s what you have to expect from a little magical boy from Blighty.
Taking a departure from the pure action of the Goblet of Fire game, Order of the Phoenix is a surprisingly placid game. There’s not much combat; Voldemort’s minions aren’t constantly out to kill you, and the entire game takes place at… school. That’s right; aside from the final battle in the Ministry of Magic, your digital Harry is stuck in boarding school. Players will go to classes, navigate the hallways, do homework, and in their spare time, play chess, snap, or other minigames. It sounds dull, and at first glance it is. Nothing says “epic magical tale” like using your wand to move furniture around. Playing the game, I scoffed at every task that was thrown at me: you want me to fetch something again? I need to see another teacher? But then, three hours later, I was still doing it. Much like Nintendo’s revered Animal Crossing, Order of the Phoenix forces the player to do the mundane, but makes it fun. There’s also a hint of Rockstar’s hit Bully mixed in, with a great school atmosphere with quirky students and staff alike.
The gameplay is centered around the control of three characters at once. While the player’s actions control Harry directly, Ron and Hermione are always in cahoots, and will run where you run, point their wands at whatever you’re pointing at, and pitch in during conversations. This sense of camaraderie is a nice touch, but most of all, they’re helpful during combat. While rare, fights are usually very one-sided, so having the two computer controlled allies helps out a bit. While they look chaotic, the controls don’t allow for very exciting action, with a spell system mapped to the right thumbstick. There are 12 or so spells, each adhering to a combat, defensive, or non-combat structure. The combat spells are the worst, since they really don’t differentiate from one another. Harry can’t move and cast, so more often than not, he feels a bit more like a tank than a 15 year old boy. It’s a bit stupid, but thankfully these fights aren’t too long, and provide plenty of nice visual stimulation.
Speaking of the graphics, Order of the Phoenix is quite impressive for a third-party outing. Hogwarts is lovingly rendered in all its massive glory, and amazingly enough, there are no load times in between areas and events. This keeps the gameplay smooth, and the fact that the castle is so detailed means that it’s hard to get lost, even without using the clever pathfinder tool (which shows footprints in front of you, leading to your chosen destination). Unfortunately, the students and staff of Hogwarts aren’t as lovingly crafted. Freakish clone children abound, and even the titular hero and his mates don’t look so hot. When Daniel Radcliffe’s sweater is more detailed than his face, something is wrong, and Rupert Grint looks more like Kermit the Frog than anyone else. Aside from that, the actual animation is pretty sub-par during cutscenes, although thankfully everything is nice and smooth during gameplay.
One thing that the game really nails is the sound. The music is fantastic, and ironically, features a more robust score than the actual movie! The voice acting is great across the bar, with many actors reprising their roles, while most of the stand-ins doing a fine job. The only exception is the Hermione “sound-alike” who does sound like Emma Watson, if she was a teacher and thought you were retarded. While Ron carefully covers his hints with clever jokes, Hermione bluntly states objectives. “We need x more x’s, Harry!” Thanks, Hermione, but I could do without the pedantic tone. The rest of Hogwarts is full of hustle and bustle, and amusing snippets of conversation often will often drift across your path. Overall, the sound design is admirable, if not downright impressive.
It’s difficult to define Order of the Phoenix, because it is not an action game, but it isn’t really an adventure or puzzle title either. It borrows elements from all of these genres and blends them with a free-roam design, making for a fairly leisurely game for such a dark film. However, it’s a fun ride. The fact that it is built upon completely ordinary tasks may seem pointless, but it’s all the more believable for it. With no HUD and as little fourth-wall breaking messages as possible, it’s the most effective Harry Potter game yet. Still, there’s work to be done: the fights are dull and frustrating, and the character design needs a bit of a tweaking. If EA keeps the open-world Hogwarts map and tinkers a bit with the gameplay, then they could have a hit on their hands when the 6th game rolls around.