Harry Potter seems to be loved by everyone and it's easy to see why. The story of a young wizard in training who takes on enemies well above his status, only to get in trouble over and over again is something kids can relate to and parents can read/sit through without too much pain. You'd think video games of Harry would be a no brainer then. Boy with magic takes on evil doers with the help of his friends - sounds simple enough.
The problem with the Potter games is that they come paired with the movies, with this year's game based on the forthcoming Order of the Phoenix. Movies pack everything into a few hours, whereas games need to last a lot longer. This means that all the boring stuff that didn't make it into the movie is what you'll be doing in the game. So, in Harry's latest you spend most of your time at Hogwarts, recruiting school mates for Dumbledore's army (D.A. Members).
Playing a game inside a faithfully recreated Hogwarts (which does look rather nice across all systems) might sound like a great idea, but carrying out what boil down to chores isn't so much fun. Order of the Phoenix isn't a long game, with the conclusion to a poorly told story coming at about 6-8 hours, but when you're constantly running around Hogwarts doing menial tasks it seems a lot longer. You do have the Marauders Map to help you find people and places (plus footprints that mark your route) but you'll still spend most of your time wandering about.
A typical task involves Harry getting something for someone, with the item in question usually being out of reach. Depending on the item you'll either have to slowly climb up to the item's location or repeat the same action over and over again as it moves from location to location. It's dull in the extreme. Numerous side tasks, such as lighting fires, cleaning up leaves, finding plaques and opening up shortcuts probably seemed like a nice idea, but most just add to the tedium.
'A typical task involves Harry getting something for someone, with the item in question usually being out of reach.'
Hogwarts is nicely put together but most kids surely want to do more than pesky chores - even if they get to use magic in the game. In Order of the Phoenix you cast spells by moving your wand, with the right analogue stick on PS2, 360 and PS3, and with the Wii-mote and Nunchuck on Wii. Both systems work well, although I found the analogue stick gestures a little harder to pull off. On the other hand, the Wii-mote motions seem a little more sluggish. Motion controls via the Sixaxis on PS3 are an option, but they seem clumsy and are best turned off.
You'll learn an increasing number of spells as you progress through the game, but I found Wingardium Leviosa (the spell that makes objects fly) and Incendio (ignites things) to be the most frequently called upon. Others of note include Reparo (repairs broken objects), Depulso (pushes objects), Accio (pulls objects) and Reducto (breaks objects). It's all very nice, but you never do anything all that exciting with them.
Combat spells are almost not worth mentioning. Duels crop up only a handful of times throughout the game, and when they do you can simply hammer out the same spell until you win - if defeat is possible I didn't experience it. Combat also hampers the end of the game, which seems rather rushed after the lengthy process of recruiting 28 D.A. Members and sending them to a meeting in the Room of Requirement.
In what can only be called an interactive mess, you take part in numerous battles (not only as Harry) and are whisked along through the most incomprehensible storyline I've ever witnessed. Unless you've read the books or play the game after you've seen the movie, the events of the final section will be completely baffling. Cutscenes throughout the game seem rather hastily put together, but the final few are almost broken.
Appearing across Xbox 360, PS3, PC, PS2 and Wii, Order of the Phoenix had every right to look a little shabby, but EA has done an impressive job at bringing Hogwarts and the characters to life. The next-gen versions clearly look the best, but the Wii and PS2 games aren't hugely dissimilar bar a drop in texture quality and character detail. The frame rate also stutters a little more on the previous-gen systems. Voice work and music is also impressive, although the in-game cutscenes often ruin the sense of immersion due to some horribly animated characters.
While the core mechanics of Order of the Phoenix are verging on excellent, the game that's been built around them is basically a series of chores in disguise. If you must play the latest Potter adventure then the 360 and Wii versions are most recommended (Achievement points and Wii controls respectively), but there's really little to separate them. With a solid spell system in place and a nicely rendered Hogwarts, maybe EA will remember to build a solid game around them next time.