The Harry Potter franchise is now so much a part of modern popular culture that it's easy to forget just how old the series is. A whopping twelve years have gone by since JK Rowling saw her first book published. Back in 1997, Rowling was virtually unknown; nowadays she's the richest woman in the entire world, living in a palace made of gold and eating nothing but diamonds coated in caviar. Probably. Or perhaps she's still just Joanne-y from the block. Who can really say?
At any rate, the army of the bespectacled wizard marches on. There's a sixth film due out later this year, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - and that means there's a new game from EA's Bright Light Studio. This being the case, last week I travelled out to Hogwarts [a hotel on Edgeware Road] so that I could be instructed in the ways of magic [play some Wii preview code for a bit]. There were three separate game play types on display - Quidditch, potion-brewing and duelling - and over the course of the afternoon I got to try all of them, so read on to discover what lies inside the Chamber of Secrets [hear a few details about how they play].
Let's begin with Quidditch. If you're a fan of Mr Potter, you'll know that he plays in the important position of Seeker for Griffindor's house Quidditch team. In simple terms, this means he has to dash about the pitch on an extremely fast broomstick, attempting to grab the Golden Snitch - a magical ball that flies about at extremely high speeds. In Half-Blood Prince, Bright Light have portrayed this as an on-rails racer with minor elements of Pilot Wings folded in for good measure: Harry roughly flies along a set path while the player uses the Wii remote to steer him through a procession of coloured rings. Miss a few, and the rings will change colour, eventually turning red. Skip too many red rings, and you'll fail the challenge. You've also got to deal with the opposition's Seeker, who attempts to barge you out of the way. Luckily he can be sent packing with a few broomstick-rams of your own.
Time for a confession: I actually found the Quidditch demo to be quite tricky. To be fair, the level in question is apparently the hardest in the game - but it's still a miserable failing. Between my ever-shaky hands and the brutal efforts of the rival Seeker, I found it pathetically hard to make it through all the rings. On a happier note, Bright Light says it's including a clever little difficulty monitor that will notice when you're having problems with a particular section of the game. The game will become easier when you're struggling, and ramp up the challenge if you're sailing through everything - and this altered difficulty will only apply to that specific type of gameplay. In other words, if you're great at most of the game but find that you suck at Quidditch, only the Quidditch sections will get easier. As a result, everyone should be able to complete the game while experiencing a decent level of challenge. This can only be good news for young gamers, as well as for struggling Previews Editors everywhere.
While the Quidditch demo seemed to be quite fast and slick, rocketing along with a fair old lick of speed, there didn't seem to be a huge amount to do beyond the obvious steer-through-the-hoops shenanigans. Far more enjoyable was the potion-making demo, in which the Wii remote is used in a variety of ways to simulate the different steps of alchemy. Here the majority of the screen is taken up with a large cauldron, viewed from a three-quarters overhead perspective, with various chemicals and ingredients strewn around the surrounding workplace. On-screen indicators show what must go into the brew next, while a slowly-depleting time bar shows you how long you have left to complete the potion.
It sounds quite simple, but there's a surprising amount of enjoyment to be had in stringing your gestures together before the time runs out. Some ingredients, like insects, are added to your cauldron via simple timing exercises: select what you want to go in with your pointer, tap A to pick it up and send it towards the cauldron, then tap again to drop the bug into the gloop. Liquid ingredients are handled in a similar way, except that the player must carefully tilt their remote to simulate the pouring of a bottle or vial; get this wrong and you'll spill stuff all over your work surface. Once you've plopped a few things in, you'll need to mix things up by holding your remote vertically like a wooden spoon. You may also need to increase the heat under your cauldron by drumming the remote and nunchuck, in a similar fashion to the method used in Mario and Sonic at the Olympic Games when running.
This may all sound a bit like Cooking Mama: Voodoo Edition, but the thing that really makes potion-making fun is that fact that you're working under pressure, and the fact that things can go wrong. Overheat your concoction and smoke will fill the screen, forcing you to "waft" it away with the nunchuck; get too sloppy with your ingredients, and your desk will clearly display the messy results of your carelessness. Some of the most volatile chemicals you use require only one or two drops, and there's some genuine tension in cack-handed attempts to be delicate. The bottom line is that it's very satisfying to see the contents of your cauldron changing colour and fizzing in response to your actions. You genuinely feel like you're making a magic potion, and as a result I believe that most of Mr Potter's fans will love these interludes.
The last game mode on display last week was magic duelling. Here Harry and his peers go toe-to-toe in one-on-one battles, lobbing spells at each other in an attempt to deplete each other's star-levels - a sort of child-friendly equivalent to a health bar. This part of the game is viewed from a raised isometric perspective, with the camera resting somewhere above and behind the first player; the opposing student, who may be controlled by a second player, stands facing you at a distance. Movement is handled by the nunchuck's thumbstick, while all spells are thrown out via simple gestures with the remote. A downward strike will send out a bread-and-butter energy attack, while a simultaneous downward swipe with nunchuck and remote together will unleash a power attack capable of knocking your opponent off his feet. To block enemy fire, you can summon a shield by making a crossing motion with both controllers you can summon. Finally, and undoubtedly best of all, by swinging upwards with both hands you can fire off a "Levi Corpus" spell; if this hits, your rival will be flipped upside down and left hanging by their ankles, leaving you free to follow-up with something more dashing.
In addition to your magic attacks, you can also dive out of the way of spells by simply tapping A in conjunction with the thumbstick. It's hardly Street Fighter IV, but there are enough options to give your battles a bit of variety - and it's particularly nice to frustrate other human players by turning them upside-down for the third time in a single match. And as with the rest of the game, Harry and his pals all look pretty decent - it's clear that some effort has been put into getting the most out of the Wii. Bright Light also says that you'll eventually have a decent spread of characters to use in duelling mode - so with any luck we'll all get a chance to play with Hermione. Less lascivious fans may be more excited at the prospect of unlocking Severus Snape.
Whatever it is that you crave from The Half Blood Prince, it certainly seems that First Light is trying to cover as many bases as possible. It's a massive understatement to say that Harry Potter is a huge licence, but after nine years of working on the series it seems as though the developer is more than comfortable with the young wizard and his chums. The game looks like it's coming together nicely; let's hope it does, because a lot of little voices are going to be clamouring for this come late summer.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince will be released on all leading formats in the summer.