After almost a decade of trying, one would assume that by EA would have nailed the perfect Harry Potter game. Since the launch of the first movie tie-in way back in 2001 – on the original 32-bit PlayStation, no less – there have been numerous missteps, false dawns and crushing disappointments, all of which have been made that much harder to swallow by the fact that the Potter books (and films) really do deserve better video game adaptations (and no, we don’t consider the Lego editions to be true Potter titles, before you ask.)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 promised to be different – but then again, so has every other preceding Potter title. The big news was the adoption of a first-person shooter theme, as well as limited support for the new Kinect motion-sensing peripheral, though the main quest only uses a traditional control pad interface. While this latest instalment does manage to claw back a sliver of respectability in some departments, it’s fatally lacking in others.
As ever, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 follows the plot of the movie quite closely. You’ll be exploring areas such as the Weasley’s homestead, inner-city London and Grimmauld Place. The developers have taken certain liberties with some of the other environments – for example, one mission sees you rescuing trapped wizards from a disused power plant. During these intense wand fire-fights it feels almost as if you’re playing any generic shooter title from the past five years, a truly bizarre sensation when playing a Potter title.
Although much was made of EA’s decision to move The Boy Who Lived and his wizarding chums into the testosterone-driven realm of the FPS, the majority of the game is actually played from a third-person, over-the-shoulder viewpoint. It’s during these sections that Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is allowed to shine, if very briefly; you can use cover quite effectively, and the sizzling spell exchanges you have with enemies is actually quite exciting.
Harry starts out with just one basic spell in his arsenal – the excellently-named Stupefy - but as you progress, his selection of incantations increases. Petrificus Totalus immobilises foes, while Expelliarmus disarms your opponent. These spells are drip-fed as you gain experience, which comes as a consequence of succeeding in battle. Protego allows you to form a protective shield and is available from the get-go, as is the famous Dementor-eradicating Expecto Patronum.
When you’re indoors, the much-hyped FPS view comes into play. It makes sense, because negotiating the tight corridors of Grimmauld Place in third-person view would be frustratingly difficult, but in practice the switch feels clunky: your controls remain exactly the same but, gazing through Harry’s battered spectacles, his movement feels disjointed and somewhat floaty.
First-person mode is also used during the stealth missions, which must rank as some of the most hateful pieces of programming in video game history. During these sections Harry dons the invisibility cape to avoid detection, but the trouble is, when you’re forced to view the world through Harry’s eyes, it’s hard to be aware of what’s happening around you. We lost count of the number of times we skilfully worked our way through a crowded scene only to be discovered because a previously unseen muggle walked right into the back of us. Detection means having to restart the entire section over again, and it should come as no surprise to learn that controller-hurling annoyance follows shortly afterwards.
Visually, Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is your quintessential mixed bag. Certain sections of the game look impressive, especially when you’re facing off against multiple opponents. Elsewhere, the graphics take a massive nose-dive; the sections of the game set in London are particularly poor, coming across as something you’d find in a grubby-looking Dreamcast title. The character models for Harry, Ron and Hermione are generally decent, although they suffer from the usual rubber-faced zombie effect that seems to be so prevalent in 360 and PS3 games these days.
The animation of enemy characters is surprisingly realistic; they will duck and dive in order to avoid your spells, and when you do eventually land a hit they recoil convincingly. Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the lumbering AI engine which powers their decisions; while enemies directly in your line of fire will react pretty much as you would expect, it’s not unusual to switch your view and find a foe stood directly behind you doing absolutely nothing. Belligerents are also prone to making strange tactical choices, such as running into dead-ends to await their doom. It’s not just the Death Eaters who make these embarrassing blunders – Ron and Hermione are equally susceptible to totally inexplicable actions during battle.
The main quest mode of Deathly Hallows: Part 1 is fairly uninspired, although the introduction of a cover-based shooter mechanic does at least imbue the series with some much-needed action. However, considering the remit of this website, it would not be unreasonable to assume that you’ve rolled up to hear how the Kinect-based portion of the title pans out – to say it makes the standard mode look accomplished in comparison is a massive understatement.
The Kinect mode is little more than a glorified light gun shooter, in the vein of Namco’s Time Crisis and Sega’s Virtua Cop. You have no control over your character’s movement and follow a pre-determined path throughout the level, loosing shots and hurling explosive potions at the enemy characters who appear along the way. The objective is to achieve the best score possible, thus unlocking additional levels to be tackled with better spells.
Simply put, the Kinect controls for this mode are horrendously broken. Spells are cast with relatively straightforward gestures – a flick of the arm unleashes a Stupefy bolt, whilst holding both hands up to the screen is supposed to initiate your Protego charm – an essential strategy on some of the more taxing levels. However, the game’s success at recognising your gestures is pathetically low. Just casting the most basic attack is a frustratingly random process, and Protego is near-impossible to perform during an intense projectile exchange. If you happen to play with another person, things become even more problematic – the game has trouble accurately collating the movements of one person, let alone two.
What makes this all the more infuriating is that we know from other Kinct titles we’ve played that the system is perfectly capable of recognising such simple gestures and commands. The fault clearly lies with the game itself, which – for a reason known only to the developer – cannot effectively distinguish the actions of the player in front of it.
Deathly Hallows: Part 1 continues the tradition of poor Potter video games. There are very small moments of brilliance during the third-person shooter sections, but even these feel stale when placed next to the likes of Uncharted 2 or Gears of War. In fact, much of their appeal comes from the fact that they feel so out of place in Harry’s wizarding world. The Kinect element of the game – which is essentially what EA is using to push the title on Xbox 360 – is hilariously busted and wastes whatever potential there was for a controller-free spell casting mode. With just one more movie left in the pipeline, time is running out for EA to prove that it has what it takes to do the Potter license justice, but after experiencing this disappointingly average title, our hopes couldn’t be any lower. Stick with the light-hearted Lego instalments, as they’re likely to be your best hope of a truly decent Potter game.