It's time to return to Hogwarts for another term of witchcraft and wizardy in EA's video game adaptation of the upcoming film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The latest adventure boasts control improvements over the last outing, but does it come at the cost of watering down the sandbox experience?
By now, the story of the sixth chapter in the franchise is well known, especially its infamous climax. This game adaptation feels like the Cliffs Notes version, serving as a quick refresher for those familiar with the story. On the other hand, it doesn't lay the plot on thick enough to jeopardize the upcoming film for newcomers who have somehow managed to avoid spoilers. The story unfolds too erratically, however, and everything feels rushed: the cutscenes are badly cut and overly brief, and the dialogue is poorly written. This is a shame, given that the source material is widely regarded as one of the stronger tales in the Harry Potter universe.
Half-Blood Prince is a straight-up action-adventure game, though it's a bit lacking in the action department. Much of the time, you're running around Hogwarts, recreated as an enormous sandbox environment, but unlike last year's Order of the Phoenix, there's less emphasis on straying from the beaten path. Frankly, there's little to do apart from engaging in one of three different types of mini-games in order to progress through the story.
Playing as Harry, you need to master three skills in order to earn passing marks: the art of dueling, the intricacies of mixing potions, and the piloting of his broom. Dueling provides the most intense action, as you go one-on-one with Hogwarts students in friendly matches, as well as battle for dear life against Death Eaters. The Quidditch portions of the game are simply on-rails segments where you need to fly through rings and avoid obstacles. Finally, potion making requires you to think quickly, and mix various ingredients to successfully brew potent elixirs.
While it may sound like everything a wizard could want, the unfortunate fact is that the entire game revolves around repeatedly engaging in these three activities. Sure, you'll learn a few new spells here and there, but the experience quickly becomes tedious. There are only so many times you can cast Expelliarmus or mix Polyjuice potion before it gets stale.
On the plus side, it's now easier to get around Hogwarts. The barely-visible dark footprints that served as path markers in Order of the Phoenix have been replaced with the charismatic Gryffindor house ghost Nearly Headless Nick. However, much of the appeal of picking apart Hogwarts for secrets is lost thanks the new collectibles, which require little thought or effort to obtain. Amassing them unlocks new features, such as multiplayer dueling, which, sadly, doesn't make up for the lackluster single-player experience.
If you struggled a bit with Order of the Phoenix, rest assured that the motion controls are much more responsive this time around. Though the game doesn't utilize the MotionPlus, the Wii remote is spot on when it comes to accuracy and sensitivity. Unfortunately, the game squanders this precision: there are very few situations that require much effort to get past. You still control the camera manually, but it's nearly impossible to use it precisely while in motion. Getting around is also made a bit more difficult due to Harry constantly getting caught on corners, as well as the very loose handling while he's sprinting.
The majority of the game's action takes place during wizard duels in which you handle the Wii remote like a magic wand, casting various spells with a flick of your wrist. While the spell casting is much improved in Half-Blood Prince thanks to the tweaked sensitivity, the challenge is watered down. In particular, there's a way to abuse the system by doing nothing more than waggling wildly. As result, there's no incentive to use advanced spells to win battles, which effectively flushes the battle system's depth down the toilet. In Half-Blood Prince, all it takes to become a pro wizard is the exploitation of some shady mechanics.
Then there is Quidditch, which has you steering Harry on his trusty broom with the Wii remote's pointer. Since the action is all on-rails, you never have to truly worry about losing sight of your goal, let alone pressing any buttons, which greatly reduces the challenge and eliminates much of the fun. It's easy to feel shortchanged when such a thrilling fantasy contact sport is reduced to a mere formulaic mini-game.
At least the motion controls work well during the potion segments, which are easily the best parts of the game. In no time flat, you're picking up bottles and pouring their contents by tilting the Wii remote, and then mixing them to perfection with a stirring motion. The ingredients become more complicated to handle as you progress, and you need to master other actions, like carefully shaking bottles and heating the cauldron within the time limit. All of this is done through superb motion controls. Too bad the same can't be said for the rest of the game.
It's pleasant to see that the latest Potter title retain the open world rendition of Hogwarts without the hassle of loading times, poor draw distance, or pop-up. What's disappointing is that there's no visual improvement this time around; the game looks identical to its predecessor. There are also a few instances of frame rate problems once again, and everyone's hair still looks like it's leftover from the N64 era. The CG cutscenes are also too compressed, and look less than stellar.
One of the previous title's strong suits was that much of the original voice talent reprised their roles for the game. Though some of the film's cast returns in Half-Blood Prince, there are some notable omissions, and their absence is felt. The rest of the filler cast is laughable at best, and the voice work is detrimental to the mood in many of the cutscenes. Thankfully, the game's soundtrack is in good shape, with the official tunes providing some of the best tracks in the series to date.
Though we're happy EA revisited the sandbox structure, everything that made the previous outing a solid game has been sacrificed in exchange for simpler controls and gimped action in Half-Blood Prince. If you truly want to relive the excitement and memories of the sixth chapter of Harry's struggle against Voldemort, wait just a bit longer for the film adaptation. Like speaking the Dark Lord's name, this game should be avoided at all costs.
Reviewed on Nintendo Wii.