Monday, April 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince - Review

First come the books, then come the movies, and then, as inevitably as the tides, come the games. I would have guessed that the whole Harry Potter fad was largely over at this point, but the release of a new movie every other year seems to stir the pot anew.

Half Blood Prince is the second book/movie of the series to get the 360 treatment. I played the previous entry (Order of the Phoenix) and it was a surprisingly decent game (my expectations are always low for licensed titles). That game focused on exploring the school grounds and solving various problems with a little right thumb stick aided magic. It wasn't overly deep and the replay value was essentially nil, but there was enough variety to carry a 10-15 hour adventure game (especially for Harry Potter fans).

This new entry has improved on the previous one in a few ways. Graphically, HBP is sharper and more detailed than OOTP, while the character models have been significantly improved. The school itself looks largely the same, but navigation is a bit easier this time around thanks to a new option to let Nearly Headless Nick guide you to your next objective. The biggest improvement is in the dueling mechanics, in which the slow, labored pace of the previous game is replaced by fast-paced battles with a control scheme that favors rapid spells and counters.

That's good, because dueling is a REALLY common activity in this game. Hogwarts students apparently live more dangerous and troubled lives than kids who attend inner-city high schools, as even the most trivial of disagreements seem to erupt into magical violence. Given the number of fellow students I left crumpled in the dirt on school grounds, it's a wonder I didn't get poor Harry expelled.

So yes, dueling comes up a lot in this game. In fact, the entire experience is built on the three-legged platform of dueling, potion making, and Quidditch. That's pretty much the whole game, so your opinion of the game will be directly related to how much you enjoy those activities. As I previously noted, dueling is great. Potion making involves using the left stick to select ingredients from a table and the right stick to mix them in a cauldron. It can be a surprisingly tricky activity, as many of the potions require a lot of manipulations and the time constraints can be very tight. But the biggest issue is that it's a pretty repetitive activity...once you get the gist of it (which won't take long), it will feel pretty much like doing the same thing over and over.

But by far the worst activity is Quidditch or, as I refer to it, "The Dumbest Game Ever Invented". Sorry, but I have to wander off on a tangent here: has J.K. Rowling ever played or watched a sport before? Imagine watching a great basketball game. LeBron James is on one side and Kobe Bryant is on the other. They're trading baskets, their teammates are playing well, and everyone is on the edge of their seat as they wonder who will prevail. Then suddenly the water boy stumbles across a golden ticket under one of the seats, shows it to the ref, and the game instantly ends with his team the winner. Everything that happened before that? The previous points, the effort, the duel between superstars? Meaningless. They might as well have sat on their asses doing nothing while the waterboys were scouring for the ticket. Wouldn't you think that was a dumb way to decide...ANYTHING? Well, that's how Quidditch works - it's a bunch of people playing one sport (pointlessly) while a couple other people do something totally different that overrides everything else going on.

Without this "Golden Snitch" business, Quidditch is essentially hocky/rugby while flying on brooms, which is pretty sweet. And you'd think that would make for a fun video game. But no, you get to be Harry Potter (it's his game after all) chasing after the snitch while piloting your broom through checkpoints. It's excruciatingly dull, made even worse by the fact that while you go through the motions of chasing the stupid snitch YOU CAN HEAR THE DAMN GAME GOING ON AROUND YOU! Man, that sounds exciting...I wish I could be a part of that instead of flying through these stupid stars. And hey guys, why are you bothering with all the "get the ball through the hoop" bullshit since I'm just going to catch this snitch at the end and win the match single-handedly? The game makes a big deal about picking your Quidditch team and developing Ron into a solid goalkeeper, but what difference does it make?

So ultimately, we've got a three part game with one good part, one mediocre part, and one part involving shitty Quidditch. Added up, I was left disappointed. Half Blood Prince is not a bad game by any stretch, but it isn't terribly compelling and it definitely lacks the charm of the previous title. Ah well, maybe they'll do better when Deathly Hallows comes out...

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