Nobody Likes Summer School Anyway
I don't understand why we need an open world fantasy game like Harry Potter, because the world is already made of fantasy: We live in a time when Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello can decry the lack of innovation in games, in the same week EA spits out this mediocre chapter in its Harry Potter franchise.
Want to see a magic trick? My eyes just rolled all the way into the back of my skull.
With a complete recreation of the Hogwarts wizardry school, physics-based spells and voice acting from a record 22 recurring Potter actors, Order of the Pheonix sets an ideal stage for action and drama, but the game fails to conjure up a coherent story or an immersive experience. There are a few nice elements, but the final product feels choppy, rushed and ultimately disappointing.
To its credit, Order captures the same simple pleasure as building bricks in Lego Star Wars. You cast Accios and Repulsos to solve puzzles in just about every corridor, and Harry gets experience for posing statues and lighting torches, so there’s a certain charm to all of the collecting and other bits of interaction littered throughout the game.
The spells, a meager offering of push and pull Force Powers, are cast with a cute twiddle of the thumbsticks like a fighting game, or you can actually wave your Wiimote like a wand and pray that Game Revolution will never tell anybody. You can pick fights with these magic missiles or, my favorite, lift a bench and fly it into someone’s face (they don’t seem to mind). If only Harry knew some fun spells, like transforming people or summoning a sandwich, something with a little whimsy – the repertoire is fairly dull.
After a while, you realize that you're not really much of a student, you're actually the school janitor. And you don't really have friends, but you know a lot of NPCs who give quests, so you're more of an errand boy. I wasn't actually going to classes and learning crazy spells, so I started looking for ways to drop out of Hogwarts and smoke pot under the gym bleachers, but that wasn't very interesting either. I hope Hogwarts tuition isn't too expensive, my parents are gonna be pissed.
What is a young wizard supposed to do? The core gameplay in Order of the Pheonix is a bit too convoluted and weak to be fun. One-on-one duels are dreadfully easy, and the occasional free-for-alls are an unplayable chaos. Harry paces and points his wand with the speed and grace of a petrified tree, as a dozen fireworks stream in every direction. Who cast what? Should I block now? Did I hit? It rarely matters, you get no rewards for picking random fights, and you’re supposed to lose some of the biggest battle scenes.
Potter’s biggest letdown is the lack of a social environment. In comparison, Rockstar’s Bully was built upon characterization and art direction: Jock-type enemies were walking around naturally, but you adjusted your routine to accommodate Jocks in the ‘natural’ order of things. You learned how to navigate the social scene and became immersed in it. In Order of the Pheonix, everyone looks the exact same in their school uniforms, I can’t tell a Hufflepuff from a Snuffleupugus, and none of them do anything special anyway. Bully even had a class schedule and a set of school rules which gave your activities more urgency; whereas Potter has no punishments to thrill and challenge the player.
The main story arc is busy, but lackluster - Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts is jeopardized by prophetic nightmares, an unidentified superweapon, an underground army and a despotic Clinique cosmetics clerk. These plot points are introduced and quickly forgotten in an impressively senseless flurry. For a game based on a book, the dialogue is especially blunt and coarse, and for a game based on a movie, poor editing makes the crowded cut scenes all but incomprehensible.
A mix of next-gen and last-gen visuals puts Order of the Pheonix in a weird, visually inconsistent state. Kudos to EA for fitting all the same content on every console, but you have PS3 cut scenes intercut with jaggy PS2 low-poly models; some scenes are crystal clear while others are lit terribly. The game is cast in a dull palette of dark browns and blues, which are even less vibrant in the washed-out exterior lighting or shady castle interiors.
At least the musical score rocks out with a full orchestra, with songs from the film and a very appealing flow of music overall. Twenty-two actors from the film lend their voices to the game, though some of the performances (unfortunately including Harry’s) sound flat and phoned-in.
Potter fans may enjoy this sightseeing tour around Hogwarts, but it’s going to take better, deeper stuff to innovate in the Grand Theft Auto genre. Order of the Pheonix is all about homework and chores, and feels harder to take in than a whole book - those are poor marks for a video game.