The fifth Harry Potter game, and first on Nintendo Wii, marks a radical departure for the series. While the other console versions are pigeonholed into classic control schemes, the Wii version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is able to take full advantage of motion controls to turn the Wii Remote into a viable magic wand accessory. On top of that, this is by far the biggest and most polished Potter adventure yet, dragged down only by the companion novel’s slow-paced narrative.
The fifth gaming year at Hogwarts continues a tradition set forth by its predecessors: with each successive year comes an expansion of the grounds. The Hogwarts campus in Phoenix has grown to an absolutely gigantic maze of indoor and outdoor environments. So much so that traversing them without a degree in geography would be impossible if it weren’t for the flawless implementation of the Marauder’s Map. A simple click into the map depicts every nook and cranny of Hogwarts along with your position. A second click onto a desired destination creates a path between you and there. More importantly, returning to the game reveals the appearing and vanishing Marauder footsteps that lead you to the destination.
The expansive Hogwarts grounds come to life with main characters looking and sounding as they do in the film, thanks to the use of facial scans and lengthy recording sessions. Countless characters in the game not only speak, but they offer appropriate dialogue to the Potter universe. Combined with the beautiful design of Hogwarts, the world of Harry Potter has never looked or sounded better in video-game form.
No matter how huge or intricately designed Hogwarts is, the Wii Remote is the real draw to the Wii version. Performing spells with the Remote is similar to how Harry uses his wand in the films. A series of either swooshes, thrusts, pulls, or simple movements correlate to a number of actions Harry has at his disposal; he can attack enemies, move objects to complete puzzles, rebuild broken objects, smash objects, and burn objects. Amazingly enough, EA has managed to make yielding the Remote as a wand feel “right.” It’s far more satisfying to perform a task or engage in combat with the wand than pounding buttons on a traditional controller. Wand use is even more immersive when comrades Hermoine and Ron are casting away by your side.
Any first implementation of new technology is more susceptible to bugs and quirks with the Remote functionality being no exception. For example, casting the spell to stun someone requires pushing the Remote and Nunchuk forward simultaneously while the spell to lift objects requires the same push forward motion combined with lifting up at the end. Distinguishing between these spells without the gift of slight of hand can be tedious and outright frustrating. Jerky camera control while moving objects such as paintings to hang on the wall can also prematurely sprout gray hairs on a gamer’s head.
Unfortunately, all is not well at Hogwarts this year. Phoenix the game follows the book’s rather sluggish narrative and beat fairly closely rather than branching out into uncharted territory. As a result, there is more walking and talking to other people than actual fun activities like combat and solving complex puzzles with spells. I hate to say Phoenix is a bore given the Remote wand functionality and fantastic visual design, but without the ability to skip or fast-forward through every conversation and cut-scene, Phoenix comes across more like a movie with interspersed gameplay than a game with interspersed cut-scenes.
The Remote does offer a bright future for the remaining two (or more?) games in the Potter franchise on Nintendo Wii. Simple tweaks to the spell controls and even a new exclusive wand accessory shaped like a wand could take the series to another level. That is, assuming EA can cast Incendio on the rampant cut-scenes and build in more compelling gameplay elements. Think of Phoenix as a solid launching pad to something not necessarily bigger, but greater.
– Dan Bradley