There are few constants in the world. Death and taxes are the two constantly bandied about by those glibly trying to assign some sort of meaning to the insignificant minutiae of their lives, but the one everyone forgets is the inescapable reality of human greed. Money is endlessly motivating to the people of our modern world and nothing — not love, not death, not the endless dilution of otherwise treasured ideas — will keep people from exploiting, scheming and manipulating in the pursuit of cartoonish bags of cash.
Case in point: The Harry Potter franchise. The last decade has seen untold millions of dollars pulled down by the scarfaced wizard and his precocious pals, and far from being content with the revenue from book sales, the series has been spun off into films, comic books, knapsacks, lunchboxes, band-aids, flavored gelatin, pencil cases, hair care products, prophylactics, radio plays, model airplanes, even larger knapsacks, Nordic fjords and, of course, videogames.
This morning the latest of those arrived on my doorstep, courtesy Electronic Arts and Warner Bros. My tenuous grasp on reality du jour hinges on the idea that there must be some kind of redeeming quality in everything, so consider this an attempt at finding that gleaming heart of gold in what most would otherwise dismiss as a cynical cash-in.
Translation: Strap on your helmets kids.
First, background: Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince is an Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 set for release on June 30 to coincide with the July 15 film adaptation of the penultimate novel in the mega-successful fantasy series penned by hobo-turned-book-magnate J.K. Rowling.
Adaptations of the game also exist for the Nintendo DS, Wii, PlayStation 2, PSP, PC and OS X platforms (as well as nearly every mobile phone platform in existence), but since EA only sent over the essentially identical PS3 and Xbox 360 versions, these are the two I'll be discussing.
In all likelihood, these two are the most lucrative platforms for the title so they should have received the most development effort. Barring some freak accident, the version I play should be the best version of this game on store shelves.
Given the source material, we should adjust our expectations of the game a bit as well. First and foremost the Harry Potter universe is designed to appeal to young adults. Not the young adults who stereotypically find their first erection at the end of a Lancer assault rifle, but the sort of young adults who go to school, get good grades and whose parents don't necessarily wonder if they ought not have been aborted years back. HP is the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew for The Millennials, wrapped in a healthy dose of anti-authoritarian witchcraft and Tolkien-inspired bullshit.
Thus, don't expect copious amounts of blood, hyper-sexualized ladies (despite your fondest wishes for young Emma Watson) or deep, metaphorical subtext. It just isn't there and wouldn't really fit in given the somewhat superficial digs.
What we should be able to expect is a well-realized universe populated by characters that are easily recognizable by series fans. That's half the battle in creating this game. The other half — the actual gameplay bit — is less important fiscally, but is the key reason I'm writing so damn many words about a kids game.
As I start actually playing this thing, I want you all to remember those two words; "kids game." HPATHBP is most definitely aimed at kids, but that is a deceptively double-edged sword.
On the one hand youngsters have less discerning palates than, say, your average asshole gaming blogger. When I was 7 years old I was a huge fan of Jem And The Holograms. Enough said.
On the other hand, force-feeding kids terrible games just because they don't know any better is tantamount to abuse, especially if you're essentially giving their parents a choice between buying the terrible games for their spawn or suffering endless hours of "but I waaaaaaant it!!!!!!"
I understand the motivation in creating terrible games for kids, but given the reality of parenting, the economy and a screaming tot, purposely doing so will only further engender feelings of betrayal and frustration in younger gamers — many of whom these companies are hoping will continue to buy games for decades to come. If only some company refused to create this sort of ad nauseam pabulum the business model would prove unsubstainable.
Saving that diatribe for a different time, let's get back to the game at hand. On starting, two glaring positive points and one major negative instantly present themselves. Almost every character in the game, from the titular Mr. Potter to Tobias Needleface (a non-existent character I just invented to represent every non-Harry character for the sake of simplicity) is voiced by the actors from the film. If the goal was to create a game that recreated the feeling, and aesthetic of the films (and thus the entire series), this would have been enough to ensure success.
I say "would have" because the vast majority of the character models are simply grotesque. Mr. Potter has a pretty convincing simulacra, but Needleface et al inhabit that rung of the uncanny valley populated by PlayStation 1-era roleplaying game characters seeking to poorly replicate some blend of stylized reality that might mask their animated inconsistencies. Even the youngest gamers will be repulsed by these character models.
Unless the target market is both young and blind, EA's team screwed the pooch.
(Note: Originally this space included a three paragraph description of the development team literally having sex with a dog to represent their failure at recreating the actors from the Harry Potter films. Realizing it was both superfluous and grotesque I've since removed it, but I do intend to include it, it in its entirety, in my upcoming autobiographical book "And Then There Was A Few.")
On the other hand, the world inhabited by these homunculi is as gorgeous and whimsical as the films themselves — perhaps even a bit more so given the uniform surreality of the videogame medium. Gold star for EA.
Actually, make that two gold stars, as the game itself does a damn fine job of replicating the film. How could it not, given that the entire structure of the game follows the film's plot point for plot point? The game is so strict in its adherence to the film, that it essentially intersperses cutscenes that propel the plot with minigames designed to replicate moments from the story. Each minigame offers a unique gameplay mechanism, but even so you're essentially just stringing together a series of unrelated motions in an effort to reach the next plot-advancing cutscene.
After buying a whole roll of gold stars I'm almost sad I won't be able to affix any more to the game's metaphorical snout, but after those two mentioned above, everything starts to fall apart like a cardboard crane in outer space.
No, I don't know what that metaphor means.
Back to the quickly unfurling roll of black stars though: The minigames, aside from being nonsensically placed, aren't very well constructed. The second one, in which you're asked to levitate a few pots via magic and toss them into a lake, seems simple, but in practice is the most maddeningly frustrating thing I've done this week.
The game tells you that simply flicking your right stick to and fro will pick the pot up and complete the task, but after flicking my stick (go ahead, giggle) for twenty minutes straight I accidentally stumbled upon the discovery that you must first press the stick forward and then wiggle it about. Did the game ever instruct me to do this? Apparently yeah, but if you blink during the half a second it flashes an "Up" arrow at you, you'd be as lost as I was.
Not all of the minigames — are quite as mystifying as this one, thankfully. The first one, for instance, is a simple race through checkpoints that actually has a quality, entertaining sensation of zooming through fields on a broomstick, but given that the ratio of "quality" and "crap" is roughly 50/50 the game only scores a 60% on the Worthwhile-o-meter — a completely subjective device I just invented for the purpose of this review.
Despite my increasing dependence on metaphorical devices and stickers, a game nearly half-comprised of frustrating crap isn't going to win any hearts and minds, no matter how young, blind or fictional the player might be.
I was hoping that maybe the game would get better as time progressed. Maybe the developers would learn new tricks, or perhaps they were holding back their best stuff for the finale, but after burning through the entire plot — did I also mention that the game is short enough to be completed in the course of a day? — it almost seems like a new group was designated to create each separate gameplay section. There is no sort of consistency to the minigames, either in quality or theme, and while a few are entertaining (in their brevity), taken as a whole the game is only as fun as its least entertaining moments.
I wandered into this increasingly overlong review hoping to find a gem among the legions of horrific film-to-game cash-ins and instead found yet another example of corporate greed eroding an otherwise entertaining fictional universe. Then again, even if you can force the child in your life to sit through this wall of text — go ahead, try it, see what happens — they'll still crave a chance to play as the heroic wizard boy, so EA and Warner Bros. are inevitably going to have the last laugh, and a cappuccino financed solely by your tears.
That's the way of the world: The rich get richer, kids are treated like idiots and my outlook on life becomes darker and darker.
And people wonder why all my holiday cards are signed "With a gun in my mouth."