June 21, 2007 - Welcome, Fifth Years, back to Hogwarts. In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, an EA-developed adventure game based on the movie and book of the same name, the Boy Who Lived is growing up. He's just come from the unexpected death of a classmate, a rude battle with Lord Voldemort, and a summer spent writing letters to friends who have for some odd reason gone incommunicado. So as Potter returns to wizardry school for another year of lessons, he's a little peeved. To make matters worse, the new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Umbridge, not only doesn't believe Harry's allegation that Voldemort is on the loose, but she seems to take pleasure in calling him to detention. Ever since he was invited into the underworld of magic so many years ago, the reluctant hero hasn't had a moment to relax, and even though he'd rather spend time with his boyhood infatuation, Cho, he must now teach a secret sect of students calling themselves Dumbledore's Army the defensive spells that Umbridge won't.
Harry, Ron and Hermione hang out with Dumbledore's Army.
We have grown up with Potter through the years, dissecting the books and fighting over the triumphs and failures of the movies, so we can state as real fans that The Order of the Phoenix was our least favorite entry into J.K. Rowling's phenomenally successful franchise. It is uneventful by comparison to the other books and Harry wastes too much time being angry about all matters, trivial or not. Still, it is a testament to the quality of the series that even the low point in the books remains entertaining and, at times, riveting. EA has with its new game capitalized on the fifth-year experience, taking what works and running with it, but also delivering fans a completely contained Hogwarts universe, fully explorable, that exists outside of the Order of the Phoenix storyline. The result is directly opposite the book it's based on; this latest digital exploration of Harry's universe is, although not without its flaws, the most compelling and immersive yet and we're therefore certain that die-hard fans will be hooked by the presentation, the school itself and everything there is to do and see.
The world is absolutely huge.
In the Order of the Phoenix, you play, of course, as Harry, but are constantly backed by best friends Hermione and Ron, who will walk the school with you, take part in duels by your side, and even help with the many objectives you must complete through the course of the year. As you play through the meaty adventure - the biggest yet for any Potter outing - you will do more exploring than you might have imagined, which we view as a plus. Previous Potter titles have included virtual recreations of the mysterious school, but all of them pale in comparison to this one. In this game, Hogwarts is absolutely, positively enormous and you can walk or climb in most directions, whether that means traveling to the Gryffindor Common Room and beyond to don Harry's invisible cloak or to the Grand Staircase, Dungeon Corridor, Clock Tower, Viaduct, or even Hagrid's Hut.
Use Wingardium Leviosa to levitate objects.
Hogwarts is, in fact, so large that it's very easy to become disoriented or downright lost within its many crevices. Thankfully, though, EA has made travel significantly more intuitive by implementing the Marauder's Map into the experience. With the quick tap of a button, you're able to bring up the map, select people or places you want to go, and then when you return to the game world again you'll be led there by the map's footsteps.
These locations look more life-like than they ever have before and there are absolutely no load times separating walkways or rooms, a real feat given the scope of the world. This latter truth means that the entire school feels like one connected entity and not a series of rooms linked together by load screens. However, the completely streaming world does not arrive without any drawbacks. Unfortunately, the fluidity of the entire package is sluggish; this latest Potter runs between 20 and 30 frames per second and the motion is sometimes inconsistent. We're sticklers for smooth framerates in games so naturally we would have preferred an uninterrupted fluidity, but we're more forgiving of this shortcoming than we might be for an effort that stressed action over adventuring. The truth is that you're more often exploring the school or traversing its passageways and surrounding grounds in search of people or items than you are dueling with enemies, wand in hand.
The Marauder's Map will help you find people and places.
That's not to say dueling doesn't play a part in the latest title, though. For Wii owners, this new Potter is particularly exciting because the Wii remote effectively becomes Harry's wand; you will gesture with the device to cast spells and amazingly, it feels good, if not right. When Nintendo first unveiled its new controller, people immediately thought of how it might be utilized in a Potter title so we're happy that EA has developed the mechanics. You can cast Wingardium Leviosa by locking onto surrounding objects with the B-trigger and then pulling backward on both the Wii remote and nunchuk. From there, you're able to sway the controllers left, right, forward and backward to move levitating items in the appropriate direction. Prior to playing the adventure, we had some concerns about how well the motion system would interpret movements from Nintendo's controllers, but it honestly works very well. You'll be able to twirl the Wii remote to cast Reparo and broken statues will rebuild themselves before you; you can send objects flying forward with Depulso simply by locking onto them and motioning downward with the Wii remote, or you can pull them toward you with Accio by snapping upward with the controller. A quick waggle back and forth will cast Incendio, which will burn objects and Reducto, cast by twirling in the opposite direction, will smash anything in your path. These new motions feel much better than any button press and really serve to immerse you in the spell-casting experience.