What We Liked
Hogwarts, a History: Any self-respecting Potterphile has spent many moons daydreaming about what it would be like to don a robe, grasp a wand and roam around Hogwarts. Muggles like you and me may not have an invisibility cloak or Marauder's Map to facilitate our exploration, but we now have the Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince video game. The game's story mode shouldn't take more than five hours to complete, but the real fun begins for the user once the Dark Mark hits the sky and the narrative ends. Once the credits roll, the user can freely explore the castle and grounds while completing the tasks (namely dueling, potions making and crest collecting) that went unfinished during story mode. It's your chance to hop around Hogwarts' moving grand staircase, discover which portraits serve as shortcuts and poke around Hagrid's pumpkin patch; to, in short, explore all of Hogwarts' nooks and crannies like Harry always did.
Wands at the Ready: If Hogwarts students dueled as much in the novels as they do in this game, the entire student body would spend term in the hospital wing or detention. No such penalties exist in this digital world, however, and the duels come fast and furious. Each of the four Hogwarts houses runs a sanctioned dueling club, and each resident house champion challenges Harry to battle for top status. Take the early duels seriously, because as you advance through the ranks you unlock new areas of the castle and grounds, unlock new spells and strengthen the ones you already possess. Unlocking more advanced spells like Levicorpus and Petrificus Totalus provides a huge advantage by enabling you to immobilize your opponent so you can freely fire shots, which is hugely important when characters like Crabbe and Goyle, Bellatrix LeStrange and Fenrir Greyback challenge you in story mode.
A Subtle Science: In Harry Potter and the Sorcere's Stone, Potions Master Severus Snape tells a group of anxious first-years, including Harry, “You are here to learn the subtle science and exact art of potion making. As there is little foolish wand-waving here, many of you will hardly believe this is magic.” Upon playing this game, it becomes clear everyone’s favorite dungeon-dweller was mistaken. There’s quite a bit of foolish wand-waving (or at least stick-wiggling) during the potions challenges, and there’s nothing subtle about the cloud of greenish-grey smoke that fills the screen when you botch a step. But because of that, potions making is one of the more engaging aspects of gameplay. If you don't remember whether to use lacewing flies or shrivelfig in Polyjuice Potion, fear not; the game provides a list of prompts. You’re simply responsibly for adding the right ingredients and properly stirring your cauldron -- in, of course, the allotted time.
Mount Your Brooms: The game's Quidditch challenges are surprisingly fun -- and challenging. The computer will pull Harry along as he zooms through a path of colored stars hoping to catch the Snitch, but the up-down, left-right control rests with you. A little tap of the stick will send Harry where you want him, so don't overshoot; missing stars delays the final grab and gives the opposing Seeker a chance to gain ground. One complaint: The challenges increase in difficulty, but they always feature the same basic task. It would be nice if the user got to do something on the pitch besides chase the Snitch.
Nearly headless? How can you be nearly headless?: Often, a fellow student will stop you in your tracks and instruct you to head to a specific location to perform a task (no one else will bring Ginny the Shrinking Solution you brewed for her, after all). Since Hogwarts is a world unto itself, it helps to have Nearly Headless Nick, the Gryffindor House ghost, on-call to guide you. If you’ve just been told where to go, Nick will know where to head once you summon him. After the story mode ends and you no longer receive instructions, you can choose where you want Nick to lead you from a list of locations.
What We’d Change
The Wand Chooses the Wizard: Or so Ollivander tells Harry is SS. As you play, though, it sure won’t feel like your digital wand chose you. No matter how steady your hand, you’re going to spill a vile or 20 of potions ingredients and you’ll have a hard time casting charms and spells with much precision. It’s particularly difficult to cast Wingardium Leviosa, the first spell our digital Harry learns, with much consistency, and even more challenging to accurately project the object under your control once you levitate it. (More on that under “Holy Horcrux.”) The best way to counteract this lack of precision while dueling is to mount a rapid-fire offensive attack. You’ll earn more points for landing a “great” Charged Stupefy (cast by drawing the wand back with the right stick, waiting a second or two for it to charge and then pushing forward on the stick to attack) than repeatedly casting run-of-the-mill Stupefys (cast simply by pushing up on the right stick), but the points won’t earn you anything but pride.
Holy Horcrux: Think Harry had a hard time finding and destroying Voldermort’s Horcruxes in the series finale? Try finding and securing the 125 Hogwarts House crests hidden throughout the castle and grounds. (Your goal is to amass 150 crests, but you accumulate 25 of those by collecting Hogwarts mini crests, which appear as green glows and, unlike the full-size crests, pop up around every corner.) A savvy searcher who looks above every door frame and behind every stairwell won’t have trouble finding the first 100 crests or so, but actually getting them is another matter. Specifically, you must dislodge the crests mounted on the wall by levitating a nearby boulder, desk or other object and projecting it into the crest. If repeatedly failing to lift the object on your first try doesn’t frustrate you, propelling the object at the crest and missing repeatedly surely will. If your path’s clear, you’ll have fewer problems, but every now and then the game throws a wicked angle or a gaggle or precariously located students in your way. It’s hard enough to aim and shoot without having to account for the haughty Ravenclaw fifth-year trying to steal your bolder. Occasionally, a wonky camera angle will complicate matters further. If Nick’s around, send him away, because his presence can anchor your vantage point and impede your shot. Just remember, patience is a virtue, even in the wizarding world.
Magical Me: EA deserves props for creating digital renderings that so strongly resemble the movie characters, but that’s where the congratulations end. The characters are simply creepy. Harry blinks too much, Dumbledore’s mouth moves too little and Snape sounds like he’s taken one too many hits on a helium pump. The students are constantly getting in Harry’s way. (This can be amusing when you’re not in a hurry, but when you’re on the clock -- when you’re chasing Malfoy to confront him in the U-Bend, for example -- it’s a real impediment.) Perhaps the creators are tennis fans, because every time there’s a hallway collision, the kid on the receiving end lets out grunt that would make Maria Sharapova proud. And while we’re talking about things that come out of the characters’ mouths -- the dialogue is comically bad. The game does an admirable job of following the HBP plot, but in order to do so a conversation that took place over 10 pages in the book or three minutes in the film takes place in 15 seconds in the game. An example: Hermione sees Ron getting frisky with Lavender after the Quidditch match and manages to express all of her feelings and confront Harry about his budding love for Ginny in the time it takes to toss a dung bomb.
Check out Harry Potter in action:
The game hits its mark by appealing to the die-hard fans. If you’re a gamer finally deigning to give an HP game a go, repetitive play will likely disappoint you. If, however, you’re one of the self-respecting Potterphiles mentioned at the start, you’ll surely enjoy the chance to roam around Hogwarts, hex a Slytherin and find out if you’ve got what it takes to brew a Draught of Living Death strong enough to kill a room full of N.E.W.T. students with a single drop.
-- Reviewed by Mallory Rubin