Software Review: Going around in circles

I made sure to see the film before examining the computer game based on the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, that was sent for review, and was glad I did.

harry potter disk 88 (photo credit: )
harry potter disk 88
(photo credit: )
Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, a DVD-ROM in English by EA and Warner Brothers Interactive Entertainment, distributed with a 14-page Hebrew-language user's manual by Hed Artzi Multimedia, requires Windows XP or higher and a Pentium 1.6 ghz PC or better, for ages seven and up, NIS 199. Rating: *** Fans of J.K. Rowling's seven Harry Potter books are always keen to see the movie and play the videogame based on each volume - even with a couple of years' delay after publication. This is partly because the fictional stories are so graphic and intense that they want to know if, from reading the story alone, their imagination has captured it as precisely as a visual depiction on the screen. I made sure to see the film before examining the computer game based on the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, that was sent for review, and was glad I did so in that order: The movie was very satisfying, but the PC game was very disappointing and would have put me off seeing the film. I shouldn't have had high expectations for the disk, as the four previous DVD-ROMs weren't much more than movie tie-ins aimed solely at squeezing money from Potter-addicted fans. But I had hopes nevertheless. Unfortunately, the game - also available on a variety of consoles, including for PlayStation 2 for NIS 349 and PlayStation 3 for an astronomical NIS 409 - is dull and full of routine "fetching" chores to carry out while going in circles and up and down the steps of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. For those with no clue about the storyline, Harry returns to school for his fifth year and learns that the evil Lord Voldemort has shown signs of having returned, but this truth has been kept from much of the wizarding community. Revelation of the truth has become even less likely, because a pink-clad new faculty member, Prof. Dolores Umbridge, has been appointed by Minister for Magic Cornelius Fudge to teach a weak-kneed course on defensive magic, leaving the pupils unprepared to fight Voldemort's dark forces. Harry's sidekicks Hermione and Ron urge him to teach his peers spells to confound them. They call themselves "Dumbledore's Army" (DA), named for the school's elderly headmaster, Albus Dumbledore, who himself is fearful that Voldemort's return will weaken and threaten him. The game largely follows the film in content and even adds some details that are only in the book, but instead of focusing on spells, it turns Harry and friends into servants. To persuade their 28 fellow pupils to take DA lessons, they must search the campus and find a potion, a textbook or any of dozens of other things. Check the "marauder's map" to identify your tasks and their locations; while there are few shortcuts, you must do a lot of traipsing around. Many of these tedious assignments have to be repeated again and again, and you can't escape being a messenger. Most of the time there are footsteps that appear to show you the general direction to proceed, which is a help but also makes things too easy. The only good part to this searching is that you have an excellent opportunity to explore the Hogwarts campus from top to bottom, mounting the floating staircases, observing the portraits that come to life when you pass and absorbing the nasty comments thrown at Harry from time to time. The buildings - their tapestries, paintings and other paraphernalia - are depicted in rich detail, which is the main accomplishment of the game. But although the developers did a fairly good job of making the characters' faces look as they did in the film, the graphics are disappointing, and some of their voices were clearly done by imposters rather than the real actors. The physics are also less than optimal, and Harry often goes right or left when you are pointing him straight ahead. Teacher Sirius Black puts you through the tutorial on how to perform spells, but you have too little chance to use them. The magic cloak that Harry, Hermione and Ron put over themselves to make them invisible (except for a cluster of light) is amusing for a while, but it soon becomes only a gimmick. Nevertheless, the musical theme - taken from the movie - sets exactly the right tone. Some relief is provided by the mini-games, which can be played at any time: Chess (which is the conventional game but with animations), Exploding Snap (a card-matching game) and Gobstones (marbles), but as there is no tutorial for these, if you're not familiar with them, you won't know what to do. Warner Brothers and EA, who have a sixth movie in the works, should devote to it the same great energies invested in the captivating movies; Rowling's genius at spinning a labyrinthine tale deserves no less. Israeli youngsters who haven't read the book (there are still some around) or seen the movie will be clueless about how to play the game, especially as a high level of English is needed to follow the dialogue. Local Potter fans with minimal skills at that language are better off saving the money for the Hebrew translation of the seventh and final book due in December.