Potter and friends return in their best adventure yet. Does that mean the game is actually good or just a little less awful?
The Harry Potter universe contains two kinds of people: muggles, who are just regular non-magical folk like you and me with day jobs and bad backs, and magical folk, with wands and spells and the occasional flying broom. In the real world, the Harry Potter phenomenon has created two kinds of people as well: those who've read the books or watched the movies and know the difference between a quaffle and a snitch, and those who have somehow avoided it all and think quaffles are oddly-shaped breakfast cakes. Harry Potter: Order of the Phoenix for Wii is clearly intended for the former and would be completely unintelligible for the latter. Potterphiles will be able to extract some enjoyment from this charming yet uneven game. Muggles need not apply.
Players assume the role of Harry in his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. There's a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Umbridge, who along with Snape is ruining Harry's life. Dumbledore is incommunicado, Voldemort is on the loose and gaining power, and Cho Chang is really hot. If none of this makes any sense to you, don't expect the game to explain it in detail. This is meant as a supplement to the movie and/or book, and the cut-scenes are so sporadic and out of context that if you don't already know who's who and what's happening then they're not going to clear it up for you. Suffice it to say there is danger afoot, and the best way to fight it is a series of fetch quests, puzzles, and battles with fellow spell-casters like the always smug Draco Malfoy.
The actual gameplay is promising: you do get to run around in a fully realized 3D Hogwarts, complete with students, Gryffindor common room, and Hagrid's hut. There is no loading as you run from place to place, and the school itself is quite large and full of little details that lovers of the series will appreciate. Navigating the school is easily accomplished with the Marauder's Map, which lets you locate objectives and follow footprints in the game world to find them. Best of all, you are able to cast spells through some well-implemented waggling. For example, by raising both wand and nunchuk simultaneously, Harry casts "Wingardium Leviosa" to lift objects into the air and move them around the room. To knock down an adversary with the "Depulso" spell, move the remote forward towards the enemy like you're hammering a nail. It's not quite 1:1, but Harry's wand even mimics your movements pretty closely in the game. It feels intuitive and works great for the most part. As with previous titles like Godfather and Madden, EA must be commended for using the motion controls of the Wii to create a more immersive product.
Unfortunately there are some shortcomings that keep the game from being truly great. It's a little buggy, sometimes repeating a line of dialogue over and over or ignoring your spellcasting/target selecting attempts. Movement is clunky and stiff. The camera can be extremely uncooperative, and combat soon devolves into repetitive, meaningless waggling. Gameplay is built around a series of go-here-and-talk-to-this-guy quests that quickly become tedious, which is even more alarming when considering that this isn't a very long adventure. There are a few mini-games to expand the experience, like marble-tossing and sculpture-repairing. They're fun distractions but too shallow and repetitive to really add any depth. You can maybe stretch 20-25 hours of gaming out of doing everything there is to do. A typical run-through of the main storyline takes far less. Regardless, be prepared to reach the final showdown with He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named earlier than you're expecting. Besides a few over-compressed, unlockable making-of movies, there's not much reason to keep playing. And yet the charm and, dare I say it, "magic" of the Harry Potter universe is such that it renders most of these problems mere nuisances and not deal-breakers. You're still running around Hogwarts, doing stuff you've always daydreamed about doing.
Visually, the game can be quite lovely, although it's marred by the same washed out, muddy presentation that has plagued other EA Wii releases like Godfather. Character models are detailed, bloom lighting is used nicely, and the environments range from beautiful to nondescript (it looks like the development team ran out of time before finishing the Ministry of Magic, as it feels about as detailed as something out of Tron). The audio is great, with a full orchestral score and quality voice acting from most of the movie cast. You may find yourself turning down the volume in embarrassment as Harry calls out his spell incantations with the whiny fervor of an emo band's lead singer, but that's a small price to pay for total immersion, I suppose.
As you may have heard, this is the best Harry Potter videogame yet. But that's like saying "Bloodrayne" is the best Uwe Boll movie yet -- it might be true, but it doesn't mean much. The previous Potter games ranged from average to dreadful. Still, this is an acceptable purchase if you're just trying to make it through the summer games drought and need a fun little distraction. If you're a fan of the books and movies, you'll like this game. If you're a fan of the books but not the movies, you'll still probably like this game (but a little less than the last guy). If you're not a fan of the books or movies, Order of the Phoenix isn't going to turn things around for you. But why don't you like the books at least? Too cool for them, are you? They're brilliant! Ah, muggles.