Saturday, July 23, 2011

Game Review: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2" is a Fun Blast of Nostalgia

I don’t review video games much, mostly because despite my love of gaming, I’m always months (or years) behind the current game trends (I just picked up Red Dead Redemption in May, for instance, long after it was topical).  In the midst of Potter-mania earlier this month, however, I did pick up a new game - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 for Xbox 360.  Anyone who grew up on Potter and owned a game console, or even a PC, has probably played one or more Harry Potter games, and I was eager to see what EA Games had in store for their final entry in the series.  Thankfully - or not so thankfully, depending on how one looks at it - the game is fairly short, and despite my busy schedule, I was able to finish it and pump out a review in a (relatively) timely manner. 

Read the full video game review (based on the Xbox 360 Version of the game) after the jump...

As I said above, my main reason for picking up the game was nostalgia - I have very fond memories of playing the Sorcerer’s Stone game on PC, as well as on my Game Boy Color, which was also home to the game’s sequel.  I played the third game on the Game Boy Advance, as well as one of EA’s spinoff titles, Quidditch World Cup.  I don’t know how any of these games would hold up today, thanks the shroud of nostalgia that clouds my vision, but when I need a Potter fix, I pop one in from time to time.  Yet I never got around to playing the fourth game or anything following it, even though the open-world Hogwarts ‘sandbox’ gameplay of games five and six did intrigue me.  With this being the final game, however, I felt I owed it to EA to give the series another try, see how far things have come, and most importantly, find out if the last game could recapture any of the magic of the games from my youth. 

That last bit is absolutely the most important part, since much of what I enjoyed about Deathly Hallows Part 2 simply came from it being an EA Potter game, and witnessing how little has changed in the seven years since I last played.  The graphics have gotten a lot better - they’re actually very impressive this time around - some of the real actors are on board to voice their characters, and the production values and gameplay are far more polished than the games I used to play.  But despite all that, it’s still an EA Potter game through and through, making the flaws just as endearing as the successes.  The awkward recreations of film events through rushed cutscenes, the questionable choices about which moments you do and don’t get to play, and a couple of riotously funny bad vocal performances for good measure.  All of these hold back from making Deathly Hallows Part 2 a great game, but for any Potter fans looking for a nostalgia fix, it certainly helps the package fit the bill.

But I don’t think it’s just nostalgia junkies who will enjoy the game; hardcore gamers and non-Potter fans should count themselves out, of course, but any fan of the books or movies, be they kids or adults, should have plenty of fun.  Deathly Hallows Part 2 differs from past titles in that it’s not a free-roaming adventure game, but a linear third-person shooter in the style of Gears of War, utilizing a simple but effective cover system for combat.  That sounds like a strange concept for a Potter game, but it works surprisingly well. 

Nearly every level follows the same formula; you have to make it to the end (such as traveling through Gringotts to reach Bellatrix’s vault) by fighting through waves of enemies, usually Death Eaters.  Your primary weapon in taking the Death Eaters down is your wand, which can cast seven spells; each of the available curses acts as a unique weapon, much like the multiple guns one finds in a shooter.  You start the game with two spells - Stupefy is your basic sidearm, comparable to a pistol in other games, while Protego is a shield that blocks enemy casts.  As the game progresses, you quickly unlock new spells: Expelliarmus destroys an enemy’s Protego charm, making them vulnerable; Expulso is a rapid-fire spell, much like an Uzi or Machine Gun in shooters; Petrificus Totalus acts as a one-hit kill Sniper Rifle; Confringo is basically a rocket launcher, and Impedimenta is a heat seeking, multiple-target incendiary.  All of the spells are extremely fun to use, and it’s actually a fairly deep combat system.  Mastering just one spell won’t get you through the game - you’ll have to learn how and when to use each curse for maximum damage, and switching between spells strategically is essential to take down tougher enemies. 

One aims with the left trigger and shoots with the right, switching spells using three of the face buttons - X, Y, and B on Xbox - and the left bumper for Protego.  The ‘A’ button, meanwhile, puts you into cover; all of the long corridors you’ll run down are littered with rocks, debris, boxes, or other conveniently places objects that you can duck behind to shield yourself from enemy spells.  Cover systems are very hit-and-miss in third-person shooters.  Grand Theft Auto IV is a great game, but getting in and out of cover is a chore; Potter, thankfully, takes after the master of cover-based shooting, Gears of War, with a nearly identical system, and this pays off handsomely.  Getting into cover isn’t just easy, it’s an essential part of the gameplay, and after a few minutes, it simply becomes second-nature, especially since shooting from cover is so simple.    Anyone who has played a third-person shooter before will feel right at home, while those new to this sort of gameplay will find it very easy, and rewarding, to learn.

Beyond this, there’s not much variation in the gameplay.  Every level is more or less the same, as you fight hordes of Death Eaters to reach the end of the stage.  Some game critics have crucified the game for its repetitive nature, but I fail to see the problem.  Nearly every game on the market is ‘repetitive,’ using one core gameplay style throughout, and I didn’t find the lack of variety to be a problem since that core gameplay is so much fun.  I would have appreciated more variety - I was very disappointed that there is no gameplay involving the dragon, broomsticks, or the mine-cart in Gringotts, all of which seem tailor-made for a video game - but the gameplay we do get is addictive enough to satisfy.  It also helps that the player gets something new to do in each level, be it a new spell or ability.  In the last third of the game, for instance, Harry learns to apparate, which is an incredibly fun gameplay mechanic that allows you to teleport throughout the battle. 

The graphics, meanwhile, keep things interesting even during stretches where the game does start to slow down.  Maybe it’s just because the last Potter game I played was on a 16-bit cartridge, but I was really impressed with the graphics on display here.  Hogwarts and all the areas you play through and rendered beautifully, each environment a loving and detailed recreation of the film sets.  When these areas are inhabited with dozens of Death Eaters and rapid back-and-forth spellcasting, the graphics really become impressive, as they never fail to keep up with the chaos. 

The character models aren’t necessarily awe-inspiring, but they get the job done, and the same can be said of the voice acting.  Some of the actors from the film reprise their roles, and they all sound great.  Rupert Grint as Ron, Matthew Long as Neville, and Evanna Lynch as Luna are the most notable Potter actors here, though some of the other minor characters also retain their original voices.  As for the replacements, it’s all very hit and miss.  The girl voicing Hermione sounds absolutely nothing like Emma Watson, but is decent in the role, while Harry’s voice would be a dead-ringer for Daniel Radcliffe if the replacement actor had any enthusiasm for the material.  The faux-Snape sounds exactly like the hilarious caricature I remember from the Sorcerer’s Stone game, and McGonagall is laughably bad.  While I think getting the whole cast together to voice their characters would have been special, I don’t know if this would really feel like a Potter game without all the cheesy acting.  The music, however, is absolutely fantastic: composer James Hannigan has worked on many of these games, and he’s still doing a great job, consistently creating the perfect atmosphere with his music.  The sound effects are equally impressive, and overall, the game is just as nice to listen to as it is to look at.

The biggest problem I suspect most people will have with the game is that it’s short.  Really short.  There are three difficulties, but only the first two are available to you on the first run-through; I played it on the harder of the two, “Advanced” mode, and the game took me five to six hours to complete.  If you want lots and lots of time out of a game, Deathly Hallows probably isn’t for you; I personally don’t mind short games, as I rarely have time to sit down and play a massive 40-hour campaign in the first place.  Hallows is a short five hours, but it’s a quality five hours, and that’s what counts in the end. 

Plus, the game encourages you to play through again, as you can go through and play levels with all the spells and abilities you’ve learned after beating the campaign; you can also find hidden collectibles in each level, repeat the game on “Expert” mode, and play “Challenge” courses (which are just timed versions of stages from the game).  It’s not a classic host of extras, but it does increase the value of the game, and I’m sure that players could squeeze at least fifteen hours out of the game if they wish to find all the Xbox Achievements. 

I’m not going to argue that Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a modern gaming classic or a must-play game, but for my money, it’s lots of fun.  I love Harry Potter, I love shooters, and I found the marriage of these two seemingly disparate elements to be very rewarding.  Potter aficionados should give the game a try - though if you’re not interested in multiple plays or collectibles, you might want to rent it - but be prepared to laugh very hard at some of the hilariously trimmed cutscenes and botched characterizations.  That, after all, might be the most magical part for long-time Potter fans. 

This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game; the Wii and PS3 versions are the same with options for motion control, while the PC version is identical.  

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