Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Review (Xbox360)

As cultural phenomenon go, Harry Potter stands as one of the most unimpeachable creations to latch onto our collective subconscious in recent times; and it just goes to show how truly out of touch a lot of children's entertainment has become. After all, there's only so much Pokemon anybody can take, regardless of age, and at least the Potter series has managed to tap into everyone's innate interest in all things magical and mysterious, regardless of the religious zealots who may tell you otherwise. This strong play on imagination and creativity has been the root of the series success so far, and it's a shame that EA didn't take a few more risks when creating the latest videogame version, as the Order Of The Phoenix is unfortunately bogged down by tradition and unimaginative design.

All the main characters are present and correct
Alan Rickman is mysteriously absent from the cast

This latest instalment (tested here on both Xbox 360 and PSP) follows the plot of the book and the recently released film of the same name. Potter is concerned with the reappearance of arch-nemesis Voldemort following a series of suspicious events taking place around Hogwarts, and much of the game is centred on assembling an army of compatriots in preparation for the forthcoming battle. Most of your fellow students will need persuasion to join your cause however, and performing tasks for each prospective candidate forms the majority of the gameplay on offer.

If there's one thing that OOTP does extremely well, its undoubtedly the presentation of the main environment itself. Hogwarts is rendered in meticulous detail, and can be wandered around at will, without any loading times to speak of (except the PSP version, which unfortunately suffers in this regard). Little atmospheric touches abound, and simply walking around the school taking in the sights can eat up a good chunk of time. There are numerous secret passages to discover, side-quests to undertake and mini-games to beat, and as a freeform sandbox title OOTP undoubtedly has a lot to offer for a few hours at least. Players with a slight OCD complex will also be in seventh heaven as Hogwarts is in a somewhat untidy state, and fixing things up as you wander around provides a method of unlocking bonus content and character upgrades.

Hermione and Ron follow you around the entirety of Hogwarts
Spell casting is a fairly simple affair

The atmosphere is also helped by the fact that Hogwarts is populated with masses of students, all of which are rendered faithfully by the game engine. All of the main characters are represented with a good level of detail, with some excellent likenesses and the same voice cast as the film (barring Alan Rickman for some reason). Dialogue throughout is generally well delivered and cut scenes are brief and for the most part in-engine. Whilst some of these could have done with a bit more polish in terms of camera angles and pacing, the general flow suits the game well, even if it may be a little confusing for those with no prior knowledge of the plot.

Of course it doesn't become a Harry Potter game until you've been asked to get your wand out (stop sniggering at the back), and OOTP is no slouch in that regard. Potter is capable of around six different manoeuvres in total, all mapped to the right analogue stick and context-sensitive depending on either adventuring or combat scenarios. Spells such as Depulso, Reducto and Wingardium Leviosa are used to move items and objects around or set things in fire, whilst the same movements in a combat situation will produce offensive and defensive spells to protect comrades or assault any foes. Spellcasting itself is a simple affair, requiring either a rotation or a double-tap of the analogue stick in a particular direction, and the lack of complexity here serves to keep the action flowing with a minimum of fuss.

So far so good then, and OOTP certainly has some solid foundations to work with, but unfortunately the incredibly bland and repetitive mission structure, combined with a few technical flaws, manages to kill the experience for anyone but the most diehard Potter fans. (and I realise there are a fair few of you out there)

From the first moments, OOTP tasks the player with numerous quests that involve little more than fetching and carrying, or simply moving an object for the most part. For example, the tutorial level has you tidying up broken crockery and moving furniture around with the various spells at your disposal, housework by any other name. Thanks to the physics engine this isn't as dull as it initially sounds, and there is certainly a sense of satisfaction from shifting objects into place, but to be doing essentially the same actions throughout the entire 7-8 hours of gameplay is more than enough to test any players patience. Later missions will see you moving fireworks into place or fitting packages into delivery holes, but with the same degree of difficulty as the very first brandishing of the wand. Mission design is largely unimaginative and simply a question of finding object A and moving it to point B, and even for a kids game it's overly simplistic.

Added to this is the fantastic amount of travelling that needs to be done throughout the course of the story. Whilst you can run (although it feels more like a jog in execution), it'll still take a good few minutes to get between locations on either side of the Marauder's Map, and the chances are that you'll be travelling all the way back again in a matter of seconds. It's a poor way to pad out any game, and whilst the developers have made an effort to provide distractions along the way, after running over the same bridge for the 15th time in an hour it just becomes a chore.

You will briefly step out of Potters' shoes, but not for long

That said, there is enough content here to keep any Potter fan happy, and at times the game exudes enough character and charm to suggest something grander. It is good to see EA at least making the effort to provide proper fan-service this time around, and the technical merits of the game are pronounced (especially the full physics implementation in the PSP version). If the mission for any film or book tie-in game is simply to recreate the atmosphere of the source material, then OOTP is certainly a success in that regard. The location is setup, the cast is in place, but we're still waiting for a decent game to take true advantage of the licence.

Top Game Moment:
Discovering a secret passage to cut down on the amount of walking around...