Version tested: Xbox 360
For 13 years I've been wishing that somebody would make a great Harry Potter game. Hogwarts, with its magical secrets and hidden nooks, is a setting made for interactivity; I've always imagined that a talented developer could create one of the best adventure games ever made with this material.
LEGO Harry Potter is brilliant in its own way, and something I would doubtless have thought was amazing when I was nine and first started reading the books, but there's surely room for a more adult interpretation. Harry Potter's fans have grown up just like he has, after all.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows could fit this remit. It's set in the fiction's darkest period, with Harry away from the safety of Hogwarts and on the run from Voldemort's Death Eaters, alone and afraid in a world with no Dumbledore and very little hope for salvation. The colour scheme certainly conforms; the saturation has been turned right down and everything has a hint of grey to it. But instead of a mature adventure, we've got a sequence of seemingly unconnected events stitched together into a shooting gallery, with a cover system that barely works and some of the worst first-person stealth sections I've seen in the past half-decade.
As a person who's intimately familiar with Harry Potter, you'd think I'd have a good idea of what's going in in Deathly Hallows, but no. Often it doesn't even bother putting a cut-scene between missions to explain how they're connected to each other.
Near the beginning of the game, just after Harry escapes The Burrow, you're given the choice between three missions. One drops you into a dragon's lair and tells you to escape – with absolutely no explanation of what Harry is doing in the dragon's lair or how he got there. The other two have you rescuing Muggle-born wizards from Snatchers in completely disparate settings with a similar lack of context.
The game explains itself so poorly that it's a complete muddle, even for fans, let alone for the casual players to whom its over-simplistic shooting is presumably designed to appeal. The actual missions are roughly comparable to a light-gun shooter. You run through levels as enemies appear out of nowhere in plumes of black smoke, aiming at them with the left trigger and shooting spells at them with the right.
There are only a few enemy models, so it's as if all the Death Eaters are from the same two families. Occasionally you'll be shooting at two identical ones standing right next to each other. Harry can snap into cover against conveniently-placed pillars, upturned desks and sheets of corrugated iron, but it's barely necessary because the enemies can't aim very well and there is no such thing as AI.
It's literally mindless. Defeated wizards drop potions, but the game never tells you what any of them do, just invisibly applies their effects. Harry levels up completely on his own – the most you hear of it is when "Health Increased" or something similar appears on the screen. In a similar attempt to remove all impetus towards independent thought from the game, you can press a button to cast Four Points, a spell that shows you exactly where to go at all times via a glowing trail – unless it's behind you, in which case you'll have to turn around before the button will work.
Occasional moments of variety come in the form of stealth sections. Under Harry's invisibility cloak, you must walk around in first-person, viewing the world through the silvery folds of the enchanted material and listening to his panicked breathing as he sneaks around on a crowded street or inside the Ministry of Magic. If you bump into anyone you immediately become visible, and therefore susceptible to attack.
The problem is, in first-person you can't actually see when someone is walking up behind you. The AI is so bad that people Apparate into rooms and walk around at random (including up against or even inside solid walls) so there is nowhere safe to hide. Harry's cloak is inexplicably rechargeable, meaning that you're forced to stand stock still in the middle of a crowd of hostile wizards whilst a little triangle in the bottom-left of the screen recharges at an incredibly slow pace.
It's nearly impossible to avoid detection under such circumstances. The best way to progress is to dash towards wherever you're supposed to go as fast as possible, ignoring the Invisibility Cloak, and hope that you reach the next checkpoint before you die from the inevitable barrage of spells. It's utterly broken.
Hilariously, the same tactic works for the shooting sections. Just run past everything, and you might make progress. If you try to play the game the way it wants you to – by sneaking around in the stealth sections, or using cover in the shooting galleries – you'll just fail, over and over.
The cover system doesn't even work half the time. Harry will stick to low walls without crouching, or cling pointlessly to pieces of scenery that appear to offer him no protection. Throwing potions with the d-pad is similarly temperamental – half the time he'll just blast off a standard spell instead.
The spells themselves, depressingly, are guns in all but name. There's a machine gun spell, a shotgun spell, a few incapacitating spells. But there's barely any need to do anything other than spam the the first, most basic spell, which is what the enemies usually do as well. "Stupefy! Stupefy! Stupefy!" shouts everyone, appropriately, as your brain starts to leak out of your ears from tedium.
To a Potter fan, Deathly Hallows is an endless list of disappointments and incongruities. Casting Expecto Patronum at Dementors doesn't even conjure a stag, just a pathetic silver sphere. To non-Potter fans, thanks to the game's complete inability to explain itself, the mission objectives must sound like an obscure parody. "Rescue the Muggle-borns from the Snatchers." "Follow Mafalda Hopkirk and attempt to subdue her without being discovered." "1/3 Polyjuice collected." It doesn't once, for instance, explain to you what a Horcrux is, despite spending most of the game telling you to go after them.
In its Xbox 360 incarnation, Deathly Hallows has a series of one- and two-player Kinect challenges lined up obediently beside the main single-player story on the title screen, desperate to add value. These actually do turn the game into an on-rails shooter. Harry and Ron move by themselves, and you cast spells at the Death Eaters that appear on the screen by waving your arms around in various configurations.
In my living-room conditions – the same living-room that proved a perfect home for my imaginary pet leopard earlier this month – I couldn't get it to work properly. Casting my arm out in front of me for the basic Stupefy spell worked about one in three times, and aiming at enemies had wildly unpredictable results. The defensive spell – holding you arms up in front of your face like you're hiding behind a sheet – didn't work at all. Even if it did work properly, though, it would still be a basic and imprecise shooting gallery with no real sense of control.
There's one thing I like about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. When Dementors are near, the screen ices over at the edges. That's quite cool. Everything else is awful. Even Harry, Ron and Hermione's limp-wristed spell-casting animation looks half-hearted. It's an insult to the fiction, an insult to the increasingly good films, and an insult to bad videogames.
3 / 10