Version tested: Xbox 360
The end credits of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 are really quite lovely. It's a montage of scenes from all the Harry Potter games stretching all the way back to the quaintly cartoony Philosopher's Stone in 2001 - reminding us that while it may have been the books and films that got all the headlines, gaming has kept pace with the boy wizard as well. It's just a pity that the game leading up to this nostalgic indulgence doesn't feel more substantial.
As with last year's Deathly Hallows Part 1, this is purely an action game, albeit one without wretched Kinect control this time. Gears of Wands would be a good pithy soundbite, so let's use that. Harry (or one of many other characters) trots down a corridor level strewn with convenient cover items. Death Eaters, Voldemort's scruffy, gothic henchfolk, pour in from the other side and you pew-pew-pew with your wand until they're all dead. Or not so much dead as magically evaporated.
This is, as the genre demands, a very violent game. It's also a game for young 'uns, and EA's Brightlight Studio has been forced to tread a tricky tightrope in order to convey the apocalyptic danger finally facing Potter and his friends while also remaining suitable for older kids. The result is a game where Harry will quite happily blast a retreating enemy in the back with an explosive Confringo spell, only for the evidence of his brutality to literally vanish in a puff of smoke.
There are compromises in the control as well. The game lacks the weight or precision that adult third-person shooters demand, leaving the player struggling with a flaky cover system and loose aiming. The Apparate command, which is unlocked further into the game, is particularly lumpy in execution. A teleport spell supposedly designed to get you out of danger in an emergency, in reality it tends to leave you stuck to cover on the wrong side, with your back to the enemy.
Sometimes it won't activate at all, a real problem when the game relies so heavily on Call of Duty-style spawn triggers, suddenly dropping a bunch of enemies directly in front of you but only when you've wandered far enough from safety for there to be no survivable way of fighting back. Health is short and depletes rapidly, and while the checkpointing is fairly lenient, it often feels as though progress comes about more through luck than judgement.
Also peculiar are some of the creative choices that have been made. You don't just play as Harry but as other characters as and when the plot demands it. Ron and Hermione, obviously, but also less obvious warriors such as Seamus Finnigan (he's Irish, amazingly) as he places magical bombs to bring down the iconic Hogwarts covered bridge to stop the Death Eaters' approach. Can't wizards teleport and fly on broomsticks? Yes. Yes they can. Never let it be said that Potter's world was afraid of a little illogical contrivance.
What's weird about the multiple characters is that each one shares exactly the same skills and spells depending on which level of the game they're in. So when you play as Professor McGonagall early on, she knows fewer spells than Hermione in the next chapter, while Neville Longbottom knows even more spells a few levels later. It's a strange, limiting way of using the enormous cast and leaves the game feeling very flat. All these wondrous characters, all reduced to exactly the same faux-soldier avatar. It's a waste, and ensures that a game crying out for variety provides very little.
Even the spells on offer quickly feel restrictive. There are six offensive spells, from simple Stupefy all the way up to the lock-and-fire magical rockets of Impedimenta, and Protego as a surrogate (and not very effective) shield. Each has its uses - shattering enemy protection, for example - but it ignores all the other spells that have been introduced throughout the series in favour of ones that most resemble magic bullets. Why can't we levitate objects and use those to deflect attacks or hurl at enemies? Why can't we turn invisible to flank enemies? This is a wizarding game with precious little magic.
Breaking up the corridor shooting are a mini-boss battle against a giant (which rewards relentless attack spamming over any real strategy) and some clumsy chase sequences in which characters run towards the screen, away from an ephemeral pursuer. These are especially difficult to gauge as sometimes you can be caught within seconds while at other times you'll put a lot of ground between you, only for it to catch up immediately. It's all very vague, and getting through these sections requires patience and luck, two things that have no place in a well-designed game, especially one for kids.
What really sinks the experience is how thin it all feels. This is the final battle, the culmination of 10 years of adventures drawn from seven doorstop books and eight lengthy movies, and yet by boiling it all down to duck-shoot-shoot the scale is lost. Vital character moments are tossed aside in brief cut-scenes, if they're mentioned at all, while the world itself remains completely unexplored. The previous games certainly had their faults, but at least they gave fans the chance to do what they really want to do: explore Hogwarts and live in that world, if only for a brief time. Now that world is actually threatened and changed in interesting ways, the game responds by closing everything off.
Beyond the obvious on-screen action, there's literally nothing else to do. There are smattering of obligatory collectables, but these only unlock static character models and isolated music tracks to be accessed from the main menu. Neither are the sort of gift that will appeal to fans, adult or child.
There are Challenge Stages, but these are simply the story mode levels replayed again with a time trial mechanism dropped on top. There are no secrets, no surprises and there's no reason to slug through the mayhem more than once. There's not even a co-op mode, a bizarre omission considering it's a feature intrinsically linked to the sort of third-person action game being copied here, and that you're almost always accompanied by at least one AI partner who could desperately use some human interaction.
It's only at the very end that Deathly Hallows Part 2 grapples with the enormity of the events it depicts, but by then it's too little, too late. What gravitas it summons is borrowed from print and film rather than earned through gameplay, and the retro-tinged montage that follows feels less effective as a result; a momentary whimsy rather than the capstone on a meaningful adventure.
Devotees may still play along, through fandom obligation if nothing else, but there's no spell that can change the fact that Harry Potter's videogame saga ends with a whimper rather than a bang.
4 / 10