Prepare to be astounded. This reviewer is one of the fabled 'UK Dozen' - the remaining twelve British citizens that still haven't read a Harry Potter book. This either makes me a fantastic choice for this review or an atrocious one (make your views known through the usual channels). On the positive side I'll be able to give you an assessment completely free from Potter-love or Potter-loathing. On the negative side, diehard Potterites will have to put up with me using ignorant terminology like 'Potterites' now and again. Swings and roundabouts...
If I was outlining this game to another member of the Dozen I would describe it something like this: Goblet of Fire is a presentable child-oriented third-person action-adventure featuring lots of spectacular wizard-vs-monster combat and plenty of simple but entertaining puzzles. Play is not quite linear and not quite freeform. To make progress and unlock new locations you must (for reasons never fully explained) collect magic shields. Sometimes this means returning to previously visited levels to explore new areas and utilise new spells. Sometimes it means replaying story challenges (the Triwizard tasks from the movie) in the hope of achieving better scores and bigger rewards. Thankfully this dynamic isn't quite as repetitive as it sounds. There's an RPG-style character development system which means all activity is ultimately rewarded, the levels are large and fun to explore and there are lots of optional mini-tasks to help keep things interesting.
Hurry Harry Hurry
Outside of the Triwizard tournament episodes, Harry is never alone. Before each level you get to choose one of the holy trinity (Potter, Ron or Hermione) to control. The rejected pair of characters accompany you but are guided by the CPU. This works well enough most of the time. The friends occasionally fall behind, get in the way, or blunder into hazards like spiky plants and fire jets, but usually they are handy to have around. Lowering a heavy drawbridge on your tod is impossible. Only when two or three spectral streams latch onto it and begin to pull do you get anywhere. Fighting off a gang of goblin-like Erklings single-handed would be tough. When you've got a pal ready to jinx the foe that's currently held helpless in your levitation beam things suddenly seem a whole lot easier.
Actually I was pleasantly surprised by the way sorcery and teamwork had been implemented in Goblet of Fire. Although spell-casting is pretty simple (just aim at target and press one of two different keys or buttons) there's a good selection of charms and jinxes on offer (14 in all) and a nice variety of situations to use them in. A lot of the arcane activity has a pleasing physicality about it. Levitating a boulder then using it to crush a salamander, smash a wall, or block a burrow is enjoyable; just the kind of thing hopefully we'll be seeing more of in straight fantasy RPGs in future. There's even a bit of light magical humour thrown in. One spell transforms enemies into harmless bunnies or chickens, another inflates them until they pop, and a third leaves them wandering around dazed and confused with their heads jammed inside pumpkins.
Your future is in the cards
Adding more subtlety to the spellbinding is that character development dimension. Killing monsters and zapping different bits of scenery generates fountains of magic beans. Gather these quickly and, between levels, you can buy new trading-card buffs for the intrepid trio. Three cards per wizard can be equipped before play meaning you can customise character capabilities to suit particular challenges. Early on there's little need for careful hand selection as critters like the snappy salamanders and the irksome Erklings are easily vanquished. Later, in the atmospheric tropical glasshouses in the Herbology level, you run into tougher foes like the buzzing Mosps and come to value the cards.
Out on the tiles
Not being a fan I can't tell you how faithfully Hogwarts, the Forbidden Forest, the lake bottom, or the other locations in Goblet of Fire match the book descriptions or the film sets. I can say the levels are attractive and atmospheric. There's a lot of dashing around at night in the rain amongst the flying buttresses and gothic gargoyles of the school rooftops which is particularly moody. In contrast to previous Potter games, the devs have chosen to give platform-jumping a miss this time and to guard all dangerous drops with invisible barriers meaning you never tumble to your death. Considering the slightly flaky controls (accurate turning is tricky with a keyboard) this is a blessing.
Climbing is limited to specific predefined areas which does lead to the odd annoyance. On one frustrating occasion I spent ages magically manhandling a scaleable stone block into position below a ledge on which a shield was resting. After a few minutes of unsuccessful experimentation it became clear that - flying in the face of common sense - this wasn't a permissible solution to the puzzle. By failing to reward lateral thinking like this EA's designers break one of the golden rules of game design.
Predictably, there's a spot of broom aviation and sub-aqua action in Goblet of Fire. The first Triwizard task involves an exhilarating if easyish flight through forests, ravines, and Hogwarts' own towers and bridges; fast, fun, formulaic stuff. The second task is less successful, a much slower underwater challenge with lots of monster slaying and a button-bashing climax in a water-filled cathedral. Like the rest of the game it's competently handled, atmospheric and reasonably compelling but it doesn't leave you beaming or breathless.
Given that EA could have put Skrewt dung in a Goblet of Fire box this Christmas and watched it leap off the shelves, I think this is a remarkably solid and substantial game. Certainly no one should be ashamed of owning it or giving it as a gift this yuletide.
And if you are a) under eleven years old, or b) know the password to the Prefect's Bathroom, add at least one to the following score.