The world's favourite boy wizard must have caused a bit of upset for the big cheeses at Electronic Arts this year. Whereas other well-behaved franchises like Lord of the Rings helpfully offer up a new movie every Christmas, conveniently slap bang in the middle of the peak-selling time for the videogames industry, Harry Potter took the winter off. With the launch of his biggest literary adventure yet taking place last summer, and his next big screen outing not due until the middle of 2004, there was no obvious media tie-in for EA to exploit.
But Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without a Harry Potter game - and to EA's credit, their solution to the problem of what to offer parents as stocking filler for their broomstick-mad offspring is as clever as it is obvious. After all, here's a company with buckets of experience at taking real-life sports and making them fantastical (SSX, anyone?), and here's a franchise which features a fantastical sport that half the kids in the country would give their right arm to play (or at least, the bones in their right arm [Potter in-joke number one, and only the second paragraph! -Ed]. Can you say "synergy"? No, you probably can't, without looking a complete fool, but damn, those EA execs love their synergies.
The basics of playing Quidditch World Cup are just that - basic - and even the littlest Potter-phile will get their head around the concept pretty quickly. You fly over a long pitch with three goal hoops at either end, and much like any other field sports game, the objective is to grab the ball and get it up the field to you opponent's goal by means of either passing to players ahead of you, or weaving through enemy players on the field. Then you volley the ball through an unguarded goal hoop in order to score ten points, and your enemy gets the Quidditch equivalent of a goal kick - a pass from the keeper out to a player in their back row. All of this should be complicated by the fact that Quidditch is played in mid-air, so the pitch should be three-dimensional - but in what was probably a very wise move, the designers have chosen to fake it, so although you swoop up and down as you move, you don't actually have any control over the up and down movement yourself, and it doesn't really affect the gameplay. It just looks cool.
In order to spice things up, the game regularly awards each team with special icons which unlock certain abilities within the game. The most basic of these is a "Dodge" move which allows you to do, well, pretty much exactly what it says on the tin; you can also be granted the ability to call upon one of your beaters to fire a bludger at an enemy player (look, if you've read this far, you obviously care to some degree about Harry Potter, so there's no point going over the basics of what a beater and a bludger are, is there?), or to perform a "special move" - either an unblockable tackle, an unblockable goal shot or, under certain circumstances, a "team special move" - a combination move using all your players which generally nets you 20 points rather than the normal 10. A nice touch is that you can see which of these abilities the computer player currently has stacked up as well, so the AI can't cheat in that respect.
Of course, there's another rather important element of Quidditch which we haven't touched upon here - namely the Golden Snitch, an incredibly fast ball which is worth 150 points to whichever team catches it, and the capture of which ends the match. While each team has a player whose role it is to catch the snitch, this isn't something that actually affects the game in the slightest - and your only indication of how close they are to catching the elusive winged nuisance is a graph at the top of the screen where two halves of a ball slowly come together as the game progresses. Once they meet, you're dropped into an entirely different sub-game, where you must race against one other player for possession of the snitch by following a clearly marked glowing path in mid-air. Sticking to the path gives you a speed boost, and you also have a boost meter which gradually fills up and can be used to overtake your opponent or make a final dash for the snitch.
The whole snitch element of the game threatened to derail Quidditch World Cup from the outset, since the points awarded for capturing it are so disproportionate compared to the points for scoring goals, but the team at EA has managed to make this element of the game feel remarkably balanced, mostly by making the ball game itself very fast and high scoring, so that a 150 point difference often isn't that much by the end of the game. Certainly, you could end up grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory by losing the snitch after playing a relatively good game, but in general even fairly average players will find themselves opening up major leads in the early matches at least, thus making the question of who captures the snitch somewhat academic.
World Cup Fever
The structure of the game is very friendly and obviously designed with children in mind, although it's never patronising even to an adult player. The first section of the game introduces you to all of the elements of the sport by allowing you to choose one of the Hogwarts houses and guide them through the Hogwarts Quidditch Cup, with each match being prefaced by a number of challenges which show off different aspects of gameplay. Winning the Hogwarts cup allows you to assume control of one of the national teams taking part in the Quidditch World Cup and follow their exploits through the cup, and of course there's always the option of playing an exhibition match.
In order to keep the game interesting, certain achievements unlock Quidditch Cards, of which there are 150 to collect in total. These cards (which in true Potter form have 3D moving pictures on them) unlock a variety of features and special moves in the game, and working to collect them all will keep kids occupied with the single-player elements of the game for hours.
Graphically, Quidditch World Cup isn't about to win any awards for its good looks, although it does throw around two Quidditch teams and an impressive array of special effects at a very decent framerate. Each of the world cup stadiums is designed to reflect the character of its nation, and there's plenty of imagination at work here - we particularly like the American stadium, which looks like something out of Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow. Unfortunately the game lacks variety in other areas, such as the post-goal celebration animations, of which there are about six, and you'll get tired of watching them very quickly.
The Sorting Hat Says...
The commentary can also be painful at times as a result of the very small variety of phrases available to the commentators, which is a bit of a shame because the voice acting in the game is generally excellent and well in keeping with the whole Potter universe. Indeed, the attention to detail here is very laudable; real Potter fans will love the ability to spot even minor characters from the books making appearances on the Quidditch teams and playing in their correct positions, and the whole thing has been put together with the utmost of respect for the material on which it is based.
Ultimately, that's what lifts Quidditch World Cup above being an average, if well-implemented, fantasy sports game. The whole thing should, by all rights, be the gaming equivalent of being subjected to a Crucius curse (that's, er, not very pleasant, for all you non-Potterphiles), but it doesn't feel like the cynical cash-in which we'd fully expected. The whole game is full of deft little touches which make it into a worthy part of JK Rowling's magical universe, from the overblown special effects on the World Cup Quidditch pitches to Malfoy's scowl when Slytherin are beaten. This is a game which has been steered by the hand of real fans of the book, and it shows - and while there's not a lot here to interest a really hardcore gamer, the heart of the matter is that any Harry Potter crazy child who receives this from a relative over Christmas is not going to be in the slightest bit disappointed with it. And that's what's important, at the end of the day.