Monday, 9 March 2009

PC Game Review - Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

The first Harry Potter game is a mish-mash of really good ideas and execution, blighted by some mild to moderate annoyances. It's based on the first Harry Potter book ./ movie of course, and follows the events in the book fairly closely. The first bit with Harry's parents dying, being raised by the evil step-parents etc is summarised briefly at the beginning but the game doesn't actually start until you reach Hogwarts School.

The main part of the game is a fairly basic Tomb Raider style platformer, which due to good level design is rather enjoyable. You also have to attend classes, where you learn spells. Learning spells consists of successfully following the pattern made by the teacher by using the mouse. Better scores equal more house points. This spell-learning mini-game is a pleasing diversion from the main game because you don't have to do it very often - too many times would have been a chore. Once learned, the spells can be used in challenge courses set for you by your teachers by simply left-clicking your mouse button. The correct spell is chosen automatically depending on the object clicked on. The challenge courses also are well designed, requiring only the spells already learnt to complete, along with some good timing and puzzle-solving abilities. Getting through these challenges is easy, but getting all the challenge stars (which will usually yield more house points for Gryffindor) is a bit trickier.

Apart from the classes and challenges, there are occasionally other things that you need to do to progress through the game, such as getting past arch-nemesis Draco Malfoy, collecting Fireseeds for Hagrid or escaping from a troll. The main part of the game works well and there's plenty of variety to keep things interesting. Of course at the end of the game you have to face the same challenges that young Harry faced in the book... apart from the very last one, facing the big-chief-evil-dude-who-people-don't-want-to-name-himself, these won't take you very long. Unfortunately the main difficulty with this is with sluggish responses to your commands, the camera not managing to keep up with your character, and sometimes dodgy physic. (If you get to this part and have trouble with it, remember; jumping sideways is your friend, the camera is often your enemy, make sure the pillars count, and reflection is often bad for the soul... you'll see what I mean if you play it!)

While on the whole I was impressed with the simple elegance of the gameplay and it was a lot of fun, it has to be said that the game is fairly short and won't pose much of a challenge to seasoned gamers. The game was aimed primarily at a younger audience than myself, of course, though I'm not sure how challenging an accomplished eleven year-old game player would find it either. There were extra mini-games that I missed by simply playing through the game, but unless you're a real HP fan, you might not be too interested in finding them.

Many characters from the book are here, including Harry's friends Ron Weasley, Hermoine Granger, Neville Longbottom and Ron's mischievous brothers Fred and George, who are always after Bertie Botts' Every Flavour Beans for some impish scheme or other. The most important teachers are there and of course there's Harry's enemy no.1, Draco Malfoy, along with his cronies. Basically all the most memorable aspects and events from the book are captured in this game, right down to the chocolate frogs being what restores your energy levels.

Of course the favourite game of the wizards, Quidditch, can be found here as well. There are a couple of matches in the game and a complete league that can be played separately from the main game. The trouble is, I didn't find it much fun (and let's face it, the game doesn't make too much sense anyway). Of course as Harry you play the Seeker, on the lookout for the Golden Snitch. Chasing it down got tedious pretty quickly, and the other players (bar, possibly, the other team's Seeker) were completely superfluous. I'm not sure how they would go about making a satisfying conversion of the imaginary game to the computer screen, but this wasn't it unfortunately.

The graphics are pretty basic - the environment looks okay from a distance, but close up it can look fairly awful. There are plenty of people walking around in the game and, of course, humans are about the most difficult thing to portray well in a game. The characters looked bad anyway, and some of them looked very unlike the characters from the film (which seem to have been the basis for the computer game visualisations). Still, the geometric mapping was good at least - you didn't fall through the floor or suddenly find yourself halfway inside a wall. It all looks pretty solid, at least until you get close-up, when it looks like rather bad wallpaper... The animation wasn't great either, but it wasn't terrible.

The sound was... variable. The music was okay though a bit nondescript, but the speech was mostly mediocre and sometimes terrible. Every time Harry used a spell he would shout it, which got extremely tedious after a while. I actually preferred the game without any sound at all, on the whole!

Despite its faults, on the whole I still found Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (in the UK it's called Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, of course) to be a very enjoyable game, albeit it didn't take very long to complete. I got it in a pack with the second and third HP games (haven't played them at time of writing this review) for the princely sum of £7.50 (about $13.50 at current exchange rate); for this price, it's most definitely worth getting hold of.

Minimum System Specifications

OS:95/98/2000/ME/XP (ran in Vista but the sound was very choppy; running it in XP compatibility mode fixed this)
CPU: 266MHz
HDD Space: 500Mg
RAM: 32Mb
DirectX: 8.0
GPU: 4Mb

As you can see, there shouldn't be many systems around these days that would struggle to cope with this game!

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