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Games and films don't tend to mix well, perhaps because the appeal of the two medias is fundamentally different. As one wise soul put it, watching games is boring, and whilst storytelling is of paramount importance to the silver-screen, games are usually constrained rather than liberated by pre-packaged narratives. This, as well as tight development deadlines, usually makes for unimaginative re-enactments of scenes fans are already familiar with, lurching from one scenario to the next in a vain attempt to integrate gameplay with cinema.
These complaints are mostly present in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, EA's sixth game-of-the-film-of-the-book. Harry Potter is starting his sixth year in Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry, and the rumour-mill is quickly up and running with talk of the return of uber-evil ugly dude Lord Voldemort (real name: Tom). Harry's pals Ron and Hermione meanwhile are too busy romancing "other people" for the purpose of making each other unhappy, to notice. Harry's nemesis Draco Malfoy is up to no good (when is he ever not?) and the new potions teacher, Professor Slughorn, knows rather more of the dangers Harry and co. face than he is letting on. Add to this the Slytherin bullies, brimming with such prejudice-loaded lines as: "I smell Mudblood" (if that isn't wizard-racism, I don't know what is), and you've got all the ingredients for an action packed adventure.
In fairness, though hopes for the PSP version of the game were at best tepid, the early phases do at least threaten to buck the trend as film tie-ins go. The obvious draw for fans is the ability to explore Hogwarts, even if this has been the chief perk of pretty much every Harry Potter game to date. Here you have to complete objectives which follow the original story (such as mixing a potion of luck, or visiting headmaster Dumbledore for some characteristically cryptic dialogues), but it's nice to see the game doesn't constrain itself too severely as Harry is given all manner of additional tasks that encourage exploration of the grounds. There's a healthy supply of students that you can have a chin-wag with, and tasks range from recovering Luna Lovegood's stolen dress, finding a rare Quidditch figurine and attaining equipment needed for Potions class. These integrate nicely into The Half-Blood Prince's narrative strand and make for a fairly engaging experience, as students drop hints, swap desired items for info and other goods and for awhile, it feels like it has the makings of a solid role-playing game.
The trouble is, the errands never really develop into anything more than search-and-fetch missions. A significant amount of the game is spent journeying from person to person, collecting some item of importance and delivering to the desired party, before the process is repeated and you must pick up the scent once more, and because the mini-games are rarely integrated with the objectives, it starts to get samey after a time. In a credible attempt to add some schoolyard intrigue, the game features various forms of currency that can be swapped and traded. Butterbeer and wizard-chess pieces are valuable, whilst gobstones and wizard cards and less so, but more abundant. Unfortunately, amassing them in great number requires no effort, as the simple two-button casting of a charm on chairs, bookcases, drapes and cobwebs allows you to accumulate them
Hogwarts is solidly designed, with several floors, key locations and a fair bit of the school grounds recreated. It would have been nice if there had been some secret areas to uncover, and you can't visit locations such as Hagrid's hut, the Hogsmeade village or The Burrow as all are generally glossed over in cut-scenes. Beyond mingling, there isn't a great deal to do within the field of play, and so emphasis shifts to the inevitable slew of mini-games, some proving better than others.
Starting with the good, there's Gobstones, which sees the player firing said stone at a cluster of others in the centre of a ring and attempting to knock as many out as possible. There's a couple of nice variants which spice things up, including one where the player is challenged to land the stones as close to a circular ravine in the middle without going over the edge. Wizard skittles uses a similar mechanism but plays like pinball, as you can ricochet the ball off the sides in order to hit the harder-to-reach skittles.
These, as well as the nicely-implemented (but at times brutally tough) Exploding Snap are the best of the bunch - they're nothing special, but provide simple, addictive fun for short periods. Inconveniently, HPatHBP's weakest facets are also the ones it leans heaviest upon. Duelling is embarrassingly threadbare - the side-on perspective makes it look a bit like a beat 'em up only you can't manoeuvre Harry. The sum total of your available actions amount to firing high or straight bolts from the wand, deflecting incoming attacks, or firing slow bolts that temporarily incapacitates your foe should it land. Bouts are thus entirely uninteresting and very difficult to lose. But it gets worse.
The Quidditch is quite terrible. The player flies around from a top-down perspective, and it appears "X" is the only button that does anything, with both "throw" and "charge" allotted to it. Colliding with an opponent instantly trades possession, resulting in some farcical pinball moments. It's as if the last twenty-five years of gaming never happened; aiming is a pain, movement is heavy and cumbersome whilst all of your team-mates seem to blindly follow your every move and thus leave you open to counterattacks when you lose possession - it's plays like a nightmarish recreation of Speedball II, only on broomsticks. And as befits J.K. Rowling's contradictory points system, the score of the match is barely relevant anyway so long as you capture the golden "snitch" when prompted.
The game's scattergun quality extends to the visuals, with a host of detailed and very distinctive environments in Hogwarts; the library, Herbology gardens and the various classrooms all looking good. Characters are distinguishable but somewhat starved of detail (perhaps in part due to the large number of them) and the animation within the cut-scenes is woeful. The films often deliver strong musical scores but, apart from the odd rare flourish, HPatHBP's tunes disappoint with unfocused melodies adding nothing to the atmosphere, and seeming detached from the goings on of the adventure. Lack of voice-acting isn't a problem as the dialogue box-outs are clear and coherently scripted, though the limits of its visual design means that important story moments tend to pass by with little panache.
The mini-games inject a bit of additional longevity to the adventure as there are more than fifty Quidditch player cards to unlock and admire. Despite this, replay value is very thin on the ground and realistically you're looking at three or four days worth of play in total. I bought it for £2.99 in a Boxing Day sale, though it's hard to recommend at full-price. It articulates the story soundly and there are positives, but ultimately it can't break the film tie-in stigma, with a setting that is full of potential but ends up offering unremarkable and uninventive gameplay. For PSP-owning fans, the LEGO Harry Potter game is likely a better bet.