I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that games based on movies are almost always terrible. There are a couple of reasons why this should be so. First, publishers pay a pretty penny for the rights to use a movie as the basis for a game and then force an inflexible release date on whatever studio happens to be assigned to the project. This studio then has to extract the film's action sequences, which are often only a few minutes long, and then use them as the basis for hours and hours of gameplay. And because the tie-in is riding a wave of fan interest, the developers typically feel justified in cutting corners when it comes to story and context. After all, anyone who is actually buying this game already knows the plot, right? So any effort put into telling the story is a waste.
Sadly, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 exhibits every one of those shortcomings. Action sequences that have us on the edge of our seat in the theaters become merely tedious when expanded to many times their original length. I had high hopes when I heard that this version of Harry Potter was going to feature actual shooting and cover mechanics. While it might seem a bit forced, at least it makes sense from a gameplay perspective. Sure, I didn't want Harry Potter to suddenly be storming Normandy Beach, but a little more bite in the combat would definitely make the game stand out.
Unfortunately, the shooting mechanics are off. The inconsistent lock on aiming makes it either too easy or virtually impossible to hit what you're aiming at, and it's practically useless when your targets are moving. Strangely, this is particularly troublesome during the very first level of the game. After that, enemies tend to stay in one place. Cover works, at least better than shooting, but you'll still find yourself accidentally hitting whatever you're hiding behind, which is particularly unfortunate when you're using the exploding Confringo spell.
The third person perspective definitely helps you connect with Harry, but it does highlight some camera problems. Harry has a tough time hitting things right in front of his face, which makes fighting the swarming pixies very frustrating. Trying to sneak around cramped corridors or rooms can also be problematic, especially in the stealth levels where you're wearing your invisibility cloak and desperately hoping not to bump into anyone.
Even if you do, things aren't necessarily over. There are a number of stealth missions where being detected doesn't really seem to matter all that much. You'll be asked not to be detected but, as long as you accomplish your objective, being found by your enemies is irrelevant. You may even find the mission just ends in the midst of a giant firefight after you've accomplished your objective. You almost expect to see Harry and Hermione in the next scene saying "Wow, I can't believe we got out of that one!" In fact, I was even killed during one mission, but because I had accomplished my objective, I just respawned at the start of the next chapter.
That's just one example of the game's lack of narrative cohesion. I get that anyone who plays this (or, indeed, any conscious person between the ages of ten and fifty) already knows this story. But that's no excuse for not trying to create an experience that stands on its own. Instead, the designers simply move the player from scene to scene without any attempt to make it clear that B is supposed to follow A for a reason. I read the books and even I was confused by the progression. Dragons, horcruxes and Ministry break-ins are just lined up and the player is left to fill in the transitions.
While the game is clearly aimed at Potter fans, I'm still not sure whether it's meant to be hard or easy. Some of the firefights can be fairly challenging, and the stealth missions require a fair bit of anticipation and planning. On the other hand, there's a spell you can cast that leads a glowing trail in the direction of your next objective. None of the levels are open enough to really need this feature, but it seems as if the designers are saying, "If you are dumb, go this way." Of course, the bigger question is why a bunch of wizards need to find a reason to go around a chain link fence, but that's one of the game's more subtle problems.
Ultimately, the movie license is the only thing this game has going for it. Even with the powerful momentum of the Potter marketing machine behind it, there's just not enough here to grab your attention. When you consider that this is the best we can come up with when we combine one of this generation's most important franchises with one of this generation's most stimulating entertainment forms, it's depressing enough to keep you from ever seeing your Patronum again.
Bottom Line: If you want to stare at the back of Harry's head while he shouts "Stupefy!" forty times a minute, this is the game for you. If not, then you'd better look elsewhere.
Recommendation: Go read a book.
Steve Butts is scared there's another half of this game lurking somewhere in his future.
This review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game.
Game: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: EA Bright Light
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: November 16th, 2010
Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, Wii, PC
Available from: Amazon