Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
It's easy to hate Harry Potter. The whole phenomenon has clearly got out of hand, with the media circus surrounding the books turning into nothing less than mass hysteria with the release of the film. And yet, despite it all, I can't help declaring myself a massive fan. I resisted bravely at first, nauseated by rows upon rows of people reading the bright red books on trains, tubes and park benches. The kind of people who haven't touched a book since Noddy, whose idea of an intellectual challenge is reading the Daily Mail instead of The Sun or, even worse, the kind of people who only read whatever everyone else is reading - whether it's Bridget Jones' Diary or Captain Corelli's (bloody) Mandolin. Now I've read all the books twice (disguised under a Will Self hardback jacket if the reading was done in public) and am firmly under the spell of Rowling. But let's get one thing straight: no matter how much the critics rave, the film adaptation is merely competent. They've taken the Star Wars feel of the novels and turned it into a big budget version of the Famous Five, which will only satisfy kids. The curious thing is, that while the game is still aimed squarely at children, it's also rather good.
All credit must go to EA for not turning this into the shameless moneymaking coaster it could have been. When you consider that a PSOne version was released simultaneously, it's amazing that this is a great looking PC title which, though it does have strong console roots, has been developed as a separate product. The mere fact that you can redefine your keys and use the mouse lets you know right from the start this is not just a console port.
The core of the gameplay is a sort of stripped down Tomb Raider, combining platform jumping, elemental puzzles and a few sub games to keep things interesting. While the plot follows that of the book, most of the game is structured around learning spells and putting them into practice. You attend classes, "learn" the spells by tracing their symbols with your mouse and complete an obstacle course challenge after each lesson. It doesn't sound like groundbreaking entertainment, but two things elevate it above the standard platform game: the recreation of Hogwarts and quidditch. You can read more about the recreation of the wizard sport in the side panel, but it's the school environments lifted out of Rowling's pages that catch your immediate attention. The game has been developed with inside knowledge of the film, and so most characters look and even sound like the actors who portray them, but Hogwarts seems to come alive much more clearly here. The excellent graphics help, of course, and remind me of the kind of sumptuous interiors to be found in Clive Barker's Undying. In fact, in some respects, this is like a children's version of that game. The architecture, the use of spells, the simplistic (almost automatic) puzzles, the platforms hovering over great voids and the extreme linearity all bring to mind that other EA title.
A Kind Of Magic
The simplicity of the game isn't a real criticism, though. The storybook style that introduces the game and occasionally links segments together makes it very clear what age group it's aimed at. So although most of you will find it too easy (there's even an option to make all jumping automatic, for crying out loud), you should remember it wasn't designed for Quakeheads. The old-school platform elements reinforce that idea. You can collect Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans and wizard cards, most of which can be found in secret passages and other hidden areas. There is certain room for exploration, but not the kind of free-roaming you'd expect had this been aiming to be a more complex and sophisticated experience. There are also moments that require real skill. The broomstick flying sections can be quite tricky and you even have to resort to stealth in one of the levels.
The Philosopher's Stone, the first of the books, is the shortest and simplest. But as the characters get older, the books become more complex. We can only hope that future games (and films) will reflect this. What about a Zelda/Deus Ex hybrid for The Goblet of Firtf You never know.