Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 preview

Harry Potter may be the biggest franchise of our time; this generation’s Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. It’s estimated that the seven books have collectively sold over 400 million copies, and the movies have made $4.5 billion worldwide – a figure from well before the release of the two finale films, which hit theaters next month and next year, respectively.

There’s been at least one video game released to coincide with each movie. Countless gamers, myself included, practically grew up with Harry Potter. We hold the character and the stories dear to our hearts, but so far, the games have largely failed to capture our imaginations. The most critically acclaimed are the LEGO Harry Potter entries, with the rest, including Quidditch World Cup (which really could have been awesome), resting firmly in mediocrity.

With only two games of the main series remaining, it would be easy to write the franchise off as lost and move on. EA Bright Light hasn’t given up on us though, and after some hands-on time with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, I can at least say that EA Bright Light is making an effort to drastically shift the game’s focus.

As any Harry Potter fan can tell you, Deathly Hallows is the first book in the series to assign Hogwarts to a peripheral role. Harry and his fellow heroes spend most of their time away from the ancient, magical school. According to EA Bright Light’s Jonathan Bunney, executive producer for the entire Harry Potter series, the team’s newfound freedom to explore other environments has been, “in a word, intense.”

“The biggest character in the last two games has really been Hogwarts,” Bunney said, before promising that the lack of focus on Hogwarts has allowed the artists to create a much more diverse array of locations.

In addition to exploring new environments, Bunney claims that they studio has focused its efforts in two primary areas: “action and storytelling,” which he believes will help the game appeal to a much broader audience than past entries. The redesigned combat system – which feels more like Gears of War than Ratchet and Clank – will allow “hardcore” players to take advantage of “deeper gameplay mechanics, like using cover, stealth or potions.” On the other hand, casual players or kids can crank down the difficulty “and just get out there in the thick of the action and not have to worry too much about strategy or set up.”

“They can immediately feel powerful,” said Bunney. That’s definitely important for a game in which the main character can hurl fireballs and bend enemies to his will at the flick of a wand. To that end, Bunney believes the new engine, built from the ground up, will give the game an edge over previous series titles.

That’s all well and good, but what about capturing that Harry Potter magic? Will Deathly Hallows fall victim to the same pitfalls that plague so many movie tie-in games? Naturally, Bunney assures us they’ve got the tools, know-how and resources to ensure that it doesn’t.

“We may have a fixed schedule tied to a release date, but we also have access to an already known and well loved set of characters and deeply engaging and well proved storylines to work with,” he said. “This means that more development time can be spent on our gameplay and technology and not on deciding whether our character should wear glasses and have a scar on his forehead or not.”

To top it off, the relationship they’ve developed with WB and creator/author J. K. Rowling has allowed the developers to waste less time on trivialities like “license matters,” while “more time can be spent on working together to create authentic and high quality visuals, audio and gameplay.”

Of course, there’s still one elephant in the room: Kinect. The marriage of wand-waving and hands-free gaming was announced early last summer, and it left more than a few gamers and Harry Potter fans flummoxed. Wouldn’t Move or even the Wii’s MotionPlus be a better fit?

I thought Kinect would be the last choice, but Bunney warbles a different tune. “The thought of being able to control a game without any handheld controller at all is really interesting and something that we wanted to play with,” he said. “It’s refreshing to be able to stand up and move freely without a controller in your hand and command your [Xbox] 360 to play a game. It’s definitely forced us to think about game design in a new way.”

But, they couldn’t just shoehorn Kinect into their existing game. After all, they had been developing Deathly Hallows Part 1 for some time before Kinect was even revealed. “To really take advantage of Kinect, we feel that you need to include it from the ground up,” he said. That’s how the challenge missions, which play essentially like an on-rails wizard shooter controlled with hand gestures, came to be.

Developing for Kinect has been challenging, though not in the ways one might assume, according to Bunney. For example, he said their biggest challenge has more to do with the different ways people interpret instructions than the accuracy of the hardware itself. “If you tell 10 people to make a gesture of throwing a ball, you’ll see 10 different gestures for throwing a ball,” he said. “They may be only subtly different, but different they will all be.”

Bunney seems to view this penultimate game as a chance to give fans a new type of Harry Potter game. “For the first time, we’ve led development on the HD consoles and created a brand new game engine,” he said. “Our storytelling scenes utilize motion capture, both full body and facial, in order to create the most cinematic sequences we’ve ever had.”

It sounds as though Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 has all the right elements to succeed, not to mention Kinect support. If nothing else, I’m excited to see how it turns out.