Since it was rumored back in the heyday of Pokemon Go shortly after its release, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite has piqued interest. Developer Niantic’s monster-catching offering became a huge phenomenon, and the franchise power of the Wizarding World suggests a similar game could be just as significant. After spending a little time playing the augmented reality mobile game in Universal Studios Hollywood’s The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, what’s clear is that a lot of what works about Pokemon Go is also at the heart of Wizards Unite. But Niantic’s new offering is leap-frogging Pokemon Go’s early struggles to offer a lot more content at launch. The game is live a day early–its US and UK release date had been scheduled for June 21–so you can try it out right now by downloading it on iOS or Android devices.
As we saw in an earlier preview of Wizards Unite, the game’s big focus, like Pokemon Go, is on collecting stuff. An event called the “Calamity” has filled the Muggle World with people, creatures, and artifacts from the Wizarding World, and they’re all in danger of being discovered by the magic-less population. That’d be a violation of the Statute of Secrecy, an old Wizard law that dictates poor Muggles aren’t allowed to become aware of magic stuff, so as a member of the Wizarding World by way of your smartphone, your job is to collect all the magic junk (“Foundables”) and keep it away from the prying eyes of normies. You do that by physically wandering around, tapping on objects on a colorful Google Maps-like layouts of real-life locations, and attempting to break the spells (“Confoundables”) that contain Foundables.
Breaking spells requires spells of your own that you learn as you encounter Confoundables, and cast through tracing shapes on your screen with your finger–so the Foundables can be safely transported back to wherever (and whenever, in the history of the Wizarding World) they belong.
From the outset, Wizards Unite engages players in the form of an unfolding story. Nobody is quite sure how or why this Calamity situation has sprung up, but they have some ideas as to who and what might be responsible. The story has you interacting with Ministry of Magic characters who are trying to solve the mystery of what’s going on, including familiar faces, like the current, adult versions Harry and Hermione, as well as a few new folks. In the meantime, you go about collecting familiar magic objects like the Monster Book of Monsters, creatures like Harry Potter’s owl Hedwig, and people like Sirius Black and Hagrid (both unstuck from where they belong in time in the Harry Potter universe).
Most of what we did in our brief time playing Wizards Unite was collect things, and that looks to be the main hook of the game. You have a book called the Registry that functions just like Pokemon Go’s Pokedex, and every time you collect a new person or object from the Wizarding World, the game catalogs it. Filling out the Registry earns you experience points for your profile, which allow you to go after tougher, rarer Confoundables and take part in other more advanced content like battles, while scratching the completionist itch that has kept Pokemon Go installed on so many phones for the last three years.
What’s evident about Wizards Unite, though, is how much Niantic has learned from its early struggles with the game’s predecessor. Pokemon Go was famously short on content; there were plenty of Pokemon to find in the world, but in its early days, expected elements of the Pokemon experience like trading and raids were missing. It would be months or years before quality-of-life improvements and additional content made it into the game, but today, Pokemon Go includes features like story quests and increased social support that make it feel more complete.
Wizards Unite, by comparison, is launching with what feels like a more robust content package. For starters, there’s a smattering of quest objectives to complete right out of the gate that boost your experience gains and dish out rewards like potion-brewing materials. You can immediately start adding people to your friend list, and playing along with them in some activities also offers greater in-game rewards. There are multiplayer “Wizarding Challenges” found at specific locations called Fortresses, battles to fight against dark wizards and other creatures by casting spells and using potions, and a Profession system that lets you unlock abilities in RPG-like skill trees, which can make you more effective against certain types of enemies.
All in all, there’s just a lot more in Wizards Unite than there was in Pokemon Go, while maintaining many of the aspects that made the latter such a compelling AR experience. The bones of Niantic’s two games are pretty much the same–join up with other people to walk around the real world, zapping things you only see on your phone–but even after playing for just a short period, it’s clear there’s a whole lot of depth in Wizards Unite.
The question that remains after our short time with the game is how well having much more stuff to do in a mobile AR game will hold players’ attention. There are several limitations on what you can do while playing. You have a limited amount of “spell energy” that runs out as you cast spells on Confoundables, for instance, and while you can recharge it a bit by visiting “inns” (the Wizards Unite’s version of Pokestops), it’s not clear just how much your energy level might stall you out as you play. And it seems like you need to continually earn a lot of special items at all times to keep making progress. You need Gold and Silver Keys to unlock Portkeys, the Wizards Unite take on Pokemon eggs; potion ingredients to brew power-ups that’ll help you beat tougher enemies and Confoundables; scrolls to advance your professions; spell energy to keep plugging away at capturing Foundables; Dark Detectors to find and unlock the rarest Foundables; and Runes to access fortress battles. That’s a whole lot of stuff to manage, and while the early going of the game inundates you with everything you need to help you get moving, it’s tough to tell how steady the flow of rewards will be after a month, a week, or even a couple of days.
That said, for fans of Harry Potter and Pokemon Go, there’s plenty of promise in Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. This is obviously a much bigger, better thought-out AR game than Pokemon Go was at its launch, with impressive production values that include its slowly unfolding story, a voice cast peppered with soundalikes of the well-known Harry Potter cast, and detailed characters and animations you interact with that capture the look and feel of the movies and books. Harry Potter: Wizards Unite might not be able to usher in the same kind of surprisingly sweeping cultural moment its predecessor did, but it should at least be the kind of complete, robust mobile game that moment deserved.
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