It was shorter than I'd hoped and saddled with a few objectionably brainless mini-games, otherwise I rather enjoyed Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix. Indeed, I spent six or seven hours steering a taller, svelter, edgier Daniel Radcliffe down the torch-lit halls and byways of the entire Warner Bros Hogwarts set, here for the first time reproduced in full from the studio's blueprints.

That's the treat if you're a Harry Potter fan: nearly complete and unfettered access to the entirety of Azkaban (Harry Potter 3) director Alfonso Cuaron's gorgeously bleak Hogwarts, with some 85 locations including everything from Hagrid's hut and the Owlery to Moaning Myrtle's bathroom and Snape's dungeon Potions classroom.

But while you'll experience most of the film's main events including a dash of training at Grimmauld Place, what you'll mostly get up to in HP5 is jogging between areas to suss out "discovery points". In sufficient quantities, these level up the puissance of familiar spells like Incendio, Wingardium Leviosa, Expelliarmus, and Stupefy, effectively allowing you to cast each faster.

Casting spells and occasionally dueling is intuitive and in essence true to the Harry Potter books in that, instead of thumbing a button, you twirl the right thumbstick (in the Xbox 360 and PS3 versions) to paint a shape in the air and trigger the corresponding energy release.

There's a pleasurable physicality to the game world as well, so that "Depulsing" askew suits of armour, igniting torches, straightening pictures, dusting shelves, shaking out carpets and repairing miscellaneous objects never quite grows old courtesy of the Harry Potter environment's distinctive layers of interactivity.

Like the Grand Theft Auto games, your progress in Harry Potter is numerically tabulated in dozens of satisfying "meta" categories, from "total explored" to "number of defensive spells cast in a single duel".

It's also worth noting the achievements, which tally quickly since progress on "normal" difficulty is positively breezy (it's also possible to finish the main story with most of the meta stuff unfinished). Fortunately the game deposits you back at Hogwarts post-finale to polish things off if you like, and with the seventh book due in just four days, I'm not really spoiling anything by revealing that in number five, Harry Potter (at least) survives.

While most of the mini-games such as Exploding Snap, Wizard Chess, and Gobstones are well conceived and diverting enough, a few are just plain silly. Occlumency, the art of defending against mental invasion, is a simple matter of repeatedly whipping the right thumbstick to force your opponent's wand back to the center of the screen, a mindlessly dull "challenge". The bits of Harry Potter where you play as Sirius, Fred, George, and Dumbledore are also more or less staged and minimally interactive, hijacking both the film and book's most poignant moments and rendering them as rigidly, crudely anticlimactic.

Bear in mind that Harry Potter 5 was the book that marked JK Rowling's shift to a distinctively adult voice, so you can't really excuse the reduced challenge by claiming a younger demographic. (Besides, doesn't the axiom read something like "the younger they are, the defter they play?" What happened to trusting your audience's hand/eye prowess?)

The biggest downer, though, has to be the game's brevity, considering that the PC game alone cots £25, and a PlayStation version is £40. EA could and should have done a heck of a lot more with the Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix licence.

Why not a full-featured multiplayer-optional version of Quidditch? More to do at Grimmauld Place than train up spells and unlock plot exposition? A fully explorable Ministry of Magic and a much less restrictive final battle sequence? All the important characters and subplots the Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix film had to drop?

It's also a little disappointing that the world's largest publisher still can't manage well-paced cutscenes and proper story exposition. We're long past the point where movie tie-ins can get away with cuts that'd make even amateur film students squirm. You want to be taken seriously, game artists? Then stop treating cutscenes like obligatory, menial filler.

Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix: Specs

  • Optical Drive: 8x or faster DVD-ROM
  • CPU speed: 1.6Ghz or faster
  • Windows XP, Windows Vista or Mac OS X
  • 5GB or more free space
  • video card with 32MB of memory, or 128MB for Windows Vista
  • ATI Radeon 7500 or greater, or Radeon 9500 Pro or greater for Windows Vista
  • nVidia GeForce2 GTS or greater, or GeForce 6600 or greater for Vista
  • 256MB, or 512MB RAM for Windows Vista
  • DirectX 9.0c compatible
  • input: DirectX 9.0c keyboard, mouse or gamepad
  • Optical Drive: 8x or faster DVD-ROM
  • CPU speed: 1.6Ghz or faster
  • Windows XP, Windows Vista or Mac OS X
  • 5GB or more free space
  • video card with 32MB of memory, or 128MB for Windows Vista
  • ATI Radeon 7500 or greater, or Radeon 9500 Pro or greater for Windows Vista
  • nVidia GeForce2 GTS or greater, or GeForce 6600 or greater for Vista
  • 256MB, or 512MB RAM for Windows Vista
  • DirectX 9.0c compatible
  • input: DirectX 9.0c keyboard, mouse or gamepad

OUR VERDICT

Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix suggests the series is finally pointed in the right direction by cracking open the series' beloved venues and in several cases, replicating the film's vision in exquisite detail (including all the lovely moving paintings and castle's ghosts, the latter sorely missing from the Harry Potter & The Order of the Phoenix film). Bring the mini-game element up to snuff, maintain and expand the free-form element, and figure out how to at least match the films' expository abilities during non-interactive sequences, and games six and seven could finally rate "recommended" to more than just hardcore Harry Potter fans.

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