What a decent Harry Potter video game would look like

The Harry Potter video games have been, for the most part, distinctly average. Far too preoccupied with mimicking key moments from the films, or trying to force game mechanics that have been successful in other franchises. It’s all been a bit of a mess, accumulating in a final instalment which many consider to the be the worst of the lot.

Although it’s easy to blame short development cycles or inexperienced teams, Electronic Arts should really know better. They’ve been in the business a long time and were entrusted with a brand that has millions of fans around the world. Surely they could have done a little more with the Harry Potter video games?

The concept for this piece was inspired by a recent post on Kotaku. They ask a simple question: If you could create a perfect Harry Potter video game, what would it be like? Both Jen and Sam bring up some interesting (and hilarious) ideas for their own prospective works, but what I really took away from the article was the need to go beyond the original source material.

From a business point of view, each Harry Potter game was designed to coincide with the films. That’s fine. Once a child leaves the cinema, they’re likely to spot the game in a shop and then want to do a little magic conjuring of their own. The difference is that these games don’t have to be a scene by scene representation of the films. They could be about an entirely different part of the Harry Potter franchise. Simply call them ‘Harry Potter 7’ and slap Daniel Radcliffe’s absurd face on the front cover. It’ll have the exact same effect on sales, regardless of the content inside.

Sam mentioned a prequel game, similar to what The Force Unleashed did with the Star Wars license. I think this is a fantastic idea, introducing characters who were mentioned in the books/ films, but never given the chance to be explored fully. I would consider taking this one step further – how about a game documenting each stage of a particular character’s life, such as in Assassin’s Creed? Let’s take James Potter for example.


James Potter started out as a pupil in Hogwarts. This chapter could be presented in a similar fashion to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, with an open world school and classes to attend at your leisure. Small cut scenes could tie it into the original literature, such as meeting Lily Potter and making friends with Sirius, Lupin and Peter Pettigrew. Otherwise it could deviate into new territory, using platforming and dialogue trees to show how the school once operated.

Upon graduation, James then fought in The First Wizarding War as a member of the Order of the Pheonix. Marking the original reign of Lord Voldemort, this section could show Potter senior in a new, older light. Upgraded powers could be used to take on missions from either the Ministry of Magic, distressed muggles or the Order directly. This would provide the opportunity to explore previously unseen locations from the books and films, allowing level designers to create worlds that actively benefit the gameplay.

Each console offers a wealth of opportunity for controls and input. Motion controls are an obvious place to start, but should be handled delicately and intelligently. No waggle Wii mote flailing, please. Using the Wii U as the Marauder’s Map is a great idea offered by Sam, allowing players to design their own routes or track important enemies. Taken one step further, the map could be used in game to offer online player hints and tips in a similar fashion to Demon’s Souls.

Most importantly, put the franchise in the hands of a capable developer. Bioware is already doing a fantastic job with Star Wars: The Old Republic Republic and shows the quality that can be produced with a little creative freedom. Perhaps it’s too late for a decent movie tie-in, but it’s certainly not too late for a decent Harry Potter video game.

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Catherine demo available from next week

Atlus fans rejoice. On July 12 a demo for Catherine will be dropping on the PlayStation Network and Xbox Live – or rather, at least in the United States. There’s no confirmation yet that the gameplay glimpse will be available in Europe, adding further speculation to when (or if) the title will be released there. The erotic horror puzzle-platformer came out in Japan back in February, with the aforementioned demo being available since January.

To get an idea of what the demo will showcase, below is a walkthrough of the Japanese demo by Kotowari. He’s been kind enough to translate the dialogue and control scheme, so that you’ll be able to understand some of the insane plot.

Are you excited for the English demo? Or have you already played the Japanese version? Let me know in the comments below, especially if you’re concerned about the speculative Europe release.

New Okabu trailer shows off environmental gameplay

Get ready to jig to some tribal beats and protect the environment in this brand new Okabu trailer. The video shows off some interesting new mechanics which include safely leading groups of villagers, bringing life to nearby vegetation, directing cranes and encouraging bulls to smash through gates. It’s all wrapped up in an adorable cel-shaded art style, coupled with an upbeat tune and some positive critical acclaim.

Watch out for this one when it drops on PSN later this year.

A retrospective for GameCamp 4

GameCamp is an event where fans of board games and video games can come together and discuss their favourite hobby. The fourth gathering was held in London South Bank University and this year I was lucky enough to attend. Despite suffering from partial deafness in one ear (I’ll have to get that checked out) I had a great time and learnt a lot from the various game developers who were holding debates.

This is the mighty whiteboard found in the base camp room. Any of the attendees can write down a game or discussion that they’d like to hold in one of the designated rooms – then it’s down to the rest of the visitors to decide whether they’d like to attend it. It all feels very creative and democratic, providing gamers with a chance to talk and play about anything that they’re passionate about.

The first talk that I chose to sit in on was about free range video games. Programmers argued that the measly pay and unfair hours that some game developers work is unfair, and that consumers should be made more aware of this. If some games were labelled in a similar manner to free range produce, the discussion questioned whether gamers would choose to purchase ethically. Do players care about the working conditions of triple A game studios? Or are they just concerned with getting the most play for their pound? It was an interesting argument, especially when the popularity of small indie developers were considered.

Another debate that I really enjoyed was about 2D art used in video games. I’m a big fan of the genre, but had never considered the technical and artistic limitations of choosing between pixel art, vectors or other digital mediums. Listening to the game developers explain why pixel art had remained so popular was insightful and added to my appreciation of modern game design.

One of the stranger talks concerned the political implications and representations of LittleBigPlanet. The host argued that the campaign in the original game stereotyped real world locations and cultures, encouraging players to plunder each country of all their resources. Personally I thought this was a complete misreading of a very light hearted game, but nevertheless it helped to create some interesting debate about the portrayal of ethnic minorities in video games.

I came away from GameCamp 4 feeling humbled and educated. If you’re a game designer or have ever wanted to debate the culture of video games with other people, this is a fantastic event that I can heartily recommend. Everyone that I met was very friendly, courteous and interesting to listen to. It was a shame that my damaged right ear affected my experience, because otherwise it was a very pleasant and memorable day.

GAME British Academy Video Games Awards 2011

The BAFTAs is a rare chance for video games to gain some positive attention. The ceremony is never particularly ground breaking, but it’s a good excuse for us Brits to sit down and commend some of the best titles from the last year. Dara O’Briain will be hosting the event on March 18th, so in the meantime lets analyse the nominations and make some predictions. I’ve picked out the most interesting categories to discuss, but a full list of nominations can be found here.

Action
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
Battlefield: Bad Company 2
BioShock 2
Call of Duty: Black Ops
God of War III
Halo: Reach


 

Such a tough one to judge. Although Call of Duty outstrips them all in terms of sales, but there are also a lot of prolific and platform exclusive titles. Halo: Reach has been commended for its excellent multiplayer suite on Xbox 360, but conversely God of War had a stellar single player campaign on PS3. Battlefield has its fans, but I’m just not sure if it had enough to make it stand out from the crowd. Bioshock 2 and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood were both phenomenal, but will likely be perceived as extensions of  past games.

Predicted to win: Call of Duty: Black Ops
I would vote for:  Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood

Artistic Achievement:
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
Call of Duty: Black Ops
God of War III
Heavy Rain
LIMBO
Mass Effect 2

Strangely, the nominations for artistic achievement are quite similar to the ones for action. Personally I can’t see how Black Ops could possibly be justified in this category, but who knows, maybe it’s destined to clean up this year. Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood had an excellent vision of Rome and the time period, but I don’t think there’s enough imagination to really win it. LIMBO is undoubtedly the favourite, the creepy puzzler winning over the XBLA community with it’s monotone visuals and infuriating puzzles. Heavy Rain is probably a close second, the sense of story and unorthodox gameplay structure lending itself to a more cinematic product.

Predicted to win: LIMBO
I would vote for: LIMBO

Best Game
Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood
FIFA 11
Heavy Rain
LIMBO
Mass Effect 2
Super Mario Galaxy 2

No doubt the award that everyone’s hoping to win. I thought that 2010 was a fantastic year and it’s been represented fairly well through these nominations. The exclusion of Black Ops is refreshing, although the inclusion of FIFA 11 and LIMBO will be likely to raise some eyebrows. Super Mario Galaxy 2, known for holding one of the highest Metacritic ratings ever recorded, will hold a slight advantage over the others. Holding the fort for Nintendo, the sheer range of gameplay ideas will put it in good stead. Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain and Assassin’s Creed Brotherhood all hold an equal pedigree in second place.

Predicted to win: Super Mario Galaxy 2
I would vote for: Heavy Rain

Handheld
Cut the Rope
God of War: Ghost of Sparta
LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4
Professor Layton and the Lost Future
Sonic Colours
Super Scribblenauts


 

Admittedly, not a particularly strong year for portable titles. How LEGO Harry Potter found its way onto the list, I’ll never know. Regardless, Professor Layton is always a hot contender; although there was nothing particularly new or revolutionary in the Lost Future, it was another solid title with excellent presentation values. Cut the Rope has a huge novelty factor, representing the rising popularity of gaming on the iPhone and iPad. Super Scribblenauts had a fantastic concept, but is still pretty boring as a game. God of War and Sonic Colours are unlikely to get a look in either.

Predicted to win: Cut the Rope
I would vote for: Professor Layton and the Lost Future

Original Music:
Alan Wake (Petri Alanko)
Fable III (Russell Shaw)
Heavy Rain (Normand Corbeil)
James Bond 007: Bloodstone (Richard Jacques)
Mass Effect 2 (Jack Wall)
Super Mario Galaxy 2 (Koji Kondo)


 

Admittedly, I had to go back into these games to remind myself of their compositions and scores. Alan Wake blended songs from legitimate artists with its own original soundtrack, creating an interesting sense of sound throughout. I’m not sure if it would win, but Welcome to Bright Falls is a chilling, brilliant example of why it should be remembered. Fable 3 hosts a series of sufficient but stereotypical adventure compositions. Kingmaker Theme will remind you of how it can still give you goosebumps from time to time. Heavy Rain is my personal choice, complimenting the drama of its narrative in emotional, wholly unexpected ways. Just listen to the Main Theme if you want to have your heart racing. Super Mario Galaxy 2 will be boasting something different, the quirky Nintendo spirit ever apparent in it’s combination of world themes and humorous power ups.

Likely to win: Heavy Rain
I would vote for: Heavy Rain

Who do you guys think will win? Leave all of your comments below and let me know what you think of my predictions!

10 tools for the video game journalist

(Seeing as I’m not a hired, professional video game journalist, this is by no means definitive or a check list for the future success of any budding young writers. It is, however, a collaboration of items which I have discovered to be most useful in my blogging habits.)


1) Notepad and pen
Lets get back to basics. For ease of use and reliability, the reporter’s notepad is still king. It is a fantastic tool and one which stays with me wherever I go. The article idea that pops into my head when writing, the game that I need to complete and have most likely forgotten, or the phone number of that developer I met at a recent games convention; it doesn’t matter. As long as I’ve got a notepad and pen to hand, I can jot them down in a flash.

2) Camera
Your images are just as important as your words. Take a snap of the queue waiting for Call of Duty, or that fantastic new Street Fighter cabinet that’s been installed in your local arcade. For every moment of gaming goodness you discover, make sure you’re ready to document it with a great photograph. Some journalists have started ditching the traditional camera in favour of their smartphone, but I still encourage the use of a dedicated SLR. Quality content is still paramount in journalism, so why compromise with a grainy shot off your Blackberry?

An experienced journalist will produce their best work with a digital SLR. They are understandably expensive and cumbersome, so a high resolution compact camera is a good alternative for stowing away in your rucksack. Not everyone can buy the top of the range equipment, so think about your budget and buy the equipment that is appropriate to you.

3) Dictaphone
In video games journalism, you’ll more than likely end up talking to people. Game developers, PR officials, store managers, gamers and a whole host of other people inhabit our thriving past time. Recording every word can lead to a new story, quote or angle for your piece. If anyone doubts what you’ve said, it also means that you’ve got some evidence to back up your story. Along with a spare set of fresh batteries, the Dictaphone is a small, lightweight addition to your bag.


4) Video Camera
Editors are constantly seeking high quality video content. Online shows such as Bonus Round on GameTrailers and Zero Punctuation on The Escapist have attracted considerable followings. If you can offer websites exclusive footage from an interview or event, they’ll be dead keen to commission your work.

Or if you’re just interested in blogging, video can still be a great way of capturing your opinion. With a cheap video camera, it’s easy to edit reviews, rants and video diaries on software such as Adobe Premiere or Final Cut Pro. Video cameras are by no means cheap, but it’s a worthy investment if you want to capitalise on the medium.

5) Magazines
Print is dying. The future is online. I’ve heard it all before, so save the lecture. Despite the doom and gloom surrounding magazines, I still find them to be a valuable asset. I regularly find indie titles which the web seems to have missed, or interviews with industry figures that I hadn’t considered. Their approach is frequently different to their online competitors, so it’s worth keeping up and following what they’re doing. In the United Kingdom, multiformat publications such as Edge and GamesTM are highly recommended.

6) Handhelds
Waiting is incredibly frustrating. Waiting for a press event to start. Waiting for the train to arrive. Waiting for someone to call you back. If you’re out in the field, waiting is an excruciating part of video games journalism. So why get bored? If you carry a handheld in your bag, it means that you can always be playing through a new release. Which can also be helpful for increasing productivity!

If you’re at a convention or public event, handhelds can also be a great way of meeting other gamers and finding out the inside scoop. Local multiplayer games, such as Dragon Quest, Monster Hunter and Mario Kart are great for breaking the ice. Never be left twiddling your thumbs.


7) Twitter & Facebook
To spread the word on what you’re doing and network with everyone involved in video games, you have to be signed up to Twitter and Facebook. There is no excuse. The pulse of online thought and comment revolves around these social tools, so use them wisely both at home and on the go.

8) Laptop
The ideal laptop for a video game journalist is small, light and powerful. Make sure it fits in your bag easily; although it’s unlikely that you’ll need it every day, it’s good to know that you can carry it easily when needed. Live blogging at events and being able to edit audio, video and any other material you have back in the hotel room shows commitment and planning.

Of course, having a decent computer at home is no bad thing. Especially if you’re into Starcraft 2, World of Warcraft or Steam.

9) Smartphone
Mobile technology can do some pretty amazing stuff. Reading e-mails, twitter responses and blogs are just a swipe away on an iPhone or Android device. Bringing up maps if you’re lost in the city and ringing the shop that was meant to have pre-ordered your most anticipated game is a lot easier when you’re using a well made device. I’m sure I don’t need to lecture you on the pros and cons of choosing between a Blackberry, iPhone or Android device. It’s completely up to you, almost all of the leading manufacturers will do a decent job of keeping you connected – which in video game journalism, is essential.

10) The next big thing
Journalism is changing. I can only guess what new revelation or evolution will come along next. Just as video games evolve and improve, so should your awareness of the tools available to you. Always be on the lookout for new way to make your output better and faster.

Review for Shank (XBLA)

Shank is an interactive comic book on steroids. Set in an exotic Mexican locale, gamers will take our macho hero through endless hordes of mercenaries as he tries to avenge his wife’s death. Gorgeously animated and perfectly responsive, this is a reminder that the side scrolling beat-em-up genre still has plenty to offer.

A lot of tender loving care has been put into the creation of Shank. Each character model feels hand drawn and edgy, with harsh outlines mimicking the stylistic animation of Samurai Jack. Sketched out backdrops ranging from moving trains to sunset cityscapes are varied and overwhelming with personality. It’s hard not to love Shank’s world and wonder why this hasn’t been conceived before.

Every button on your controller will be needed to survive the story mode. All of the face buttons utilise a different type of weapon, but it’s up to the player to string these together into their own deathly combos. It’s fun, accessible and only improves as new weapons become unlocked. These can also be switched out on the fly, making for some incredibly stylistic moments reminiscent of Devil May Cry. One minute you’ll be pouncing the length of the screen to dive onto an enemy with a katana, the next you’ll be juggling them in the air with dual pistols. There’s also some light platforming thrown into the mix (Shank can climb, wall run across billboards and slide down poles) but it’s all very straightforward. If anything, it’s just there for you to admire the environments and take a break from the action.

The difficulty starts to spike towards the end, with some brutal boss encounters and devilishly tricky horde sections. Dodging your opponents on the ground, whilst shooting down enemies who are hanging from above requires a particularly satisfying amount of finesse. Towards the finale it does start to tire and become a slog of strength, but for the most part it retains a driving pace.

The score is appropriate but not exceptional, mixing together a decent number of tunes for the adventure. The cut scenes are beautifully rendered but spoiled by some poor voice acting. Characters feel stilted and sometimes pull the viewer out of the experience with their moronic tones. The script writing is pretty basic, but has some memorable characters and a few cheap jokes; “I should call you Lazarus.” “And I should call you… Fucked!” If you’re into cheesy one-liners than you’ll feel right at home, but otherwise it often feels like a couple of students have written this at their local pub.

There’s never a dull moment in Shank, but it keeps it short and sweet with a running time of about 3 to 4 hours. It’s not tremendous value in terms of hour per pound, but it’s packed with quality that will be sure to leave you grinning like a madman. I’m yet to try out the co-op mode, but I hear that it’s a completely separate affair that preludes the single player story. If Shank’s adventure is anything to go by, it should be just as fun with a friend.

Shank can feel a little rough around the edges sometimes, but it’s fun and one of the most rewarding beat-em-ups to come out in recent years. Even if this genre of gaming isn’t for you, it’s worth checking out the trial just to experience its aesthetic brilliance.