With “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” Electronic Arts is trying something different. The previous Harry Potter games dutifully guided the player through the events of the latest movie, plot point by plot point, playing out as a typically tepid action/adventure slog. But, appropriately for a story in which the young wizard is entering adolescence, “Order of the Phoenix” is a more sophisticated creation that brings the open world experience of “Grand Theft Auto” to a family-friendly title.
After a brief introduction and an obligatory wand-work tutorial, the player is deposited in the lobby of Hogwart’s School. Most of the game consists of doing quests to persuade students to join Dumbledore’s Army, a secret cadre dedicated to protecting Hogwart’s from the imminent return of the evil Voldemort. Quests can be tackled in any order, and range from magical battles to uncovering secrets to simple fetch missions. Along the way, “Order of the Phoenix” offers all sorts of optional missions, side activities, and minigames, including full-blown bouts of chess, a tile-matching game, and the Harry Potter equivalent of marbles.
Hogwarts and environs are cleverly presented so that the player never has to sit through a loading screen, which helps create the sense of exploring a sprawling magical castle. This is a good old-fashioned funhouse, full of hidden doors and crumbling bric-a-brac that Harry can set right with his wand, unlocking bonus con-tent. The locations are so opulently drawn that the real star here is the setting, which is livelier than the creepy mannequin-like presentations of actors Daniel Rad-cliffe (Harry), Emma Watson (Hermione), and Rupert Grint (Ron).
For dyed-in-the-wool fans of J.K. Rowling’s series, “Order of the Phoenix” is brimming with lore and references to the earlier books. The story charges merrily ahead without bothering to explain muggles, snitches, or dementors, much less the relationships of various characters to each other.
Players use the controls to move Harry’s wand in patterns to cast spells. Since this isn’t a combat-heavy game, the wand-work is used mostly to manipulate the environment and solve puzzles. The Nintendo Wii’s motion-sensing controller gives spell-casting a new dimension that children will enjoy, but the magic system works just as well with the traditional controls on other systems.
“Order of the Phoenix” is easily the best Harry Potter game yet. While that’s hardly high praise, it’s nice to see Electronic Arts has finally infused the series with some creative energy beyond simply aping the plot of a movie and licensing the likeness of its actors.