Hands on with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince DS

Potter in your pocket

Hands on with Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince DS

It wasn't a huge surprise that EA used an event held in London yesterday to whip the covers off a new Harry Potter game. With the sixth film from the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, coming this November, there was little chance the publishing giant wouldn't be on hand providing a tie-in game on every games format known to playerkind.

So, under instructions to "look out for a man standing at a magical bus stop" from the EA PR rep we'd asked where the DS game was being shown, we eventually managed to locate a man (the game's producer) who could demo it to us. He actually turned out to be lurking in a dark room though, which broke the magical illusion somewhat.

Something which previous Harry Potter games have also stood accused of doing (we scored previous DS game, The Order of the Phoenix, a disappointing and very average 5), in fact. But The Half-Blood Prince gets off to a more promising start with the news the handheld versions of the game - both DS and PSP - are in development alongside the home console games at EA's Bright Light Studio, instead of being farmed out to external studios as has sometimes been the case in the past.

There's also the good news that PSP won't just be getting a slightly reduced quality version of the PS2 game, either. Instead, it's completely different to the home consoles games and will play much the same as the DS version, but in higher resolution and with a non-touchscreen adaptation of the controls obviously.

Handheld-wise, only the DS game was playable at EA's event though, and (after a good half an hour's worth of wand-waving, magical bean squashing and Gobstone playing) we can say with reasonable confidence this version is looking quite good. Albeit probably more so to its target audience of eight- to 12-year-olds.

Visually, The Half-Blood Prince sports a different style to the home console versions of the game, going for stylised, cell-shaded characters over attempted realism. This no doubt makes the game appear even younger, but then the Harry Potter games - especially on handheld - have never really attempted to draw in everyone, despite the fiction's many adult fans, and this one's no exception.

Everything is geared up for the pre-teen player, then, such as the game's various mini-games, which you can't fail but only achieve sort of varying levels of success.

Of those we saw, there was the predictable game of Gobstones, which is played by drawing back a sort of power bar with the stylus then releasing it to ping the stone into your opponent's, and a potion making game. A bit like Cooking Mama with magical ingredients that move, the latter involved squashing magic beans as they were jumping about and squeezing various other disgusting sounding ingredients into a big cauldron, then stirring them all up. It seemed quite nicely done.

Then there was a game of Exploding Snap; also quite addictive, which had us memorising pairs of cards leaping around a table, then tapping on them to match them up. The more pairs you remember in a row and string together all at once, the higher your score. Which at least adds a bit of a challenge for older kids. And us.

Outside of the mini-games, the rest of the game is entirely free-roaming, letting you explore Hogwarts at will and pick up side-quests in a random order. The game still follows the plot of the film, but its makers say they were keen not to bog the player down with dialogue and cut-scenes. So if gamers want to tap on certain words in conversations to find out more of the backstory behind them, they can. Or they can also just run amok casting spells on unsuspecting bookcases and Slytherins instead.

This spell-casting is, unsurprisingly, done using the touchscreen, with different gestures producing spells such as Accio and Incendio. There are six environmental spells in total, used on objects usually to produce hidden Wizard Cards and other collectable items, and also around 12 combat spells for duels with other students. You can also make and collect potions to use in fights.

Away from the combat, the game's story missions offer variety by using certain events in the film's plot for specially crafted sections. So for the Pensieve bits, where Harry is being tutored by Dumbledore to view Voldemort's memories, there are point-and-click, quick-time levels to play. Whereas Harry being chased by Death Eaters is translated into a linear, Time Crisis style level.

The game's still a work in progress - it's not out until near the film's release in November - and there are still a few decisions still to be made. Like the game's multiplayer, which is likely to offer two-player Quidditch and Duelling, but also possibly some sort of card trading with special codes made available on the official website.

But even at the stage it's at, The Half-Blood Prince is looking quite entertaining. It's hard to get too excited about yet another Harry Potter game - especially one aimed squarely at its younger fans - but its target demographic will no doubt appreciate its attention to detail and the ability to explore the nooks and crannies of Hogwarts.

Being for the pre-teens though, we're thinking the puberty-fuelled sexual tension between Ron, Hermione, Harry and Ginny probably won't be at the game's forefront - we're not entirely sure how you'd do a mini-game about that anyway.

Kath Brice
Kath Brice
Kath gave up a job working with animals five years ago to join the world of video game journalism, which now sees her running our DS section. With so many male work colleagues, many have asked if she notices any difference.