A weekend with 'Harry Potter: Wizards Unite'

Two muggles debate the latest mobile game with grand ambitions.

Mat Smith and Dan Cooper grew up in the UK at the right age to witness the birth of Pottermania. The Harry Potter novels are firmly encoded in their very British psyches, and both are fans of augmented reality, GPS-connected mobile games. So it made plenty of sense that they spend a weekend playing Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. One of them is a convert; the other, a hater, so let's watch them hash this out -- politely, of course.

Daniel Cooper

Daniel Cooper
Senior Editor

Do we need to start this by establishing our credentials?

I was a schoolboy judge for the Carnegie Awards -- a British children's literature prize -- the year the first book came out.

At the risk of sounding awful, I was reading Harry Potter long before it became its own Thing™. And, I'm a big Pokémon Go nerd and still play the game on a daily basis.

Mat Smith

Mat Smith
Bureau Chief, UK

I played Pokémon Go pretty hard at the start, when I was living in Tokyo, which was obsessed with the game. Parks were filled with people walking around, tethered to their phone and a battery pack, myself included. Sadly, as the new discoveries slowed, gym battles fell into the rut of using combinations of the same five powerful Pokémon (Vaporeon FTW) I got bored. At this point, I haven't played Pokémon Go in years.

Dan: This explains why we're not gift-trading friends in Pokémon Go, which is a much better game now Niantic has solved many of its gameplay kinks. It's still addictive, and thanks to Adventure Sync -- which negates the use of GPS for walking -- it no longer rinses your battery.

Going in, I expected Wizards Unite to be Pokémon Go, but dressed up in different clothes. The company has a winning formula. But what we got feels like a half-step away from Go, neither far enough away to be its own thing nor too close to repeat the original formula. Which is my polite, long-winded way of saying I'm not into it.

Mat: Over the weekend Wizards Unite got its hooks into me as deep as Pokémon Go did. Part of that is because you can progress so quickly in urban areas, and there's more to do. There are more landmarks, inns and greenhouses for topping up your spell power, and wizard challenge arenas. I'm lucky that my apartment block is in a challenge arena, which is Wizards Unite's version of the Pokémon Gym.

Is there much around your area?

Dan: As Pokemon Go has matured, it's gotten a lot better about populating suburban areas with landmarks, I live opposite a Gym, with three stops outside my front door. I'm annoyed that my gym has been turned into a greenhouse in the Wizards Unite universe, rather than a challenge arena, however. Speaking of which, I'm pretty annoyed at how needlessly complicated it is to make potions in the game.

harry potter

Mat: I think the battles in the game are far more exciting than anything else at this early stage.

Dan: I'll have to take you at your word because it's one of the parts of the game that I don't have enough experience with to opine on. The fact that the number of real-world battle locations has shrunk (it's not 1:1 with Go) isn't ideal. And the rest of the game's mechanics aren't great. Select a confoundable...

Mat: Yeah, the new Potterverse terms are really, really clanky.

Dan: ... cast a spell by tracing a glyph, and if you do it with enough accuracy, you'll "defeat" the magical nasty. It's an inversion of Pokemon Go's gameplay, where you're sending creatures away rather than capturing them in your menagerie.

This is exacerbated by how much the game YOU HAVE LEVELLED UP! wants to keep you invested in the YOU HAVE LEVELLED UP! game. Rather than easing you into YOU HAVE LEVELLED UP! the menus with a gentle tutorial, it YOU HAVE LEVELLED UP! leads you around by the nose. Except there's YOU HAVE LEVELLED UP! too much to learn YOU HAVE LEVELLED UP! all at once, so you're left with this frontal assault of shapes and colors.

Not that it's anything new. It's the same sort of system that slot machines perfected and a litany of mobile games copied in the hopes of juicing success. Press a button, any button, get a reward and that first little hit of dopamine keeps you coming back.

Even reading the tutorial with the fine eye of someone who knew he would have to write about it 48 hours later, I was still lost within minutes.

Mat: And there are so many achievements and rewards that I found it easier to just play the game and let the rewards roll in. To be honest, that was pretty liberating. I was also surprised that I wasn't all that tempted by any in-app payments yet, though it's still early days.

Dan: I don't want to invest hours (or money) into a game that I'm just playing on autopilot, just pressing buttons and waiting for the flashy lights.

Mat: Because of the early overload of pop-ups, free items and story-setting, I struggled, like you, to actually play the game. The dynamics of wizard challenges (gym battles) were so different from the rest of the game, and so opaque, that I had to Google to comprehend what I was meant to do. I wish the tutorials were accessible from where you need them, rather than thrown up all at once. Once I'd figured it out, though, they were kinda fun.

There's definitely a rough learning curve, which was something that Pokémon Go nailed.

Dan: Go is great because its gameplay is -- on the surface -- very simple and very repeatable: Walk to a location, play (essentially) Paper Toss. Walk to another location. Battle. You had a reason to walk, not only to get goodies from stops, but to hatch eggs as well. Every layer of the game was embedded in both a story and gameplay reason for its existence.

Mat: Do you think that Pokémon Go looks better than Wizards Unite? I do. All of these creatures look a bit... PlayStation 2, if you know what I mean. Throw in the TJ Maxx Daniel Radcliffe and Dame Maggie Smith and there's a whiff of Square Enix's Avengers game to them all.

Dan: I don't want to be cruel about the game's graphics because the developers were in a pinch here. You can't replicate the gloriously varied CGI beasties from the films in a mobile game, but the overall result isn't as good here. I'm also annoyed that Harry Potter turns up at all, which is something of a controversial view given the game's called Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.

Why does Potter have to pop up so early in the game as little more than a tutorial character? Not to mention one of his jobs is to namedrop Hermione for no reason beyond fan service. It would have been smarter for Potter (and any other major character) to be absent in the game as a reason to keep playing. Lest we forget: MewTwo was held back from Pokémon Go for three years.

Mat: Some of the character animations are pretty cute. The awkward Ron; the snarling Beatrix Lestrange.

Dan: I think we both agree that the things holding back Wizards Unite are how messy and complicated it is.

Mat: Oh it's far too complicated. And I've played Civilization and The Witcher.

Dan: Who are you trying to impress?

Mat: No, I mean, I can handle complex games, but this is not friendly to newbies. Too many items, types of items and game elements.

Dan: This is the same issue that ruined Ghostbusters World, which was a Pokémon Go clone that let you get lost in a mess of menus and game formats. Here, we've got a thousand menus, a murky game system and a super-cluttered UI.

I don't know if I want to be snitty about the gameplay, if only because it's hard to find something as addictive as Paper Toss. Angry Birds' physics-based pull back and release mechanic worked well, as does flipping symbols in Bejeweled / Candy Crush / whatever. Tracing your finger over what is essentially an Android unlock pattern, by comparison, wears out its welcome.

Mat: At least it's one part of the game that feels true to the source material: tracing magic spell runes. Although it does make it harder to play when you're walking.

Dan: I suspect that, like the repeated exhortations not to trespass, it's a safety feature to slow down reckless players.

Mat: It's probably a good thing. Circling back to the story, if you can call it that. It's all a little... lacking. You're not playing as one of the protagonists, but someone just mopping up the magical messes. Given the automated, generated, churny nature of AR exploration games, I doubt I'll be able to solve the lingering mystery about who unleashed this chaos onto the world. I'll just keep collecting things until I've picked up enough clues.

harry potter

Dan: That's it, you'll collect clues and then level up in the story to reach the next chapter, because it can't be more in-depth than that. It's a shame that we'll never get something like, say, Silent Streets, which had a strong authorial voice pushing its narrative.

I'd have preferred a cleaner break from Potter and co, to live more fully in the wider wizarding world. Those stories -- like Fantastic Beasts -- always feel flat to me because they're trying to overtell a story that's already played out. Commerce dictates that it's called Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, but the namesake's appearance isn't necessary.

Mat: You know, we haven't even discussed the sticker album-style collections system. Is sticker collecting a very British thing? It might be.

Dan: It's a lot of scrolling around for very little payback.

Mat: And, when you fill up a page, you "cash" it in and start all over again.

Dan: Ugh.

Mat: It's funny because everyone had plenty of negative things to say about Pokémon Go at launch, and it turned into a cultural phenomenon. Wizards Unite might not ever get quite as big, but it is fun -- especially if you're looking for anything to flesh out the Potterverse that doesn't star Johnny Depp.

Dan: Maybe it'll get better with time. Pokémon Go certainly did. Let's revisit this in a year and see if we're still playing.