In 2016, "Pokémon Go" became a veritable cultural phenomenon, getting people all over the world to leave their homes and join a global Pokémon journey.
Now its developer, Niantic, is looking to repeat the magic trick with "Harry Potter: Wizards Unite," a long-promised and long-teased game for iPhone and Android that brings players into JK Rowling's Wizarding World, developed in conjunction with WB Games and its Portkey Games label.
Niantic isn't quite ready to announce a formal release date for "Wizards Unite," other than saying it'll be out sometime this year. But last week, Niantic allowed me and several other members of the press to get hands-on with the game.
I came away impressed. While the game is superficially similar to "Pokémon Go," it brings lots of intriguing and promising changes to the mix that could prove to be, ahem, magical.
The basic premise of the game: Years after the events of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," someone (or something) has broken the time-space continuum, scattering magical artifacts and creatures all over the world. The player's job is to help clean up the mess before non-magical Muggles realize there are wizards in our midst, with a fully voice-acted plot featuring appearances from Harry Potter and Hermione Granger.
In practice, this means walking around the real world, hunting for "foundables" like the Nimbus 2000 broom, the Sorting Hat, and even time-displaced versions of Harry and his friends taken from the books. Your magical mission, should you choose to accept it, is to complete your collection of returned foundables.
It's not that easy, though, as each foundable comes with a corresponding "confoundable" that you'll have to defeat with a spell. You might need to cast "alohamora" to unlock the shackles keeping Buckbeak the Hippogriff on the ground, or the mighty "expecto patronum" to ward off a Dementor threatening Harry.
Actual spellcasting is a matter of swiping on the screen in line with a pattern; you're graded based on how fast and accurately you trace it. Every encounter has a difficulty level, determining how good your spellcasting has to be to defeat the confoundable and add another entry in your registry of foundables.
There's combat too, requiring players to defend themselves with the "protego" spell while waiting for their chance to strike with a counterspell.
The idea, Niantic says, is to evoke the fast-paced feeling of magical combat in the "Harry Potter" and "Fantastic Beasts" film franchises. In my brief experience with the game, that bore through - I won and lost duels with werewolves and dark wizards in fun and surprisingly challenging short battles.
So yeah, there's clearly some overlap with "Pokémon Go." "Wizards Unite" even uses Niantic's same database of local points of interest to populate its world, meaning the same real-world locations that were important in "Pokémon Go" will be important in "Wizards Unite" - which is to say, when you first open the game, it looks a lot like "Pokémon Go."
But in this universe, rather than gathering Poké Balls at PokéStops, you'll be stopping along the way at inns, which give you a selection of very British food, including fish and chips and mince pies. Eating at these inns is how you restore your wizarding energy to keep playing.
Towering above all these locations (literally) are the fortresses, where players can team up and take on combat challenges. Each fortress has several challenges, at different skill levels, so newbies and veteran wizards alike can fight worthy foes.
On the subject of potions, players will encounter magical plants and other assorted flora all over the world. Niantic says it's tying them to factors like the weather and temperature in the real world: Some plants might bloom only in the morning, and others only when it's cold and rainy.
Niantic says there will be more to all of this as well. It promises that players will be able to choose a profession, like a professor or an evil-hunting auror, giving them advantages in certain tasks. And they'll be sorted into Hogwarts houses, something Niantic hinted would open up new social features.
Ultimately, "Wizards Unite" takes a lot of the systems and concepts introduced in "Pokémon Go" to the next level.
Much more than a mere rehash, my brief time with the game showed that "Wizards Unite" could have a surprising amount of depth. The challenge will be to balance that complexity with the simplicity and excitement of running around the real world looking for runaway brooms.
On a final note, "Wizards Unite" is the purest example yet of Niantic's big bet on augmented reality, the technology for overlaying digital imagery over the real world.
There are other neat AR effects too, like the ability to apply Snapchat-style AR stickers and filters - all Potter-themed, of course - when you take a selfie for your player profile.
Another nifty innovation is the ability to collect Portkeys, which in the Wizarding World instantly teleport the user across even vast distances. In "Wizards Unite," that translates to a cool AR mode where you get to explore locations from the films in great detail by waving your phone around. In my demo, I visited Ollivanders, the wand shop.
In theory, these AR modes promise to create all kinds of neat, immersive effects that bring you into the game's world. I was struck by the elegance and effectiveness of these AR illusions, reflecting what was clearly a great effort from Niantic and company.
In practice, it remains to be seen how many players will embrace the AR modes. Speaking as an active, dedicated "Pokémon Go" player, I have found it's both easier and more battery-effective to leave the AR switch toggled off.
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