I know I’ve given Niantic hell when it comes on iterating on its Ingress formula, especially in terms of Pokemon Go, but Harry Potter: Wizards Unite shows that someone over there – if not Niantic, then one of its partners – knows how to make things better. WU takes many of Pokemon Go’s current features and puts them into a new game (aside from the offline step counter Adventure sync, which players are already lamenting).
That being said, I think there’s a good reason the game hasn’t made mainstream news the same way POGO did: It doesn’t respect the feeling of the source material.
The basic thing to know about Wizards Unite is that it’s a collecting augmented reality game, much like POGO. You are running around collecting things, not just magical items and creatures but memories, which obviously gives Portkey Games/Niantic/whoever the justification to show popular characters and scenes from the movies in the game. They’re in the real world and need to be returned, but for whatever reason, there are multiple copies you run into even after you’ve returned them, and nothing awful seems to happen if you fail so… the story, told via quest chat, feels rather flimsy. It’s nice to have a new MMOARG compared to POGO and its spectacular launch, but considering we have the movie version of the Ravenclaw mascot, I’m not sure how appealing the game may be to hardcore book fans.
It’s not that the writing is bad, just that it feels very skippable. I’m several hours into the game and basic gameplay feels intuitive enough if you ignore the story, but the game is quite a bit deeper than POGO was at launch. You don’t just have reskinned Stops and Gyms, as there’s absolutely no PvP. In fact, your wand, house, name, and icon are devoid of meaning, can be changed at will, and may not actually be seen by other players. Instead of Pokeballs, you need energy, gained by going to inns for food or greenhouses for supplies.
The inn is simple: Much as you do when casting previously chosen spells, you simply trace the on-screen icon and you’ll randomly get food to give you energy. The greenhouse, in theory, is cool in that it gives you not only a random amount of energy but also supplies for potions and planting. You can actually grow something everyone around you can make use of, but of course there are a few issues.
First, energy must be used for just about everything in the game: for recovering items, for fighting creatures at nodes, for tackling the game’s dungeons (yes, there are multiplayer dungeons, kind of), and for growing plants. Once the plant is done, items spawns on the ground for everyone, but it takes a lot of effort and time. You may not be able to actually use your own supplies or benefit from them, which is a major drag. Worse, because it requires a good deal of energy, most people seem to simply give up on the greenhouses, even for energy until they realize they’re one of the only sources for it.
Basic gameplay consists of finding an icon on the map (other than treasure chests, seeds, or potion craftables) and engaging in either immediate tracing of – if a battle is needed – hovering your wand over a mobile target before being able to trace. “Foundables” are your rewards as well as XP, though foundables (once all their pieces are collected) belong to something like sticker collections. These unlock other rewards, which help you level and work on your class skills (“lessons”), so you can do more dungeons and get more stickers ad infinitum.
Yes, this game has classes. There’s the Auror (the DPS class), the Magizoologist (tank and healer), and Professor (DPS/buff/debuff class). You can change classes at any time (though there’s no skill refund and you’ll be locked out of the skills you picked up along the way), and each has a rock/paper/scissor PvE strength and weakness.
Dungeons are a bit reminiscent of the guild challenges in Injustice 2, in that they’re a mixture of solo work and watching an ally battle and offering support mid-combat. You can either hope to find a group or (more likely) form one with friends in real life on the spot for the cost of a rune (which are earned in game or can be bought in the game shop). Join the same tier challenge and then you’ll have a lobby-like area where people choose an enemy to 1v1. While in the lobby, you can heal friends, hex enemy mobs, or buff your friends. If you beat enough enemies within the allotted time, you win. If not, you lose the match and even your rune.
It’s kind of cool, especially since there’s a timer that forces you to move, though it’s annoying when battles stall due to lag. It also makes the Magizooligist class kind of underwhelming, as the other classes don’t really heal but debuff/buff allies. I suppose if you toss everything you can at the MZ and your enemy targets, being able to absorb a lot of damage would allow an MZ to give out more heals or use heals/potions more effectively, but in my MMO mind, I just keep seeing “The tank is the healer,” and getting lost in how awkward that is with only three classes.
In some ways, it feels more intimate than Pokemon Go ever did. Maybe it’s partially because of this game seems quiet in mainstream media during the release, but also because in POGO hotspots I visited solo and with a friend, the game just hasn’t caught fire. If you want to do a dungeon or find something rare, you really need to belong to a community.
Bumping into other players isn’t quite as easy, and it’s not just because of the lack of meatspace players. While broken, the POGO tracker gave you an idea of what you were looking for around you. Aside from lures, there’s nothing that feels like it draws me to an area where I might meet other people. While the POGO raids’ rigid timers make it so you have a small window of opportunity to PUG things, they’re at least well broadcast. Wizards Unite has no such systems that I’ve noticed.
On the one hand, it makes it feel like Wizards Unite just isn’t going to be a game I’ll probably be meeting new people in outside of the POGO groups that have given birth to Wizards Unite subgroups. On the other, it has made me try a little harder to get people into the game and to organize outings, though I’ve only had so much luck with that.
Getting immersion right
“As a single-player experience […] Maguss is, dare I say, pretty freaking good for a mobile title. You level, raise stats, find loot, even make simple pre-set conversation with other players you duel. However, dueling is basically the only multiplayer feature right now. As much as I think POGO‘s gym system was a band-aid on a content-wound that really needs to be removed at this point, at least it had that. If Maguss had implemented territorial PvP again, fine. If it’d done trading or group monsters, things might have been more interesting. But simple dueling feels like a beta kludge, and I’m hoping there’ll be something more social at launch to lure people in – if the monetization doesn’t scare people away.”
I know this may sound like blasphemy, especially with how upset I was with some of the UI issues and the gross over monetization the game had, but Maguss was the better Harry Potter ARG at release in a lot of ways, at least in terms of immersion. The spellcasting (when it works) is much more interesting, as is the combat system. The potion brewing in Maguss is a bit more tedious, in that you need to do a tracing mini-game at certain steps (which is time-consuming and awkward), but much more inspired than “press this button to start or this button to give us money to do it faster.”
The HP series has rarely focused on collecting things aside from supplies for an adventure (or to stop He Who Must Not Be Named). I’m saying this as a casual fan, but Harry Potter was about going to school, discovering a new world, casting spells, learning to brew potions, and occasionally fighting. It’s the same issue I brought up when we got the first hints of the game, but instead of adapting PvP among houses into something more “fun,” they’ve lost all meaning. Even something simple like House Points being tracked for certain activities, leading to special titles and a store sale for in-game house apparel (without any in-game effects) would have been a nice touch. Functionless Harry Potter Houses feels like an MMO without trading or chat (which this game also lacks).
We can’t have pets, we can’t experiment with potions, and we can’t even choose what spell we cast 90% of the time aside from in dungeon lobbies, not even the actual battles. The game is fun enough, if a bit cheap feeling. The dungeons are enjoyable enough, especially for a mobile game. But as a Harry Potter game, it feels too much like a forced Pokemon Go. I don’t need multiple megaphones once I’ve “saved” one, especially since I can’t make it stronger, more durable, or even use it, so having basic gameplay around that just makes the XP grind much more visible. And that’s really not something a game should be doing from day one.