‘Harry Potter: Wizards Unite’ hands-on: The Muggle world will never be the same


The future of our streets: like this, but with smartphones
Image: Lora Grigorova/ SOPA Images/ LightRocket via Getty Images

Alright, let’s get this introduction over promptly so we can get to the video of Harry being attacked by a dementor in the real world, as watched via smartphone.

With Harry Potter: Wizards Unite , the people who brought you the phenomenon of Pokemon Go and its sophisticated sci-fi cousin Ingress will run a trilogy of games that turn real-world locations into magnets for mass of mobile players. Wizards Unite isn’t complete, and we don’t have a release date. But it already has the most involved, and probably the most addictive, gameplay of the three.

The setup this time: In the decade since Deathly Hallows , there’s been a breakdown of magical order, a “Calamity, ” an “existential crisis.”( Don’t we know it !) You’re a volunteer for the Ministry of Magic, part of the “Statute of Secrecy”( SOS) task force, procuring various magical objects that have been taken and are in danger of being revealed to the Muggle world — but which for now you can only see through your phone. You walk around a 3-D map scattered with castles, greenhouses, and magical inns.

That’s also the scope through which you find, battle, and free various magical beings, tracing patterns with an on-screen wand. For example, here’s Harry vs. the dementor, as insured live in San Francisco. It’s a scene you can move all the way around and tackle from any slant:

Whenever this game is released, expecto a lot of people shouting spell names at their phones in the street.

Walk this way

Niantic, the spun-off-from-Google company that made video games, invited a handful of journalists to a hands-on demonstration of Wizards Unite at the San Francisco Ferry Building last week. Before we started, a lengthy presentation ensured we knew that Niantic’s evil masterplan to improve the health of everyone in the world and increase the strength of our communities with family-friendly games was proceeding according to schedule.

This Warner Bros-blessed game based on the world’s post popular wizard seems to be the masterstroke.

Even pre-Potter, the numbers are impressive. Niantic has tracked players walking a total of 23 billion kilometers since the company was spun off in 2015. That’s more than 573 million times around the Earth, most of which would not have been strolled otherwise. Given the 190 million “friendship” connections between players in the first two games, and 3 million players that have been to a real-world meet-up to collaborate in the game with other players, the games company is a legit social network.

Except this one is clearly doing good in the world , not least by devoting millions of parents something fun to do outside repeatedly with their kids.

Endless potentials: the Wizards Unite map

Image: niantic

Still, as any Ravenclaw would, I hurled a devil’s advocate question at Niantic CEO John Hanke: Don’t we already have an epidemic of people staring at smartphones while walking down streets? He deftly dodged the question and turned it on our common enemy: “We have an epidemic of people sitting on the couch, ” he said. “An epidemic of diabetes.”

In other words, 573 million Grounds of workout( and counting) is worth the occasional shoulder barge. Hanke added that he was “looking over the horizon to people playing games on glass, ” which would presumably( but not certainly) reduce pedestrian collisions.

Yes, you do have to hold your telephone up to initiate the game’s battle sequences. But as I discovered in my test, Wizards Unite doesn’t require you to stand frozen in the street during combats, seeming up at your telephone like some hypnotized Black Mirror extra. Once you’ve got a lock, a snapshot freezes and holds the street-scene in the background with an eerie magical glow.

Step to the side and put yer wand down, Harry.

Cheaper than theme park

The wolf that killed me.

Image: niantic

With one developer, one PR escort, and one iPhone each, we were quickly strolled around various game highlightings in bustling downtown SF. I didn’t walk into anyone, but the bustle certainly made learning the game harder. I got into a rancour match with a werewolf that killed me twice. Combat didn’t seem so much “turn-based” as “your enemy takes a turn whenever they want-based.” Still, I got the furry devil on the third try.

A later combat inside the Ferry Building ran a lot smoother because there were four of us assaulting the same group of creatures. The developer told me the game had been engineered so that walking around in a squad of 5 is the optimum number, especially if one of you is playing healer. In other terms, I said, video games is basically real-world Dungeons and Dragons . The developer enthusiastically nodded.

There’s another big role-playing factor, as you travel on a career path of your choice: aurora, prof, magizoologist( whatever you think of the movies, the Fantastic Beats world is seamlessly integrated here ). There’s a virtual cosplay component too, adding hats and scarves and houses and personalized wands to your profile photo in your “Ministry ID, ” which is a clever way to drive the registration process.

The true nerd gang of 5 will, of course , not just keep the cosplay virtual, but take to the streets in actual Hogwarts regalia.

Activating a portkey to the Ministry

Image: niantic

There was an intimidating amount of mechanics to learn, even more so than with Ingress . Brewing healing potions is a game unto itself. But the learn curve was never too steep, and Ministry of Magic advisors like Harry( voiced by a Daniel Radcliffe sound-alike) are constantly assisting in your ears and in little dialogue boxes.

You can of course speed things up with purchased coins, but Niantic was adamant that you would still be happy playing the game, which is free in itself, without spending any money.( Your kids and the nag factor, that’s another matter .)

Ravenclaw skepticism aside, I had some genuinely magical moments — such as the time I utilized a portkey to open an augmented reality portal. I physically stepped through and seen myself looking around a room that soon exposed itself to be … the wand store in Diagon Alley. The “wow” factor was real. It felt like a cheaper and much more interactive version of the Harry Potter theme parks experience.( Bring your own butter beer .)

Everything we were shown, Niantic assured us, was just the tip of a vast multi-year plan to add deeper and deeper layers to what they call a “forever” game. “Hopefully this is in your pocket and part of your life for the rest of your life, ” said Warner Brothers’ San Francisco studio head Jonathan Knight ominously.

Yeah, this is going to take a while.

Image: Niantic

Indeed, I’m on the very casual end of Potter fandom, and I still could see myself falling for this game harder than I “ve fallen in love with” Ingress , a six-month obsession that didn’t have this level of fulfilling ongoing playability.

Collecting stickers for each object retrieved, progressing in your profession, leveling up your wizard powers so you can take on ever-stronger magical animals: All this has the potential to become more important than your real-world career. Not for nothing did Niantic maintain quoting the words of Dumbledore: “Of course it’s all happening in your head, but why should that mean it’s not real? ”

With J.K. Rowling not involved in approving the interactive components, Wizards Unite is the purest expression yet of how Potter’s universe has passed through her head and is now happening in all of ours. Soon, we will live our own endless narratives.

Of course, it’s on your telephone screen, but why should that mean it’s not real?

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