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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Score: 90%
ESRB: Everyone
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Argonaut Games
Media: CD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Adventure

Graphics & Sound:
How often do we get a game of a book? Sure, the games of movies and comics and TV shows are commonplace, but turning Harry Potter into a game (albeit to go along with his new movie) sets somewhat of a new benchmark, I'd suppose. For all the Potter fans out there, read on with the confidence that this is a great game.

As the movie approached last year, I worried about the on-screen image spoiling what I had envisioned in my mind's eye for Harry, Hermione, Hagrid and all the other folks at Hogwarts. I think most people weighed in with their approval on the casting choices for the movie. In all but a few cases, I can say the characters came through about as I imagined them and (more importantly) how I would have cast them myself. With the movie as a reference, characters in the Harry Potter game look and sound as they should, but the voice talent present for the movie didn't make it to the game. When will these folks realize they could make some serious money doing a few minutes of voice acting for these games!? My gosh, they could easily double their already outrageous annual income! But, even without The Actors, the voices are convincing. And, thanks to the way EA created the characters' faces with a good amount of detail and expression, watching characters in close-up isn't painful at all. The cut-scenes are in the game's engine, and there are plenty of little scenes that introduce special challenges or areas of Hogwarts. In fact, Sorcerer's Stone has a very cinematic feel thanks to frequent character dialog and interaction along with fabulous music. The music really jumps out at you, and gives so much atmosphere to every minute of the game, but especially the Quidditch matches! What makes the music special is how any little bit of the game is enhanced and accompanied by a big, full sound and how little actions like drinking a potion get a unique musical moment. All the sights and sounds of Hogwarts are realized very well. Creepy crawlies run across the floor everywhere, bats and owls flutter through the air, and even the voices of the ghosts and the portraits seem appropriate somehow. Amazing how games from TV and movies can be butchered, but just give 'em a book and they do fine!

When I first heard about the possibility of a game based on Sorcerer's Stone I was apprehensive to say the least. I mean, while there are plenty of possible avenues for gameplay, the spirit of the book was adventure. We've all seen some of the horrible roads Disney has taken in translating what should be slam-dunk action/adventure games from their movies, so I approached with caution. The most amazing thing about the Sorcerer's Stone game is how well it captures everything that makes reading the book so fun. We all want to be Harry. We want to explore Hogwarts, learn spells, hang out with Hagrid, get into trouble, uncover sinister plots and save the world. Ooh, and we really, really want to ride a broom and play Quidditch. It doesn't take a focus group to tell you this, and I'm so happy that EA got it right! They basically made a game where you can do all these things, and they did it in a very smart way.

From the beginning, instead of trying for some dumb 'tutorial,' EA was smart enough to realize that little Harry's life is one big tutorial. He's at Hogwarts to learn anyway, so all through the game the essence of Harry's experience is going to classes and learning the art of Magic. As we know from the book, it's what he does before, after and between classes that gets so interesting! Sorcerer's Stone the game follows the plot of the book and movie quite well, dropping us into not only the usual whimsical mischief that Harry engages in but the deeper and darker plot that's brewing around Harry. The 'usual' mischief for Harry seems to revolve around his spell classes. As you explore Hogwarts, you'll run into fellow students or a professor and find out that a class is about start. A recurring theme you'll find is the timed race to get to class on time. Obstacle courses, really. Once you get to class on time, you can learn either a spell or some special skill you'll need. Each skill works like a variation on rhythm games like PaRappa. Timed button presses in sequence will create the finished product, and once the spell is active, you still have to control it. Once a spell is learned, you'll find numerous places to use it, sometimes in places that advance the story and other times in bonus challenges. Oh, of course those bonus challenges weren't in the book, but the Potter spirit is retained. Mostly, Harry can take on special challenges or respond to 'quests' and get items like the Famous Witches and Wizards cards collection, which can lead to a surprise bonus at the end of the game.

Quiddich was promised early on when the buzz started for this game, and I half wondered if we'd end up with a fancy racing game and nothing more. Obviously, there's a whole lot more, but the Quidditch matches are excellently done and fun to play. You ride a broom as you would a car, plane, etc., and steer through speed rings dropped by the Golden Snitch until you're close enough to grab the Snitch. The broom riding is free-wheeling, but the catching is done with timed button presses to simplify things a bit. There are other opportunities to ride the broom, including the Quidditch class, which teaches you all you need to know. Challenges like Quidditch matches or actual quests and battles you partake in as Harry can earn your house, Gryffindor, House Points. At times in the game, you'll see where each house stands on points, leading up to the contest for the House Cup. This and all the activities in Sorcerer's Stone make it a great representation of the book and movie, something that kids will eat up and ask for seconds.

With J.K. Rowling's books having a wide audience, to say the least, EA Games must have tossed and turned about who they should be aiming this game at in terms of difficulty. As it came out, Sorcerer's Stone seems to play to a mid- to upper-level gamer, relative to the other children's games for PlayStation. Some of the puzzles are based on brain power and others on twitch reflexes, but to finish 100 percent of the game won't be too challenging for anyone in the 8+ age range. Younger gamers may need some hints in areas where timing and logic are required to solve a puzzle. One nice piece of most timed puzzles is that you get feedback on how you're doing. If you're not quite cutting it, you'll hear either your opponent or one of the professors tell you so. And, if you fail, you can sometimes get a tip from another character. In fact, you'll almost always learn valuable information by talking to characters before tackling a challenge, and while this may not be needed for older gamers, the young ones will appreciate any tips they can get in some of the harder areas. What is nice about the game's design is that you don't have to worry about getting help unless you need it. And, they gave us a lot of save points.

Game Mechanics:
Sorcerer's Stone suffers from most of the standard 3D issues and especially a poor camera. There isn't a very aggressive auto-camera, which would have really helped for some of the more active, platforming areas. Rotating is possible, and it also is possible to switch to a 'spell view' for a better chance at targeting objects. Still, nothing takes the place of a smart camera, and Sorcerer's Stone unfortunately doesn't have one. I'm all about compensating for it when the rest of the game is as excellent as is the case here, but many newer gamers won't be as patient or as forgiving. Liberal use of the shoulder buttons to rotate will fix most problems, since the control scheme doesn't work relative to which direction Harry is facing. If the jump is ahead of you looking into the screen, pushing forward on the stick makes Harry jump, so you get used to a lot of rotation. Moves like jumping were simplified, but sometimes the difference between pushing forward to jump off a ledge and pushing forward to step off a ledge isn't read correctly and you fall. The analog control is honestly a bit slippery in many places, and where precision is needed you'll find yourself switching to the D-Pad. The creative design for 'special' controls (e.g. spells, mixing cauldrons) was excellent, but the execution of most movement and action control is flawed. Tighter control in moving Harry around would have eased the difficulty of some areas, for sure. It is interesting to note that control in Quidditch matches felt fine.

Nobody could complain that the Sorcerer's Stone hasn't done justice to the book, and whether it owes more to creative minds at EA or Warner Brothers isn't really important. The fact is, this game is fun to play, and it does just about everything a videogame could do to immerse us in the world of Harry Potter and Hogwarts. Not only does Sorcerer's Stone do nothing to subvert the spirit of Harry's character, like making him do something out of character or introducing dumb videogame conventions, it comes up with some very inventive gameplay ideas. Things like the Quidditch matches or the spellcasting have elements drawn from other games, but if the shoe fits... The spirit of exploration you feel while wandering Hogwarts in Harry's 3D shoes will be more exciting to most kids than even seeing the movie, so if you or your little one is a fan of the book, Sorcerer's Stone for PlayStation is a very safe bet.

-Fridtjof, GameVortex Communications
AKA Matt Paddock

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