Created by Niantic, of Pokemon Go fame, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is a location-based AR mobile game that aims to take what made Pokemon Go great and apply it to the world of Harry Potter.
Announced in 2017, the game is in every way a follow-up to the success of Pokemon Go. Developed in collaboration with Warner Bros. Games, it seems as if WB saw the Pokemon Go craze in 2016 and quickly hired Niantic to try and replicate that success with the Harry Potter IP. Here we are, two years after the deal was announced, with Harry Potter: Wizards Unite as the end result.
The game is currently available as of the time of this writing for beta testing in New Zealand and Australia, although I fear no adjustments or bug fixes could help this game before its worldwide launch. Wizards Unite unfortunately feels like a sad, uninspired clone of Pokemon Go from what I’ve seen so far.
I was never a huge Pokemon Go player myself, but the similarities between Go and Wizards Unite are easy to see. It’s not just that the games are similar in concept, such as The Walking Dead: Our World, but rather that Go has been carbon copied and re-skinned with a Harry Potter-overlay. Chuck in some dull spell-casting mechanics and shoddy non-Daniel Radcliffe voice acting and you (apparently) have yourself a new game.
The game follows the same core mechanics and gameplay of Pokemon Go: when you start the game up, you see a little wizard representation of yourself on a map, placed according to your phone’s location at that time. There are then several points-of-interest located across the map which you can walk toward and interact with once you reach their physical location in the world.
It’s so similar to Pokemon Go that it’s honestly concerning. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter feels so hamfisted into the existing Pokemon Go game structure that not only does it not work, it’s just not engaging in any sense.
The cool thing about Pokemon Go was that it used AR to create an experience that matched the core story of Pokemon. Just like in any Pokemon game, show or story, you were walking around and catching Pokemon in the wild, using your phone as a guide, and then visiting Pokestops and battling with your Pokemon at gyms. What you did in the game directly mirrored what Pokemon trainers do in the Pokemon lore, and that fostered great IP synergy. This also meant that the location-based elements of the game and the usage of AR felt less gimmicky, because you were actually mirroring the actions of a Pokemon trainer.
The problem here is that the system doesn’t translate at all to the Harry Potter universe. The basic story is that magic creatures have been displaced across the muggle world, and the Ministry of Magic needs your help to find them and return them to their original locations by catching them.
The first time you play the game and start an account, there’s an incredible amount of convoluted backstory that immediately gets explained to you by a Daniel Radcliffe-impersonator posing as a post-Epilogue Harry Potter, along with a Ministry official who works with Hermione. The story seems only concerned with wrangling excuses to use the existing Pokemon Go systems of gyms, Pokestops, and the like in a Harry Potter-relevant way.
Catching a magical creature works the same way as catching Pokemon, except instead of throwing Pokeballs you draw a line on the screen to cast a spell.
The graphics of the AR creatures that appear around you are, to put it nicely, not great. Although Pokemon Go’s graphics were probably on the same level, that game got away with it a lot more as Pokemon were already inherently cartoon-style animals. None of the Harry Potter universe has ever been represented in a non-photorealistic way, so seeing a low-resolution baby Hippogrifth appear on your street is underwhelming.
After the context for the narrative is all done, the game still doesn’t stop explaining things. Within the first two hours of playing, I was bombarded with so many explanations of the various types of interactable-locations that I forgot what each one did and why they were important. Some contain minigames, some allow you to collect items, but none of them feel engaging. What’s worse is that all of the locations you can interact with in the real world are the exact same landmarks as you’ll find in Pokemon Go. I compared the streets around my house in both Pokemon Go and Wizards Unite, and of the visitable landmarks were the same, just slightly changed to reflect the game you were playing.
After 2-3 hours of Wizards Unite, I realized that there was nothing about the game that made me ever want to pick it back up again. Although I only properly played Pokemon Go for a month or two when it it first came out, I totally understood the appeal, especially to hardcore Pokemon fans. I was once a huge Harry Potter fan, and there’s nothing about Wizards Unite that I find engaging or exciting. It doesn’t really even feel like a Harry Potter game, and it certainly doesn’t have the staying power of Pokemon Go.
Pokemon Go got people outside, walking around, and using AR because they got to pretend they were a Pokemon trainer. That same incentive just doesn’t exist in Wizards Unite. Instead of creating an AR game that is special, unique, and actually applicable to the Harry Potter universe, Niantic have phoned it in and created a Pokemon Go clone. Fingers crossed the full release is somehow magically much better.
Despite the bolt on Harry’s head, it is very clear that, in Niantic’s case, lightning does not strike twice.