Thu. Sep 19th, 2019

I got to try ‘Harry Potter: Wizards Unite,’ the new game from the creators of ‘Pokémon Go,’ before it came out, and I can already tell it’s going to be huge


I got to try ‘Harry Potter: Wizards Unite,’ the new game from the creators of ‘Pokémon Go,’ before it came out, and I can already tell it’s going to be huge

  • You can now play “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite,” the new game co-developed by the creator of “Pokémon Go.” The game was supposed to arrive Friday, but was released a day early. 
  • I got the chance to play the game early at an event this week at Universal Studios Hollywood, hosted by comedian Tiffany Haddish.
  • The game is really well-designed, has tons of details, and sports a surprising amount of depth — in a lot of ways, it’s a major evolution past “Pokémon Go.” 
  • You can now play it for yourself on iPhone and Android in the US and UK. 
  • In the meanwhile, here’s the breakdown.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Muggles, witches, and wizards alike can finally play “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite,” the new game co-developed by Niantic — best known as the creators of “Pokémon Go.”

I was lucky enough to get my hands on the game early, at a special event hosted by Niantic and co-developer WB Games down in the Universal Studios Hollywood theme park, featuring a guest appearance by comedian Tiffany Haddish — who, incidentally, said she’s a big fan of both Harry Potter and “Pokémon Go,” and used the event to get her own first go at the game.

(She said she’s a Ravenclaw, in case you were wondering.)

I was already on board with “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite,” thanks to the time I got with an earlier version of the game back in March. But getting to run around the park’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter area with the game in tow really brought home what “Wizards Unite” is going for — and why it’s going to be a big deal to a lot of people. 

For those, like me, who have played a lot of “Pokémon Go,” there’s a lot here to love — the basic gameplay is similar, but speaking strictly in terms of gameplay mechanics, “Wizards Unite” is the closest thing we may ever get to a proper “Pokémon Go” sequel. It offers all kinds of smart upgrades and tweaks to the core experience that left me impressed.

And then, there will be those Potterheads, young and old, who come to this game fresh. For them, “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite” offers nifty graphics (including the clever use of augmented reality), an interesting story, and a lot of different things to see and do. The developers have said that the goal is to suck you into the universe of author J.K. Rowling’s book and movies, and in many ways, it’s a success. 

At the same time, I have some concerns: All of those new gameplay mechanics, from potion-brewing to magical dueling, introduce some complexity that may make for a steeper learning curve than you might expect.

Still, the sheer amount of love for the Wizarding World that went into this game, and all the care and attention to detail given to every aspect of the gameplay, make me think that this is going to be big. 

Here’s what it was like playing “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite” at Universal Studios Hollywood, with (or at least, near) Tiffany Haddish:

The event kicked off with Tiffany Haddish introducing Niantic CEO John Hanke. She joked that she’s so excited for this game because she lost 10 pounds playing “Pokémon Go,” Niantic’s last big game.

Indeed, “Harry Potter: Wizards Unite” is superficially very similar to “Pokémon Go.” You move around the real world, finding points of interest that help you collect spell energy, potion ingredients, and, most importantly, traces — the crux of the whole game.

Your quest is to travel the world, unraveling the mystery of the Great Calamity, whereby some of the Wizarding World’s most iconic characters and artifacts — like poor Hagrid here — were ripped from space and time and scattered around the world.

There’s actually a whole mystery to unravel here, which you can move forward by completing in-game quests. The plot is fully voice-acted, and features characters like Harry Potter and Hermione Granger. And yes, you can pick a Hogwarts house.

Every so-called Foundable (get it?) comes with a corresponding Confoundable (GET IT?!) that you’ll have to defeat to set things right. This Azkaban wanted poster is being menaced by a floating cloud of flame. Trace the line to cast the spell, and …

Congrats — yer a Wizard, [your name here]. The better, and faster, you trace the line, the stronger your spell.

It’s pretty clear that the game’s creators had some fun diving into the Wizarding World: These gremlins are menacing a baby Niffler, the treasure-hungry creature of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” fame. The spells, too, all come from the source material.

This is where another Pokémon-like mechanic comes in: Every Foundable you rescue gets added to your registry, encouraging you to catch ’em all. The catch is that some Foundables require you to rescue them multiple times before they’re added to the registry. Luna Lovegood here, for instance, needs to found and rescued four times.

The game’s augmented reality tech is a far sight ahead of that found in “Pokémon Go.” It does a pretty good job of making encounters like this one more convincing (the chicken, incidentally, breathes fire).

The AR tech is such that, on every encounter with a Foundable, you can actually walk around, using your phone to inspect the scene from every angle. When you’re ready, you stand on the blue marker, and the game continues apace.

But you can play without augmented reality, too — you just get a more generic background, as you see with the imperiled Professor Snape, here.

“Wizards Unite” uses AR in a new way for these games, too: You can use some Potter-themed, Snapchat-style filters to make yourself a portrait to share on social media. I’ll spare you mine, but here’s Tiffany Haddish’s, as made at the event:

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Some — but not all — of these Foundables can be used as AR stickers, which you can place in the world. Here’s Hagrid, blending in with the crowds coming and going from the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride at Universal.

It was actually a lot of fun to walk around the theme park, putting the very few Harry Potter characters in my registry at the moment into different situations …

… including this extremely non-canonical crossover, over in the Simpsons area of the park.

Just like in “Pokémon Go,” you’ll need to walk around the real world to gather what you’ll need for your quest. This time out, the world is broken down into inns, which give you food to restore your spell energy; greenhouses, which give you vital potion ingredients; and fortresses, where you’ll take on multiplayer combat challenges.

Which is a good transition into combat. Most of your fighting will be done at fortresses, where players can team up to take on challenges and win prizes. In a nice touch, each player can select the difficulty of the challenge for themselves — the challenges are activated by placing a collectible runestone item, and the higher the level of the runestone, the harder the fight you’re in for.

Combat itself is designed to be fast, like the back-and-forth magical dueling you see in the “Harry Potter” movies. When they take a shot at you, swipe across the screen to cast Protego, which reduces your damage taken.

You use the touchscreen to aim your wand, and then you can make your counter-strike by swiping for a spell. The better your spell-casting, the more damage you’ll do. There are also magical healing potions, and potions for increasing your attack power.

Be good with your Protegos and fierce with your attacks, and boom, the duel is won. Taste the Universal Studios Hollywood pavement, Dark Wizard!

That covers most of the basics, but there’s a surprising amount of complexity under the hood of the flying Ford Anglia that is “Wizards Unite.” For instance, there’s a whole system for brewing your own potions, which requires you first to collect the necessary ingredients, and then wait for hours of real time for it to brew. Note that you can spend golden galleons — the game’s premium currency — to speed up the brewing process.

There are Portkeys, roughly analogous to eggs in “Pokémon Go,” which require you to walk around in the real world in order to find otherwise-rare Foundables.

There are even professions, with their own strengths and weaknesses: I chose to be a Dark Wizard-hunting Auror, which carries a weakness to magical beasts. As the game progresses, I reckon that I’ll need lots of help from other players who might be Professors, who are strong against magical artifacts, or Magizoologists, who specialize in combating magical beasts.

To be honest, there are hidden depths here that I’m only just starting to understand after a couple of days of playing. While I really appreciate the variety of things to do, even at the launch of the game, the sheer amount of things to collect can already start to feel a little overwhelming.

And as long as I’m being a quibbler, I want to talk briefly about the game’s system for spell energy.

Every time you cast a spell, it costs one unit of energy. If you run out, you can’t cast any more spells, until you visit an inn to recharge. You can also pay some of the game’s premium currency to reload your spell energy if you’re in a pinch, as you can see above.

This is almost exactly how Poké Balls work in “Pokémon Go,” and it’s mostly fine. 

The problem, even in these early days of the game, is that it still costs you to cast spells in battle. That means if a particularly difficult battle drags out, you can find yourself quickly depleted of spell energy, and in a situation where you have to run away, get your wizard butt kicked, or else pony up the galleons to continue. I’m already finding that it can break the flow.

To Niantic’s and WB Games’ credit, though, the monetization strategy here seems pretty straightforward. You can pay for certain useful items, or cosmetics to customize your character, but the entire game is available for free, from the start, to everyone.

In general, though, my short experience has left me really optimistic about this game: I think people are going to find it downright magical. You can join Tiffany Haddish and me in the game now that it has officially released on iPhone and Android in the US and UK.