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Entertainment & Arts

‘Wizards Unite’ wants to last forever as an interactive Harry Potter narrative

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Wizards Unite
(Niantic)

For fans of the “Harry Potter” universe, this June has brought with it a bounty of activity.

In Orlando, Universal Studios opened a critically acclaimed coaster in Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. Closer to home, wherever that home may be, Niantic unleashed the Potter-themed augmented reality mobile game “Wizards Unite,” its long-awaited follow-up to cultural phenomenon “Pokémon Go.”

Getting into either won’t be easy.

The Hagrid’s attraction has been plagued by long waits and has operated in fits and starts. “Wizards Unite,” by contrast, can place you into the action in a matter of moments, but don’t expect to instantly grasp all that is happening.

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“Wizards Unite” is a vast, multilayered exploration into the world of Potter, with so many characters, creatures, spells, potions and magical lexicon that one may wish it came with footnotes. “Wizards Unite” doesn’t hold your hand, even if it does ask you to pretend that your mobile phone is a wand.

Yet while “Wizards Unite” can be daunting at first glance, Niantic founder John Hanke views it as less of a single game and more of a platform that will gradually mature, one that can emphasize various forms of play or elements over time and further extend the Potter narrative.

Thus, to immediately answer the question of many casual and not-so-casual observers — no, “Wizards Unite” is likely not poised to become the communal and global smash that was and is “Pokémon Go.”

But there are far more ways to judge a mobile AR game — one that allows us to look into our digital screens and see the Potter environment springing to life before us — than by how many people are walking around a park playing the same title at once.

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After all, “Wizards Unite” is doing just fine, as early estimates from analytics firm Sensor Tower have the game bringing in more than $10 million in its first 30 days. While a far cry from the estimated $28 million “Pokémon Go” secured in about 100 hours, you have to take into account that, at the time of “Pokémon Go’s” release in 2016, augmented reality technology that worked well was rather novel. “Pokémon Go” wasn’t just a good game; it was an experience that many felt the need to try.

With that shininess worn off, Niantic and WB Games have no need to introduce the world to a platform. Instead, with “Wizards Unite” they start to push the medium further. In turn, “Wizards Unite” feels grander, deeper and far more story-driven. It will no doubt become the favorite game of many, and even players who opt not to follow what is already set up to be a byzantine plot will find much to devour.

The animations, for instance, are a joy — Hagrid trapped in a web of “chaotic magic,” a jester ensnared in a giant glass dome, a cat-like “kneazle” battling a chicken or what appears to be a troll in a music box. Harry himself looks older and sterner — less a wizard and more someone eager to climb the corporate ladder — and even Potter-universe ghosts, such as girls bathroom haunt Moaning Myrtle, have found themselves adrift in our more common world.

As complex and daunting as it may feel, discovering the various paths of “Wizards Unite” encourages exploration — or exercise, as Niantic is keen to point out. Like “Pokémon Go,” certain elements can be discovered only by getting out and walking. Thankfully, learning its spell-driven ways never once feels like homework, and that’s no small feat for a game in which many may aspire to be a professor.

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Hagrid needs your help in "Wizards Unite."
(WB Games / Niantic)

It helps that casting a spell is easy to grasp and provides just enough variability to keep things interesting. Players trace a pattern that appears on the screen, attempting to stay as close as possible to the circular, triangular, zigzagging jagged lines as possible, a gesture designed to mimic the waving of a wand.

The challenge for Niantic will be unraveling a story that’s simultaneously played by many out in the real world without the core plot feeling as if it has no resolution. At the start of “Wizards Unite,” we learn of a so-called “calamity” event, which resulted in various people, artifacts and “even memories” being stolen from the wizarding world. Their discovery, we’re told, could essentially collapse that world.

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The mystery is who — or what — caused it. There’s also the matter of five wizards who went missing before the calamity began and learning how they figure into the events of the game. Niantic’s Hanke considers it an evolution of play and storytelling.

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“With Harry Potter we’ve built this narrative that you get to pursue as an individual,” he says. “So you do get a sense of what you need to accomplish to move the story forward, but we’re setting that within a broader shared universe, one that will speak to our live events and the overall narrative that will play out over the next year of the game. The whole world is also going to move forward.”

The story of the calamity, Hanke says, is simply “volume one.”

“We imagine that shared world storyline as having a beginning, middle and an end. Then there would be a volume two. A different story would continue on.”

After playing for a bit, users will choose one of three Potter professions. Follow, for instance, in Harry’s footsteps and join the Aurors, or opt to become a professor or take after Hagrid. Each class has multiple skill trees and will gain various abilities as the game unfolds.

Then there’s the matter of learning what potions do what, and what to do with everything from dragon livers to newt spleens. Oh, and you’ll need to eventually understand how rune keys are used to open fortresses, where there are trickier challenges but greater rewards, and how and where to manage spell energy without opting to buy it.

Potions, keys and elixirs are also for sale to speed the process of walking and accruing. Advancing without dropping cash hasn’t been a problem for me, but I also live in Los Angeles, where there are “inns” on every block to offer more spell energy. A registry keeps track of what magical items have been found — they’re called “foundables” — and provides info on what they mean and what mysteries they may foretell.

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That sounds like a lot, but none of it needs to be mastered right away. A week into the game I’m still learning how to best complete challenges, which include some trickier wand mechanics, and how finishing the day’s tasks will essentially unlock more elements of the narrative.

“Wizards Unite” probably isn’t “Potter for Beginners.” For that, the books or films are still the best starting point.

“We were thinking about players that would be in their 20s and 30s that were fans of the books and fans of the movies growing up,” Hanke says. “Of course, it’s also meant to appeal to younger players in their teens or tweens, but that sweet spot is people in their 20s and 30s.”

If “Wizards Unite,” set after the conclusion of the last book and film, is a success, it will serve as an evolving interactive sequel.

“We think of these as forever games,” Hanke says. “I don’t think there’s any reason why an electronic game shouldn’t last forever in the same way that chess lasts forever — or bridge or any kind of offline game. We don’t think they have a natural lifespan to them. We think of that for video games because the technology has had a built-in obsolescence.

“But that’s no longer true,” he says. “Now that the platform is in the cloud, you’ll update your device but you’ll still have access to the game world.”


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