As a Harry Potter fan, of course I had to try out Harry Potter: Wizards Unite when it became available in the app store. It joins the other two Niantic games on my phone, Ingress and Pokemon Go. I’m a huge fan of the augmented reality (AR) premise: Bringing digital games to the real world and forcing people to go out and explore. Given some of the recent fuss over microtransactions in mobile games, I was a bit concerned about how they would be used in this new offering. Niantic teaming up with others to produce the game also left me worried. The scent of corporate greed hung in the air.
My Wizarding Career
Before beginning the game I’d seen exactly one trailer for it; just enough of a hint to realize it would be coming soon. The game’s premise is simple enough: magical objects have been stolen by a spell known as the Calamity and they must be dealt with in order to maintain the Statute of Secrecy that keeps the Wizarding World safe. Without that statute, we are all in danger! Naturally, I’m the perfect wizard to volunteer my services to the Ministry of Magic in order to make sure that muggles don’t notice anything amiss! After creating an account, I was able to choose a Hogwarts House, a wand, and a title, although aspects of the profile unlock as the game progresses, so for now my choices are limited.
Finding the Confoundables
The magical events and objects threatening the Statute of Secrecy are known as confoundables, and these appear quite regularly on the map in most places. The confoundables have stolen foundables — objects and people from the wizarding world — that have to be returned to their original place. The confoundable events come in various types and seem a bit repetitious. For example, I managed to rescue Filch and Mrs. Norris from the same confoundable twice in about an hour. Normally, I’d blame his status as a squib, but I suspect there’s only so many combinations of confoundables in the game at the moment…similar to when Pokemon Go began and I caught nothing but Pidgeys and Rattatas for two weeks.
The gameplay itself is an interesting combination of mechanics from the previous two Niantic games. There are battles with AR creatures in which you swipe to cast a protective spell and then aim at a target with your wand to power up an offensive spell; So far, no tapping necessary! To cast the spells themselves, you trace patterns on the screen, similar to glyph hacking from Ingress and the faster and more accurate you are, the better the spell. Additionally, you have daily quests in the same vein as the research tasks from Pokemon Go, and you have to walk to operate portkeys.
Which brings us to the Wizarding World created within the Niantic game. Near where I started, there are four Ingress portals that translate to three Pokestops and a Gym. In the Wizarding World, these are an inn, two greenhouses, and a fortress. Since it’s an AR game, I had to get up from my keyboard and go find out what these places were and what I could do there!
The World of Harry Potter – Niantic Style
The first stop was an inn where I was informed that innkeepers throughout the wizarding world would provide me with free food. I could visit them and pick something to eat every five minutes and by eating, replenish my magical energy. It was only then that I realized there was a magic energy counter on my screen, and I’d squandered all 75 starting points! The dishes from the inn provided only a small amount of energy each time I ate. This necessitates me either hanging out in the inn ala every clichéd roleplaying game ever, or visiting several inns a day to replenish my magical energy. Items known as Dark Detectors can also be deployed at the inns, which seem to improve your chances at finding rare events and stronger magic. I moved on to the first greenhouse afterward. I was not at all surprised to find plants for harvesting there. These plants can then be used to brew potions. Also, players can grow plants in the greenhouses, provided you have enough seeds, water, and time. Plants are harvestable by everyone in the community — so there’s no reason to jealously guard them — and passing wizards can contribute magic to make them grow faster. My final stop was the Fortress. As with Pokemon GO’s Gyms, there are battles here, but it appears that all the opponents are AI/NPCs and not fellow players. There are several levels within each fortress, though once you unlock a level, you can return to that same level at a future date. These fortress battles allow for multiple players to battle at once, although I haven’t yet found another WU player in my area.
With all my energy gone and no more time to spend at the inn, I returned to my keyboard and spent some time exploring the various menus and interfaces. There is a storefront named Diagon Alley where various items are for sale. These include extra keys for the portkeys, extra dark detectors, potions, and outfits. In addition, there are storage expansion items, as with other Niantic games. These are all purchased for in-game coins, which you can earn by playing the game or purchase with real-world money. In my opinion, you don’t need to buy any of these items in order to play and enjoy the game. Yet, I’ll likely buy the storage expansion items in the coming months because I’m a packrat. The game itself centers around the story of the Calamity, discovering what it was and who cast it, with input from Hermione Granger and Harry Potter. Clues to these mysteries are unearthed through playing the game. Finally, the various foundables that are recovered become fragments that are then turned into images in a large sticker album. Some foundable stickers are completed after only one fragment, while most seem to take four or more fragments to finish.
At first glance, this game is repetitive and a bit of a fetch-quest aimed at die-hard Harry Potter fans. However, the longer I played, the more interesting features I discovered. For example, portkeys, once opened, allow a person to travel to a new place in the wizarding world. In AR mode, a portal opens in the world before you and you step through into a virtual setting where magical mischief can be found. While walking to open your portkey or in search of an inn to replenish your magic, your avatar keeps pace with you on the game’s map. But hop into a car and your avatar will pick up their broomstick and fly along, dismounting at each traffic light. Although there is plenty to see and do with fighting oddities, returning foundables, and growing plants for potions, ultimately Wizards Unite is a mystery that is solved one dialogue-driven chapter at a time, and I believe that this game is meant for the more studious and easy-going gamers in our midst.
As far as my future career with the Ministry of Magic is concerned, I feel like this game has potential. The glyph battles are more varied than tapping on the screen as with Pokemon Go, there are tons of objects and fragments to collect for my inner packrat, and it’s all wrapped up in a mystery to solve with my good friend Harry Potter. However, after experiencing it for a number of weeks, and having had a couple events go by and a community day, I find that I open it less often than Pokemon GO. There is definitely room for improvement. Fortunately, Niantic has a history of listening to their player base and I’m sure the game will improve over time. One possible enhancement, in my opinion, would be to create a real-world rivalry, perhaps between Hogwarts houses or between the Ministry and the Death Eaters, as we have with the different teams in Pokemon Go and the two factions in Ingress. Attacking fortresses would be more intriguing if doing so brought your house glory (and points) or caused a world score to change, as with Ingress. Yet, the lack of any rivalry does free me to explore the world and solve the mystery of the Calamity without having to worry about defending gyms and attacking portals. I just need to make sure I eat enough!