My fingers are numb, the wind is whipping in my hair, and it’s raining, but I couldn’t give a damn: I’m currently fighting a werewolf in the middle of London. Tracing a glyph with my finger on the screen, I fire off a spell before swiping to the side to cast Protego, defending myself from a swipe of its claw (which you can see in action in the video above). Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is ridiculous in terms of its scope, and without a doubt is the most ambitious mobile AR game around right now. There are three different professions to choose from (which you can switch between freely), skill trees, potion brewing, spell casting, wizarding challenges, collectibles, a core narrative, mysteries to solve, in-game locations you can explore in AR, potion ingredients that appear based on the time, weather, biome, and the phase of the moon… Recounting all that I did during my brief time with Harry Potter: Wizards Unite stuns me. And it should stupify you too.
The Statue of Secrecy Task Force needs YOU
Taking place in the present day, post-Deathly Hallows, you’re recruited by the Statute of Secrecy Task Force to help find magical items named Foundables that have been scattered throughout the world after a catastrophic, chaotic magical event called The Calamity. Each Foundable is protected by a Confoundable, a magical being that you’ll need to get rid of before you can retrieve the Foundable and return it to its rightful place in your Registry, which kind of acts like a sticker book. What that adds up to is me, outdoors, swivelling around my phone to find the Confoundable that I’ve just tapped on the map. Because unlike in Pokemon Go, you don’t jump straight into an encounter - you can walk around the Confoundable, seeing it from every angle before you ready your wand. It’s a small detail but one that makes you feel the AR technology working, walking around in real life as if that creature on your screen is invisible to everyone except you. For all your know magic is really going on right before your eyes, as this small detail makes a huge impact.
Fighting the Confoundables is nifty at first, as you have to trace on-screen spell glyphs with your finger to successfully attack and defend, but as you start off with a small amount of spells battling can get repetitive quite quickly. But, thankfully, there’s a lot more to the game than Foundables. Niantic promises that as time goes on you’ll be figuring out exactly why the mysterious London Five disappeared, a group who seem to be connected to The Calamity that caused this mess in the first place, giving Wizards Unite the narrative it needs to make its main RPG systems worth your time. See, at launch although you might not have all the answers, you’ll still make use of Greenhouses, Inns, and Fortresses, each one of them feeding into Wizard Unite’s gameplay loop of potion brewing, eating, and fighting.
The gameplay loop beckons
With the whole game centred around fighting Confoundables, unsurprisingly combat is what all your experience adds up to. Think of Fortresses like a levelled-up version of Pokemon Go’s gyms. Each Fortress - basically a big castle on your map - has multiple Chambers, which get progressively more difficult. Inside each one, you and up to four friends will (or should) strategize about who should take on the enemies you’ll find inside, with your skill trees (which I’ll get to later) giving you certain advantages or disadvantages against each foe. It’s this cooperation that makes Fortresses fun, as my group cheered each other on and fretted about our depleting Spell Energy, which helped to mitigate the slightly repetitive gameplay. Unlike Pokemon Go, you’re not split into competing teams: no matter the Profession you choose (more on that below) you’ll all be able to work together, encouraging deeper community connections and those heart-warming impromptu friendships struck up in public. Then you and your band of misfits, whether friends or strangers, can tackle the next level, and the next, and the next, until you run out of Spell Energy.
Spell energy replaces Pokeballs, and can be found at Inns, Wizards Unite’s version of Pokestops. But instead of just walking from point A to B, Wizards Unite spices up the formula by scattering potion ingredients across the map, which are used to craft potions at Greenhouses. What’s clear is that Niantic is trying to make your walk less about the destination and more about what you can pick up (and fight) along the way, keeping you glued to your phone screen and invested in the world around you. It’s smart, as once you’ve brewed those potions to help you against Confoundables, you can practically feel yourself being pulled to more difficult Fortresses, and so the process begins all over again. What ingredients you find will depend on weather, your location, the time of day, and even the phase of the moon, meaning that I can already see every month bringing its own unique opportunities that I’ll have to plan around as if I’m playing a real-life Stardew Valley. Oh, and then there’s your skill tree to tackle. Because of course you have a skill tree. Wizards Unite isn’t a game that does things by halves.
AR with the depth of an RPG
Like any classic RPG, skill trees are a big part of Harry Potter: Wizards Unite. Linked to your profession, you can choose between the Auror, a lone wolf and formidable fighter, the tank and potion-brewing aptitude of the Magizoologist, or the wicked clever Professor. Each one has its own massive skill tree (with unlockable spells and charms), effect on your stamina, power, and advantages against certain enemies, but if you decide you picked the wrong job you can always switch (for no cost) and start putting your points into one of the other two.
All that lets you build a character who actually feels like you, as there are so many different combinations and builds you can choose between being a good all-rounder or specialise utterly in one Profession. That’s not the only thing that gives you a sense of identity, either: building on Pokemon Go’s customisable trainer, you also have your own Ministry of Magic ID card, complete with a real photo of you decked out in a filter for things ranging from Harry’s scar to Luna Lovegood’s glasses. Picking your wand, and Hogwarts house is obviously part of it too, the latter of which will have some kind of impact which Niantic is keeping tight-lipped about...for now. At the end of it all your witch or wizard is meant to truly feel like you.
Even with all that showy stuff, sometimes simple magic is best, and if you find enough Foundables to complete a Registry, you can get your hands on a Portkey. This is the bit that won’t get old quickly as it shows off the true potential of AR. Unlocked by walking off Portmanteaus (like Pokemon Go’s eggs), place a Portkey on the floor, and as you step forward in real life as through your phone screen you’ll see yourself move through a portal, and suddenly you’re in Ollivander’s Wand Shop. Looking around with the phone camera, you can move behind the desk, look through the windows, walk around the shop, and even stoop underneath a ladder. Wondrous to look at, Portkeys are well worth the wait and getting a chance to step directly into the Wizarding world is one of the best things about Wizards Unite.
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is ambitious, deep, and even at this early stage looks like it has enough to keep you busy for hours, days, months, even years. Niantic’s emphasis on narrative remains to be seen, but the version that I played still had me mentally ticking off potion ingredients and Foundables to fulfill those addictive lists in my Registry, pulling me deeper in with that “just one more…” mentality. Pokemon Go, beware: it might just have met its match from its very own maker.
Eager to get back into Pokemon Go now you’ve read this? Here are some Pokemon Go tips to get you started!