I tried 'Harry Potter: Wizards Unite,' the new game from the creators of 'Pokemon Go,' and it's magical

harry potter wizards uniteYou may have seen this teaser for &quotHarry Potter: Wizards Unite" before the theatrical run of &quotFantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald."Screenshot/YouTube

  • Niantic and WB Games have finally unveiled "Harry Potter: Wizards Unite," their long-promised smartphone game that takes players into JK Rowling's Wizarding World.
  • Superficially, "Wizards Unite" looks a lot like Niantic's previous hit, "Pokémon Go."
  • But in a brief hands-on session with the game, it became clear that there's a lot more to "Wizards Unite" than meets the eye - it promises to have a surprising amount of depth and variety.
  • In the game, players will become wizards, tasked with finding and returning magical artifacts and creatures to their rightful place before any Muggles notice what's going on.

Back in 2016, "Pokémon Go" became a veritable cultural phenomenon, getting people all over the world to leave their homes and join a global Pokémon journey.

Now, developer Niantic is looking to repeat this magic trick with "Harry Potter: Wizards Unite," a long-promised and long-teased game for iPhone and Android that brings players into JK Rowling's famed Wizarding World, developed in conjunction with WB Games and its Portkey Games label.

Niantic isn't quite ready to announce a formal release date for "Wizards Unite," other than that it'll be out some time this year. But last week, Niantic allowed me and several other members of the press to go hands-on with the game, giving us our first real look.

I came away impressed - while the game is superficially similar to "Pokémon Go," it brings lots of intriguing and promising changes to the mix that could prove to be, ahem, magical.

Welcome to the Wizarding World

The basic premise of the game: Years after the events of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows," someone (or something) has broken the time-space continuum, scattering magical artifacts and creatures all over the world. It's the player's job to help clean up the mess before non-magical Muggles realize that there are wizards in our midst, with a fully voice-acted plot featuring appearances from Harry Potter and Hermoine Granger.

harry potter wizards uniteNiantic

In practice, this means walking around the real world, hunting for so-called "foundables" like the Nimbus 2000 broom, the Sorting Hat, and even time-displaced versions of Harry and his friends taken from the books. Your magical mission, should you choose to accept it, is to complete your collection of returned "foundables."

It's not that easy, though, as each "foundable" comes with a corresponding "confoundable" that you'll have to defeat with a spell. You might need to cast Alohamora to unlock the shackles keeping Buckbeak the Hippogriff on the ground, or the mighty Expecto Patronum to ward off a Dementor threatening Harry Potter.

Actual spellcasting is a matter of swiping on the screen in line with a pattern; you're graded based on how fast and how accurately you trace that line. Every encounter is given a difficulty level, which determines how good your spellcasting has to be to defeat the confoundable and add another entry in your registry of foundables.

There's combat, too, requiring players to successfully defend themselves with the Protego spell while waiting for their chance to strike back with a counterspell of their own.

The idea, Niantic says, is to evoke the fast-paced feeling of magical combat in the "Harry Potter" and "Fantastic Beasts" film franchises. In my brief experience with the game, this bears through - I won and lost duels with werewolves and dark wizards in fun and surprisingly challenging short battles.

More than just another Pokémon

So, yeah, there's clearly some overlap with "Pokémon Go." It even uses Niantic's same database of local points of interest to populate its world - meaning that the same real world locations that were important in "Pokémon Go" will be important in "Wizards Unite." Which is to say, when you first open the game, it looks a lot like "Pokémon Go."

But in this universe, rather than gathering Poké Balls at PokéStops, you'll be stopping along the way at inns, which will gift you a selection of very British food to choose from, including fish and chips and mince pies. Eating at these inns is how you restore your wizarding energy, allowing you to keep playing.

harry potter wizards uniteSome areas will have special properties, like attracting more magical creatures.Niantic

Intriguingly, though, Niantic is promising that the world of "Wizards Unite" will be populated by all kinds of other establishments. For instance, greenhouses will grant rare potion ingredients, while landmarks - tied to real-world tourist destinations - will offer unique types of gameplay, though Niantic is staying mum on details.

Towering above all of these locations - literally - are the fortresses, where players can team up and take on combat challenges. Each fortress has a number of different challenges, at different skill levels, so newbies and veteran wizards alike can fight worthy foes.

On the subject of potions, players will encounter magical plants and other assorted flora all over the world. Niantic says that it's tying these flora to factors like the weather and temperature in the real world: Some plants might only bloom in the morning, and others only when it's cold and rainy.

Niantic says that there's going to be more to all of this, as well. It promises that players will be able to choose a "profession," like professor or evil-hunting Auror, that will grant advantages when setting out to accomplish certain tasks. And that's not to mention the fact that players will be sorted into Hogwarts houses, which Niantic hints will open up new social features.

Ultimately, all of this means that "Wizards Unite" takes a lot of the systems and concepts first introduced in "Pokémon Go" to the next level.

Much more than a mere rehash, my brief time with the game hints that "Wizards Unite" could have a surprising amount of depth all its own. The challenge will be to balance that complexity with the simplicity and excitement of running around the real world looking for runaway broomsticks.

Augmented wizarding reality

On a final note, "Wizards Unite" is definitely the purest example yet of Niantic's big bet on augmented reality, the technology for overlaying digital imagery over the real world.

Read more: The CEO behind 'Pokémon Go' says the company is cash-flow positive as it becomes worth almost $4 billion

harry potter wizards unitePortkeys will instantly transport you across the globe - making for a nifty augmented reality minigame where you're whisked away to a location from the books and movies.Niantic

Every single encounter with a foundable or an enemy is playable in an optional (but recommended) AR mode. It goes a step beyond what's in "Pokémon Go" by rendering every AR scene in three dimensions, so you can walk around and inspect the iceberg that's keeping the Nimbus 2000 broomstick trapped, or get up close and personal with a troll.

There are other neat AR effects, too, like the ability to apply Snapchat-style AR stickers and filters - all Potter-themed, of course - when you take a selfie for your player profile.

Another nifty innovation is the ability to collect Portkeys, which, in the Wizarding World, instantly teleport the user across even vast distances. In "Wizards Unite," that translates to a cool AR mode, where you get to explore locations from the films in great detail by waving your phone around. In my demo, I visited Ollivander's wand shop.

In theory, these AR modes promise to create all kinds of neat, immersive effects that really bring you into the game's world. Indeed, I was struck by the elegance and effectiveness of these AR illusions, reflecting what was clearly a great effort from Niantic and company.

In practice, it remains to be seen how many players will embrace these AR modes - speaking as an active, dedicated "Pokémon Go" player, it's both easier and more battery-effective to leave the AR switch toggled to off.
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