(Pocket-lint) - Gathered around the table, in the basement of a secluded London hotel, we were invested into the Statute of Secrecy Task Force. Our mission was to uphold the Statute, making sure that magic remains a secret and that the muggles don't discover that magic is all around them. That was our first experience of Wizards Unite 3 months before the new game launched.
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is the latest augmented reality (AR) game from Niantic Labs - creators of Pokemon Go - who in this latest venture team up with WB Games to bring the Wizarding World to life.
The game is now available in the UK and the US, sending Harry Potter fans back out into the streets to get a taste of Wizards Unite and we've been amongst them.
Game design and story
Wizards Unite is based around Niantic's interactive maps, layering a magical world over the top of the real world. That means your street is there, buildings are there, parks and landmarks are there.
On this map - invisible to normal people going about their dreary lives - is the magical world. That post office on the corner is an inn, that monument that everyone passes every day is a fortress. Like Pokemon Go, real world locations are transformed into something magical in the game.
Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is about exploring this magical world, it's about discovery, collecting, protecting the Statute and it's about undoing the harm done by the Calamity.
What is the Calamity? No one really knows - that's one of the mysteries you need to solve - but the Calamity bought chaos, scattering magical items across the muggle world. It's the backdrop for Wizards Unite, as you try to clean up the mess, battle enemies, gather supplies and developing your own magical skills.
Wizards Unite is designed to be a "forever game". Niantic and WB Games plan to develop and evolve the game so it continues to grow as you do. There will be in-app purchases - for what we don't yet really know - but Niantic confirmed to us that the game would be fully playable with no expenditure needed.
Traces of magic
Magic leaves traces behind it and as we walk the streets of London, we start to encounter these traces. Traces are divided by threat level - the threat that they pose to discovery of the magic world - and this gives them different levels of importance. Finding a werewolf roaming the park is naturally something you need to take care of pretty quickly.
Our first encounter is a hippogriff. It has been chained up and needs releasing - which just takes a simple spell. But, presented in AR, you can see it in the real world and you can walk all around it. It's a 3D character and it looks fantastic, a seamless blending of fantasy and reality. We take our time to marvel at it - the graphics in Wizards Unite look and feel a lot more sophisticated than Pokemon Go - before we cast the spell to release it.
The traces lead you to what Wizards Unite calls "foundables". These are then entered in your Registry (a little like a sticker book), letting you place characters into the correct place once you encounter them. Divided into different sections, we can see how they loosely align to Pokemon Go's regions in the Pokedex, providing a method for ongoing collection.
Flexing those Defence against the Dark Arts skills
Moving on, we getting a taste of the exploration and discovery that Wizards Unite will offer. It's similar to Pokemon Go and any players of that game will find that movement around the map is familiar. You can swipe it around with your finger, casting your eyes over the locations you can visit, but also letting you tap items that are scattered around for general collection.
We get some dragons liver - which might be useful for a future potion we want to make - and then we come across some more serious traces. It's that werewolf.
The combat system in Wizards Unite is loosely turn-based, but you have the chance to cast a protego charm to protect yourself against attacks. It's a simple spell - all it takes is a diagonal swipe - but the combat is designed to be fast paced. There are two elements to an attack, firstly you have to align your wand on the correct location indicated and then you can cast the spell and these are a little more tricky.
It takes some deft finger work, so there's some learning to be done and we found it to be more of a two-handed experience. When casting a spell, you'll get a pattern on the screen to follow with your finger. The more accurate it is, the better the spell is cast. An inaccurate scrawl might not be effective enough. (Think wingardium leviosa and the flick of the wand and you have the right idea.)
Battling will occur in a number of different locations, from encounters out exploring to more difficult challenges in fortresses.
Fortresses are the Wizards Unite equivalent of Pokemon Go's gyms, a place where you're more likely to encounter multiple enemies - but the rewards are also higher. These encounters are designed to be taken on with friends and there's a limit of five players for these battles - it's not open like Pokemon Go.
Three of us encounter a range of enemies for a series of battles and it's here that some of Wizards Unite's greater depth shows. In these battles, aurors have greater power over other wizarding professions, giving a sense that this Harry Potter game will go a little deeper than the collection focus of Pokemon Go.
Dividing deeper in the Wizarding World
Niantic and WB Games introduced us to Wizards Unite, saying that the aim was to fulfil the fan fantasy of becoming a witch or wizard. You get to create your SoS Task Force ID, taking a photo and adding elements from the world of Harry Potter. You get to choose your house, of course, as well as your wand.
While in Pokemon Go you could make some superficial changes to your trainer, it was really all about the Pokemon, developing them and their attacks. In Wizards Unite, you'll be developing yourself and learning new skills, because you do the battling. It's more of a personal experience and this comes through the profession.
There are three professions - auror, magizoologist, professor - and we chose to be an auror. This launches us down another path, allowing us to take lessons and develop our skills within that profession. It adds a dimension that leans on the wider Harry Potter world, something that pours through the rest of the game experience.
Graphically, the AR in Wizards Unite looks fantastic and encountering a Death Eater, with the accompanying sound track, is really impressive - perhaps even a little scary. While turning off the real world feed in Pokemon Go generally made the gameplay better, from the short time we've spent with Harry Potter, we think the AR experience is adds a lot more. That Death Eater encounter is more visceral, more immersive and more realistic than Pokemon's cartoon origins.
There are also elements that don't rely on physical location, opening up a new dimension, literally. Portkeys are part of the game and will let you transport to a different location. We stood in St James' Park, London, and used a portkey to take us to Ollivanders where we had to collect items from around the shop. This means you have to move, so it's using advanced AR, but it makes a clever detachment from physical location.
We mentioned soundtrack because a lot of effort has been put into making the game sound right. For Harry Potter fans, this is definitely a game you'll want to experience with headphones on - at least to begin with. There's narration that you'll want to hear, but just the opening lines of the theme tune are enough to send a shiver down your spine. It feels right, it sounds right - and that's hugely important in a franchise game.
It hasn't yet been confirmed when Harry Potter: Wizards Unite will be released. While we've had the chance to enjoy the first thrills that the game has to offer, this was pre-release software, in a curated environment, packed full to game elements for us to enjoy.
But from what we've played so far, we're brimming with excitement. For Harry Potter fans, there's a huge amount to explore and lots to get to grips with. There's a lot to collect and do in the game and it feels as though there's more to play here than there was in Pokemon Go.
Will it be bigger than that iconic game? It's hard to say. Pokemon Go was entirely new, it was a new way of playing games, a new way to use your phone, it was brimming with innovation - and that was huge part of its success.
While Niantic have the world of Harry Potter to draw on, the AR aspects of the game, as improved and refreshed as they are, might not have the same impact as they did in 2016. But one thing is certain, Harry Potter fans are everywhere and this will appeal to people who never cared for Pokemon.
Originally published in March 2019; updated to reflect live gameplay