VIDEO REVIEW COMING SOON!
Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup (2003)
GameCube (reviewed), Xbox, PlayStation 2, PC, Game Boy Advance
Developer: Magic Pockets
Publisher: EA Games
2003 saw the long-awaited release of the fifth novel in the Harry Potter series, “Order of the Phoenix”, but the film adaptations were beginning to slow down. After Chris Columbus’ clockwork schedule of two Potter films in two years, Alfonso Cuarón’s more ambitious vision for “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” pushed back the release date to June 2004.
No new “Potter” films in 2003 meant no new Potter movie tie-ins either, but EA Games moved quickly to fill the gap with other interactive magical merchandise. They first ordered a remake of “Philosopher’s Stone” for 6th-generation consoles, which I’ve already reviewed, and followed it up with “Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup” for 6th-gen consoles, PC and Game Boy Advance. After all, every good licensed video game franchise worth its salt needs a sports spinoff. Luckily for “Quidditch” developer Magic Pockets, the wizarding world of Harry Potter has a fast-paced and violent magical sport built right into the canon. And somehow, this little sports game is far and away the best entry in the series so far.
Believe it or not, there is an actual story, albeit wafer-thin. Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore has some tickets to the upcoming Quidditch World Cup burning a hole in his pocket, and he's willing to give them away to whichever house's team wins the Hogwarts Quidditch Cup. Players pick their house of choice and fight for the golden tickets, which unlocks the World Cup mode. Sports games don't really need a story, but it's enough of an excuse to string things along, and in a nice bit of continuity, some players from the winning house will occasionally be cheering in the stands during World Cup matches. It's simple, unobtrusive, and enough to get by.
Perhaps it's because of the smaller scope, as rendering one stadium at a time is easier than an entire school, but Quidditch World Cup has the best and most energetic presentation so far. Clever reuse of assets from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets” for the Hogwarts portion of the game allowed Magic Pockets more time to focus on brand-new ideas for the international teams. Even though said teams and their home stadiums are filled with every national stereotype imaginable, it fits the energetic tone of the game, and feels endearing rather than offensive.
Voice acting has also improved significantly. Every player on every single team gets at least a few lines of dialog at some point, which is a pretty remarkable scope for a one-off sports game. Lee Jordan and Seamus Finnagan are an endearingly amateur pair of play-by-play commentators. Meanwhile, World Cup matches are called by Ludo Bagman, making his only physical appearance in any Harry Potter media, and he looks pretty much exactly as described in “Goblet of Fire”. Bagman is accompanied by a rotating cast of colour commentators to work with, and while it’s nice to see some variety from match to match, it does become obvious at several points that Ludo’s voice actor never even shared a room with these people.
Jeremy Soule returns to compose the soundtrack, but unfortunately, his compositions are criminally underused. Nowhere is this more apparent than the title screen, which uses Messa da Requiem by Giuseppe Verdi, an 1874 choral orchestral piece that is one of the most overused "epic" public domain songs in media. That's not to say it can't be effective or thematically relevant, like its use in Spec Ops: The Line for example, but in this game the use of the Requiem is so lazy that I actually laughed the first time I heard it. In a franchise that has given us this, you're telling me that Magic Pockets couldn't be bothered to ask Jeremy Soule to write a wizard jock jam, or at least another original piece just for the title screen? There's also the issue that, when actually playing Quidditch, the music rotates between just two or three different tracks. Most of Soule’s other work here is limited to fake national anthems that play when a team wins the Cup, which will only ever be heard in that one context.
Thankfully, the gameplay more than makes up for the repetitive audio.
Many a joke has been written about how Quidditch is a dumb sport because the Golden Snitch is worth so much that it renders the team’s other accomplishments moot. The point is...somewhat debatable, though I think the perception of the Seeker’s role being overpowered is mostly thanks to this line from the first movie. Regardless of anyone's opinion on the matter of balance, “Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup” does its best to make every member of the team count - not by changing the rules, but by altering how the game is structured.
The chase for the Golden Snitch is treated as the finale, a point of no return, and until then the Chasers are locked in a power struggle for dominance over a meter at the top of the screen. The more coverage one team has of the meter when the two halves of the Snitch come together, the longer that team's Seeker's Boost meter will be. A completely dominant team can catch the Snitch in seconds, while a team that's only a few points up will have to earn that victory against a more evenly-matched Seeker.
At its best, “Quidditch World Cup” feels like a long-lost entry in the “NBA Jam” series, with aggressive three on three play and ridiculous over-the-top special moves. The game is specifically designed to encourage fast-paced, high risk high reward play for the Chasers. The default broom speed is slow, Bludgers are player-controlled and can turn on a dime, and the defensive tackle, which strips Chasers of the Quaffle, is one of the only moves that can be repeatedly used without a cooldown timer. All this encourages aggressive offensive play, demanding constant movement of the Quaffle by repeatedly passing it between their teammates, which is further encouraged by a passing combo system where just one goal can potentially grab a big chunk of the Snitch Meter.
And once the Golden Snitch is spotted, it’s a chaotic sprint to the finish. The prior games’ obsession with flying through magic rings has been wisely replaced by a slipstream mechanic. Staying in the centre of the screen fills the boost meter faster, along with randomized refills scattered along the path. The Seeker’s gameplay is this game at its most thrilling, as the player must juggle between managing their boost meter, staying balanced, and keeping an eye out for the other Seeker on their tail. An even-handed match between two Seekers with similar boost meters is one of the most exhilarating experiences of 6th-gen gaming.
That being said, “Quidditch World Cup” does have some minor control and design issues. While charging a pass, the camera can linger too close to the Chaser’s shoulder, resulting in missed passes that would have been accurate just a few milliseconds before. The other issue is the way the game handles difficulty. The Hogwarts campaigns are always played on the easiest difficulty, which can leave first-time players arrogant and over-confident thanks to several easily exploitable AI quirks. Additionally, for whatever reason the harder difficulties are locked behind Quidditch Cards, the game’s pseudo-achievement system that tracks accomplishments during both school and international play. Card requirements necessitate more time spent grinding on easier difficulties and less time honing the player’s skill and preparing them for what’s to come. Thankfully, once the top two difficulties are unlocked, the game gets considerably better, as genuinely smart AI and a general lack of rubberbanding compared to other sports titles leads to some truly thrilling matches against the computer.
How did a rushed-out sports tie-in made by a French developer mostly known for licensed schlock produce such a ridiculously good product? I have absolutely no idea, but I'll be damned if “Harry Potter: Quidditch World Cup” isn't a fantastic game in its own right. Perhaps magic really does exist if a project like this can turn out so well.
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