Games 6/27: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree, Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Reviewed for: Xbox 360, Playstation 3, Playstation 2, Nintendo Wii
Also available for: PC, PSP, Nintendo DS, Game Boy Advance
From: EA
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (fantasy violence)

The summer of bad movie-based games is far from over, but that doesn’t mean it can’t take a break. “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” promises to be an uncommonly good summertime movie sequel, and the game of the same name — while certainly flawed — follows suit.

To EA’s great restraint, “Phoenix” doesn’t try to be something the movie and book are not. Harry doesn’t run around Hogwarts unleashing hell and lightning bolts on Slytherin students, for instance, and the game is appropriately light on conflict outside of the story’s key showdowns. Most of the action revolves around assembling Dumbledore’s Army and completing various side quests that increase your abilities and advance various plotlines. You occasionally step into the shoes of other characters, but only when the story dictates it.

Such faithfulness won’t excite the non-fans, but “Potter” fanatics will find plenty to love in spite of the oft-ordinary objectives.

For starters, Hogwarts Castle has truly come alive. And with assists from the Marauder’s map and/or Invisibility Cloak, you’re free to explore the whole thing at your leisure, pending objectives or not. The Great Hall, Hagrid’s hut, moving staircases and wisecracking portraits — it’s all here. “Phoenix” sports some sporadic graphical and framerate hiccups, but it does an incredible job of replicating Hogwarts in exquisite detail.

That goes also goes for the game’s overall presentation, which is lively and appropriately dramatic. Those unfamiliar with the source material won’t always know why they’re doing what they’re doing — playing “Phoenix” is akin to reading every fifth page of the book — but fans should love it.

Control-wise, “Phoenix” plays out like a typical third-person action game. The key exception is the right analog stick (or, in the Wii’s case, motion controls), which handles spellcasting duties instead of camera control. The absence of an on-the-fly manual camera is felt in tight spots, but the various spellcasting commands work so well that it’s a completely acceptable loss. The spells also give rise to some puzzles that, while simple, are pretty fun to solve.

“Phoenix” doesn’t reinvent anything, and seasoned gamers have done most of what it offers (outside of Wiimote spell-casting) a dozen times before. But “Potter” fans have ached to run free around Hogwarts since the first “Potter” game appeared on the original Playstation, and “Phoenix” grants that wish with authority. That alone makes it easy to recommend.


Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree
For: Nintendo Wii
From: Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone

One of the best things about the Nintendo DS’ “Brain Age” — and a feature sorely missed in its spiritual follow-up, “Big Brain Academy” — is a daily training feature. In it, you can take a short battery of tests once a day, and the game charts your progress. Simple, yes, but it’s also a stroke of genius that gave a fairly no-frills game a bona fide sense of attachment.

It’s also something “Big Brain Academy: Wii Degree” could really have used. Nintendo’s first big-screen brain game makes a solid translation from the small screen, but it’s missing that same sense of attachment that would have made it a daily ritual.

Like the DS “Academy” game, “Degree” tests your brain in five different areas: identification, computation, analysis, memorization and visualization. A test mode puts you through the paces in all five categories, ultimately grading your performance by calculating the figurative weight of your brain.

Each area contains three different challenges, and all 15 use the Wiimote as a point-and-click device, which works fine given their cerebral nature. For the most part, the challenges are fun and indeed challenging, at least at higher levels when you’re on the clock. You can sample every challenge in a matter of minutes, but the randomness of the problems keep you on your toes and prevent mini-game fatigue from taking over.

Also like the DS game, “Degree” features a multiplayer component — in this case, two pass-the-Wiimote games (Mental Marathon, Brain Quiz) and one (Mind Sprint) that features two teams simultaneously racing through a series of problems. All three are fun in some way, but the frantic Mind Sprint is the clear gem. It’s just unfortunate Nintendo didn’t include support for four simultaneous teams. That might have been crowded on smaller televisions, but it would have made a good thing even better for those who could handle it.

There’s no question “Degree” could have benefited from a few more challenges, but the game remains strangely replayable because of the nature of what it has. The real bummer, then, is the stats system. “Degree” keeps records of your brain’s weight and best scores in each mode, and even allows for score trading online. But there’s no system for progress tracking, which even the freebie “Wii Sports” had. You can always create your own chart in Excel, but where’s the charm in that?


Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
Reviewed for: Xbox 360 and Playstation 3
Also available for: PS2 and Wii (see last paragraph), Nintendo DS
From: Visual Concepts/2K Games
ESRB Rating: Teen (fantasy violence)

Not since perhaps the days of The Great War has a synonym for “good” been so repeatedly misused. Since 2005, “The Fantastic Four” has inspired two insipid movies — and now, with “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” two rounds of wholly mediocre games.

To be fair, the game has its moments — if you play it right. Visual Concepts has fashioned “Surfer” into a “Marvel Ultimate Alliance”-style brawler, and as with that game, you play as one of four team members while either the computer or up to three friends handle the other three. Co-op mode alleviates the game’s enormous issues with stupid A.I., while playing solo allows you to switch between characters on the fly.

But unless you’re controlling The Thing, “Surfer” is pretty much a mess. For whatever reason, The Thing not only has the best special movies, but an increased ability to actually land a punch as well. Johnny Storm is near-worthless unless he’s launching fireballs from a distance, and Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman are about as menacing as chessboard pawns. Those playing alone generally can avoid playing as these two (one solo mission each excepted), but whoever gets stuck as anyone but The Thing in a co-op game will not be happy.

Alas, even playing as The Thing gets old quick. “Surfer’s” aesthetics are wildly inconsistent, with some characters (again, The Thing) and levels (New York City rooftops, the very destructible final level) looking good and others looking like something out of 2001. The level designs are another story: Most consist of an endless labyrinth of brawling, hitting switches and riding elevators. Lots and lots of elevators.

Additionally, the film’s story doesn’t exactly translate, and those who haven’t seen the movie will have little idea what’s going on. Despite being in the title and on the box, the Silver Surfer is almost a non-factor — ironic, considering he was a hidden playable character in “Ultimate Alliance,” which also featured The Thing.

You can beat “Surfer” in a day, and there’s no online equivalent to the offline co-op mode. That makes this a rental at best for fans of the Four. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the PS2 and Wii versions, which come courtesy of a different developer (7 Studios), amplify every problem the PS3/360 versions have, and tack on shoddy controls to top it off.