As I wander around a reconstruction of Hogsmeade here in Universal Studios, California, I wonder — and not for the first time — how I'm lucky enough to get to be a part of events like this. The park is closed for casual visitors and the only people who are here are journalists, influencers and celebrities, all of which have their heads glued to their phones screens. Tonight we are all playing the new AR game from Niantic, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.
Simply called Wizards Unite by the staff here, it feels like a culmination of everything Niantic has learned from Pokémon GO, and Ingress — Niantic's first two augmented reality games — while being steeped in the Potterverse. Can the team from Niantic and Porkey games pull off the next big thing in AR games? I think they just might.
Harry Potter and the Calamity
Dark magic has released something called the Calamity on to the wizarding world and that Calamity is threatening to expose us, the wizards, to the Muggles, non-magic folk. Apparently, this would be a very bad thing for everyone, and so every wizard has been called on to help stop the Calamity and find what was lost.
This is the premise of Wizards Unite and will be the story moving the game forward from now on, and it is a story arc in the game, not just the introduction. As you accomplish daily tasks, Constance — your Ministry of Magic advisor — and Harry Potter himself, will turn up to give you more information about the strange things that are happening, and what the ministry is doing to combat the Calamity.
My first wave of excitement in the game was seeing that Harry, Hermione, and Hagrid are part of the game and more of the characters as well. They are all older, of course, this game is set now, after the events in the books, and roughly at the time mentioned at the end of the last book. Harry is the head of the Aurors, and as such, gives you missions and tries to help you against the dark arts.
Harry Potter and the game mechanics
If you have ever played Pokémon GO you will instantly feel at home in Wizards Unite as the basics are the same. In Wizards Unite you walk around a world map and, like Pokémon GO, you encounter spawns in the world you have to combat. In Wizards Unite these spawns are called Traces, and they lead you to Foundables. Foundables are normally things you have seen from the Potterverse, whether the original books and movies, or the new Magical Beasts trilogy, and they need to be rescued by you to stop the Calamity.
Niantic and Portkey have added more complexity to the most basic parts of Wizards Unite and it's clear it has made it a much better game.
The battle themselves are where you see how much Niantic has learned from the other games. Niantic and Portkey have added more complexity to the most basic parts of Wizards Unite and it's clear it has made it a much better game. The battles now have you drawing spell runes on the screen to defeat the Confoundable that appears before you, not just spinning a Pokéball and throwing it.
The speed and accuracy at which you cast the spell will affect your ability to defeat the Confoundable, though speed seems more important than accuracy. Don't think it's a cake walk though, if you fail to hit the rune at specific points the spell won't cast and the Confoundable may just run away.
The battle system feels like a much more complete game mechanic than any of Niantic's previous games and is far more engaging than I thought it would be. There is a sense of accomplishment when you defeat a Confoundable that you just don't feel when you capture a Pokémon and the additional complexity can only keep players interest for longer.
There were a lot of mechanics too, things like the Portkeys for example that I just didn't have time to really get into. To open them, you have to walk distances like 2KM, 5KM, and 10KM, but I just didn't have the kind of time it takes to get one to open. It's something I am looking forward to exploring more of in the future, along with the professions you unlock later in the game.
Harry Potter and the Points of Interests
Another evolution in Wizards Unite is the Points of Interest on the world map. Using real-world locations you have places to visit to help you on your quest in the form of Inns, Greenhouses, and Fortresses. While we didn't get a chance to play in the fortresses, the Inns and Greenhouses were available for us to check out.
Inns are your main point of interest (POI) and are where you will find spell energy to allow you to fight. Think of them as the traditional Pokéstops and the spell energy as Pokéballs. The Greenhouses are something new, they allow you to collect ingredients for the potions you can brew and they tend to appear around green areas on the map.
Both of these POI makes you complete a gesture to get your reward and each of them is woven into the story. It's a good mechanic and the driving force of what makes you walk around in the real world. John Hanke — the CEO of Niantic — explained that one of Niantic's key goals is to "Inspire you to explore" and these POI really do help you do that. None more so than the Fortresses.
The Fortresses from the outside look so cool, and though we didn't get to play at the event, we know they are designed to be tackled with a group of friends and have multiple wizard battles in them. You can even help your friends by casting spells on them to help them buff up! I'm really looking forward to Friday, June 21, 2019, when I can get together with my family and go battle our local Fortress.
Niantic explained that even though the POI are drawn from the same pool as Pokémon GO, they won't all be the same and that they are trying hard to balance the rural and city POI, so those of us who live in the middle of nowhere can enjoy Wizards Unite just as much as them city folk.
Harry Potter and the Microtransactions
One of the things we were told at the event is that everything you can buy in Diagon Alley — the name for the shop that you can spend real money on in-game items — is available for you to find, or craft, in the game itself. This is great for those of us who like to limit our spending, though the microtransactions don't seem to be too costly.
Galleons are the coin of the Harry Potter world, though in Wizards Unite they are simply called Gold. You can purchase gold for real coin in amounts ranging from $0.99 for 80 gold, all the way up to $99.99 for 12,000 Gold. You can also buy Kits that add value to your purchases by offering a lump of gold as well as other special items. The S.O.S Starter kit comes with 425 Gold, one Dark detector, 50 Spell energy and 4 potions for $9.99, the price you normally pay for 900 gold. You may not get as much gold but you do get extra items worth more than the 900 gold you would normally buy.
I try hard not to spend a lot of money on microtransactions and I always make sure my children can not buy these without my permission, but I do occasionally like to spend a little. Niantic and Portkey have done an amazing job on Wizards Unite and I want to show my appreciation of that by splurging on $4.99 worth of gold every now and then. The important thing to remember though is you never have to do this if you don't want to, the game plays just great, even if you never spend a penny.
Oh, and please, if you do spend money on the game, don't spend $100, it's just too much. Thanks.
Harry Potter and the Final Thoughts
I am already a big fan of Niantic's other games, especially, Pokémon GO, and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite feels like the right evolution for these type of Augmented Reality games, and I'm sure it can only get better. It feels like the team has learned a lot from the other games and sought to turn the fun factor up to 11 on Wizards Unite.
There are some things I would like to see more of, right now there is no Player vs Player combat for example, but this is designed to be a cooperative game and PvP may come in time, and I would have liked the Hogwarts Houses to mean more to the in-game story.
But Harry Potter is about how all the houses band together to fight a common foe so I can see why they didn't make them competitive. My complaints about the game are minor though, and my experience playing it was a positive one. Will it replace my families Pokémon GO obsession? I'm not sure, but I think it will occupy us for many long hours and miles.
I can not wait to play the game properly starting Friday, June 21, 2019 with my family.