Harry Potter is like a franchise juggernaut, flattening anything that gets in its way and spewing out huge piles of cash from dirty great exhaust pipes. A key plank of the boy wonder's money-making masterplan is the series of action games from EA. We spoke to Owen O'Brien, senior producer on the new Prisoner of Azkaban game, about what we can expect.
What's the latest in the world of Harry Potter then? Has he hit puberty and gone all self conscious yet? What's the background to this latest title?
O'Brien: Prisoner of Azkaban is many people's favourite book. It takes place in Harry's third year at Hogwarts. He is now a teenager and must face his greatest challenge so far - The Dementors. By this time in the storyline Harry has defeated Voldemort in various guises, and he is no longer scared of him. The Dementors however are a different matter. These creatures prey on your greatest fears, sucking all positive thoughts from you and, if unchecked, sucking out your very soul.
We understand that for the first time you can play as other characters; can you tell us about that, what this adds to the game?
O'Brien: From customer feedback the single most requested feature is the ability to play as Ron and Hermione as well as Harry. Faced with such powerful adversaries, Harry will not succeed without the help of his friends, so in Prisoner of Azkaban you can play all three characters - each has their own special skills and abilities.
Harry is the athlete - he can jump the furthest, climb ropes and use his spells to traverse chasms.
Ron is the explorer - he can search items and find secret panels where the way ahead seems blocked. Of course being Ron he is also the comedy value, so as well as being a walking joke-shop, things never seem to quite go right for him
Hermione of course is the best spell-caster, so she has the most powerful spells in the game. She is also the smallest and lightest and can get to places the others cannot.
What kind of gameplay are we talking about? Is this an action style romp, or a more thoughtful adventure?
O'Brien: Actually it is both. At times in the game the three friends will have to fight together - each using their unique skills to defeat enemies overcome bosses. At other times the action is replaced by puzzles that have to be solved. Again the key is usually to work out how the characters can work together
Amidst the main adventure, we understand there's going to be a bunch of sub-quests; any clues on what we can expect?
O'Brien: Without giving too much away - if the player visits Fred and George in their secret shop they will give each of the characters a different quest and reward them appropriately...
What kind of locations are we going to see, what kind of spectacular game moments are there; have you got the cast of the movie on voice duty in the game?
O'Brien: Most of the locations in the game are new - even Hogwarts castle and grounds have been remodelled. So from the Hogwarts Express, through the third year spell challenges, right up to the final showdown at the lake, the player will constantly be seeing new parts of Harry's world.
As far as spectacular moments, well firstly we have made the boss battles much more spectacular; they are much bigger, tougher and require more thought and teamwork to beat. Flying Buckbeak over Hogwarts in the winter snow is also pretty amazing. However, the really big moments naturally belong to the Dementors. From the moment they first burst onto the Hogwarts Express it is obvious that they are a formidable, seemingly unstoppable foe.
What improvements have you made to the previous Potter titles, from both a technical view and purely in terms of making the game more enjoyable?
O'Brien: Visually the engine has been completely rewritten so we have much more spectacular lighting and effects this year. Also the character models are much more detailed which makes the whole experience feel more real.
In terms of the game, the addition of character switching opens up a whole new style of gameplay both in combat and in puzzle solving. In addition to this we have also overhauled all other aspects of the game, so instead of flying a broom you now have control of a Hippogriff and instead of one-on-one wizard duels we now have much freeform combat with multiple opponents and allies.
Anything else we were too darned goofy to think of but we really should have asked about?
O'Brien: Can you fly Hedwig? Yes you can :)