As Potter gets older, Potter gets better. With the latest, penultimate tome disappearing off the shelves, and the fourth movie heralding the return of Voldemort and the introduction of yet another defence from the Dark Arts teacher, we join Potter in the polygon world for his fourth Xbox outing. A lot has changed since we last saw the bespectacled sorcerer on Xbox. Having evolved through three stages of increasingly adult third-person adventuring, the latest instalment takes something of a detour. It's not quite Baldur's Gate, but it looks as if Potter is getting himself some of that tasty RPG action.
All three characters - Harry, the annoying ginger one, and the girl - are constantly on screen, working their way through not only a series of deadly levels, but doing so in unison. It's all well and good Potter scooting on ahead, but this game really is about teamwork. Large enemies or pieces of scenery can only be smashed, trampled, or zapped through combined effort. It works most of the time, but like a pack of Bertie Bott's, you'll occasionally end up with a bogie. When three people are needed to use a powerful Wingardium Leviosa spell (that's lifting things, for you Muggles), sometimes either Hermione or Ron will stand around or run into a wall. It doesn't happen often, but when it does, it's annoying - especially as this is the Potter game with the most magic for your money.
There is very little blockpushing and physical puzzle-solving this time; rather, every battle or puzzle can be solved with magic. It's great seeing Potter do what he does best for once. Hurl blocks, quash flaming salamanders with water spells, turn enemies into rabbits, inflate them, or give them a pumpkin for a head. Paul Daniels, get thee back to Every Second Counts!
There are also oodles of extras and bonuses to collect in order to get Potter through the game correctly. Levels can only be progressed with the collection of Triwizard shields, and you can play through them again and again until you've collected enough to move on. You can collect Bertie Bott's beans for stamina and mini-shields to unlock challenges, but there are also character cards to be bought with spare beans. These add permanent points to your spellcasting abilities, strength, and speed. Unlock them all and you've got just about every frame of the movie thrown in, too. Who needs to fork out 9 at the Odeon, eh?
Because it hasn't totally metamorphosed into an RPG yet (we reckon that'll happen at book six - if the series hasn't turned into an 18-certificate beat 'em up by then), Goblet of Fire's puzzle-solving is occasionally interspersed with the Triwizard events. Racing a Bulgarian dragon through the grounds of Hogwarts is nightmarishly fast, and surprisingly hair-raising. You'll never look at The Little Mermaid in the same way again after you've seen Harry swim through a series of ghastly green underwater deathtraps. They don't happen particularly often, but Triwizard events are superbly placed within the bulk of what is otherwise a thoughtful, more paced-out adventure.
Of course, the voice acting is as bad as it always was (never a strength with those kids), and the cut-scenes show little of the actual game, but you know what? This latest Potter effort is rather damned good. It looks superb, it encourages teamwork without screwing up too much when you're only in single-player mode, and when a change of pace kicks in, it usually involves Potter being murdered by a 60-foot-long fire-breathing lizard. It's not your typical third-person adventure, but the child-friendly RPG elements work rather well, to the extent that we're now actually looking forward to the remaining three games, rather than dreading the arrival of yet another tedious cinematic cash-in. We wonder if Harry and Hermione end up bumping uglies.
The best Potter game yet, this is all about Potter's magic and his ability to use it. Bring on The Order of the Phoenix.