When Niantic first announced that they were working with Warner Bros and Portkey Games to develop a Harry Potter themed augmented reality (AR) game, the hype level for many gamers could not be contained. After several weeks of a limited release in Australia and New Zealand, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite began rolling out to the masses last Thursday – and we spent all weekend exploring this new wizarding world.
What is Wizard’s Unite?
Let’s first address what Wizards Unite is not. While this game uses the same proprietary Niantic database of points of interest, this is not a palette-swapped Pokémon Go. While Pokémon Go follows the traditional narrative of Pokémon games where you set out on your own Pokémon adventure in the real world, Harry Potter Wizards Unite feels more like a spiritual sequel to Niantic’s original AR game, Ingress. Rather than running around forcing wild monsters into confined spaces (unless you’re Newt Scamander), in Wizards Unite you’re fighting an invisible war against an existential threat against humanity.
In Wizards Unite, a mysterious event referred to as the Calamity is causing dangerous magic to seep into the Muggle world, putting unwitting citizens around you in danger. As a member of the Statue of Secrecy Task Force, it is up to you to dispel curses and charms, banish Confoundables, and generally make the world a safer place for Muggles and wizards alike.
Creating your Ministry ID is one of the first steps of the game, and is quite enjoyable. There, you create your codename, select your wand, Hogwarts House, and can create a picture using a variety of filters and animated stickers to create the look you want. As you progress through the game, you unlock additional photo filters, titles, achievements to display, and your profession.
Sadly, there is no ability to link your Wizards Unite profile with your Pottermore or Wizarding World profile to automatically import your house and wand specifications. If you would like to use those, you must log into Pottermore separately and manually enter those details into Wizards Unite. Don’t worry, though, you can always change your wand attributes or Hogwarts House later to whatever you like.
You’re also able to add friends in the game, though the only benefit, for now, seems to be during Wizarding Challenges in Fortresses (more on those later). However, it’s a bit disappointing that you can’t see your friend’s portrait or wand. It could be that this is restricted due to privacy (although only showing the wand stats instead of the wand itself is kind of silly), but it would at least be nice to have this as an option that can be enabled or disabled.
As you travel through the world in the game, colored icons called Traces appear all over the place which indicate the category of the challenge. These include things like Oddities, Dark Arts, Magizoology, Mysterious Artefacts, Ministry of Magic, Hogwarts School, and others. You may see these icons highlighted with yellow or red beams, which indicate especially difficult challenges. To overcome an encounter, you must trace the spell displayed on your screen. The faster and more accurate your trace, the more powerful and likely to succeed your spell will become. Potions can be used to make some of your spells more effective to assist with more difficult encounters.
There are three types of locations you can visit in Wizards Unite: Inns, Greenhouses, and Fortresses. Each time you cast a spell, it uses energy. If you run out of energy, you can buy more with Gold, the game’s premium currency. Or you can visit an Inn, which will restore a random amount of spell energy to you. Like Pokéstops in Pokémon Go, you can only access this once every five minutes. While at an Inn, you also have the ability to use a Dark Detector, which will summon challenging enemies to the area.
Greenhouses have a chance to give you spell energy, but they’re more likely to provide you with potion ingredients. Greenhouses also provide a communal garden space for you to grow ingredients that are shared with any wizards passing by. You’ll often find water or seeds scattered on the ground while walking. These are used in Greenhouses to grow items. You can also contribute spell energy to increase the yield of the plant that’s growing.
Lastly, Fortresses provide co-op dungeon experiences for teams of wizards. In order to enter a Fortress Wizarding Challenge, you’ll need a rune. Runes are earned by leveling up the various encounter categories. This is where it’s handy to travel with friends, as up to five wizards can enter a room at a time, each one using a rune of their choosing. The rune you choose will have an impact on the type and strength of the enemies that will appear. By completing these challenges with friends, you’ll earn bonus XP.
When you reach Level 6, you’re able to select one of three professions: Auror, Magizoologist, and Professor. You can change professions at any time, however, you’ll be spending points to unlock nodes on the skill tree for each profession, so it makes more sense to focus on one at a time. Professions grant bonuses to varying stats to assist you in duels, which is especially useful in Fortress Wizarding Challenges. A group with a balance of professions will have a more successful time, however, at least at the lower challenges it doesn’t make much of a difference.
Throughout your travels, you’re sure to collect a myriad of ingredients which you can use to brew potions. You simply examine the recipe, select the potion to brew, and the cauldron takes care of the rest. You can spend Gold to finish the potion immediately, or if you tap the ladle in the cauldron, you can stir the brew in a specific pattern to make it brew somewhat faster. You can tap the info button at the top to see the different gestures you can make on the potion. However, it’s pretty annoying that the game doesn’t seem to remember potions that I’ve already mastered, forcing me to try and solve the puzzle again, or turn to the Internet for help.
One of the coolest things in the game requires the use of your phone’s camera for a full AR experience. Often in the game, you’ll find pyramid-shaped objects on the ground called Portkey Portmanteau. For those who are unfamiliar with Harry Potter lore, portkeys are objects that “…will transport anyone who grasps it to a pre-arranged destination”. Unlocking the portkeys is a two-step process: first, you must use a key on the Portmanteau, and then you must walk the required distance for the object. Rarer Portmanteaus require more distance to unlock.
Once you’re ready to use the portkey, your phone camera switches on and you will be prompted to place the portkey on a suitable surface. This opens a portal to a room that you pass through where you’re prompted to collect objects and are rewarded with XP. It’s definitely one of the coolest uses of AR on a phone that I’ve seen.
— sudo-nym (@josh_nash) June 21, 2019
Weather and Moon Phases
Wizards Unite also employs a unique system dealing with the time of day, weather, and moon phases. Not much is known about exactly how these affect the game, however, in-game information suggests that changes in the moon, weather, or time of day affect Ingredients and Traces that spawn.
One of the problems I find myself running across is that storage space for potions, ingredients, and seeds is limited. It’s extremely easy to run out of space, and the game is all too happy to sell you upgrades in exchange for Gold. Understandably, free-to-play games need ways to monetize themselves, however, I feel like this monetization strategy is too restrictive. This will be most impactful for rural players, who will have fewer POI’s with which to interact and gain free energy, and may feel the most pressure to make purchases.
Wizards Unite has been a long time coming and is a fun and unique AR experience, but I don’t think that it will be the phenomenon that was Pokémon Go. It’s certainly a fun experience, a marvel of mobile technology achievement. I’ll keep playing and the game’s roadmap almost certainly has more interesting content coming. My guess is that their main focus was the successful rollout of a stable game, with more to come. But the game in its current form is too niche and too reliant on microtransactions to really catch on.