We've Played Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, and It's a Confounding and Ambitious Next Step for Niantic

We've Played Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, and It's a Confounding and Ambitious Next Step for Niantic

We get our first look at the Pokemon Go developer's upcoming AR-enabled game.

To everyone out there who missed out on their Hogwarts invitation letter when they were 11-years-old, Niantic's upcoming Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is hoping to fill that void. It longs to make witches and wizards of us all, just as it made us Pokemon trainers with Pokemon Go, or stylish hackers in Ingress. Joined by publishers Warner Bros. and Portkey Games, Niantic's latest iteration on its "real-world platform" is its most ambitious-and most overwhelming-yet.

The premise for Niantic's Harry Potter: Wizards Unite is one seemingly unrelated to the 2017-set play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. In fact, author J.K. Rowling has no direct involvement with the game at all. Set in the present day, it outfits all players as members of a special task force with the goal of making sure the Wizarding World is in fine order after "The Calamity" has thrown everything into disarray. After The Calamity, wizarding things have scattered all across the muggle (read: our) world. Things like lovable half-giant Hagrid, apparently.

"Confoundable" Beasts and Where to Find Them

During a lengthy presentation detailing the Wizarding World AR adventure, Niantic CEO John Hanke told the room of press that Warner Bros. approached Niantic about doing a Harry Potter game even before Pokemon Go was out. From the sounds of that, it's been at least in discussion for some time.

Like Pokemon Go, Wizards Unite is a game about collecting living things for a personal collection (from familiar characters to magical beasts), and also in strengthening your witch or wizard self for battling. It's not quite the Hogwarts simulation that maybe players were hoping for, but what's here is a celebration of all things Wizarding World related, whether you're a big Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them fan, or love reading up on Professor McGonagall's tragic backstory on Pottermore.

Harry Potter: Wizards Unite will have plenty of magical creatures to collect. | Niantic

The collectibles you uncover are called "Foundables," but before they get to that state, encounters with them are "Confoundables." Hagrid is the first "Confoundable" I meet during my hands-on demo with Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, stumbling around the rain-drenched Ferry Building in San Francisco with two developers from Niantic at my side. Every Confoundable has a threat level, but some don't attack at all, such as most magical creatures. In-game, a voice actor who sounded an awful lot like Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe (but was only an impersonator, alas) partially led me through an in-depth tutorial on how to play.

Our first order of business: Saving poor Hagrid, who was tangled up in something and stuck in the muggle world. To initiate saving him, I focused the phone's camera on the ground until it picked up "magical traces," and then lifted up the phone to find an appropriately large Hagrid in augmented reality, just as Pokemon appear in Pokemon Go. I aligned a cluster of stars on the screen, and was then directed on-screen to trace out a spell with one swipe. Depending on how perfectly you align the stroke on the phone screen, the better "score" you get. (I was pretty consistent in getting "Fair," as I am no witch... yet.)

While dear old Hagrid was once lost, he is now a Foundable. Foundables are essentially Wizards Unite's version of Pokemon; icons from across the Wizarding World that you can collect (from creatures to characters and more). During a presentation, we were told that there are currently over a hundred encounters, all AR-compatible. Some, like Hagrid, you only have to encounter once, and you have them forever in your handy Official Registry of Foundables (where familiar people and objects are separated in categories such as Care of Magical Creatures, Dark Arts, Hogwarts School, and more).

Most, like the Demiguise that was previously seen in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, require more fragments. After one encounter with the Demiguise, I had just one fragment. After collecting nine Fragments, the Demiguise silhouette fills out in the registry, and you're then able to bring them out whenever, wherever in Wizards Unite's photo mode. Wizards Unite may not have Pokemon, but it has creepy owl-sloth-lookin' creatures to take pictures with!

It was in these encounters where I realized that all the spells seem predetermined, based on whether you're freeing a lost creature like a Demiguise, or battling a snarling werewolf. Even your Patronus, which I cast when I initiated an encounter with a Quidditch-outfitted Harry Potter getting his soul sucked away by a Dementor, is predetermined. (It's the Stag, because of course it's the Stag.) In the brief Q&A before our hands-on demo, I asked if our Patronuses would be customizable, as is customary in the Wizarding World of it reflecting the person who casts it, but was told that it wasn't. Additionally, Niantic declined to comment on the presence of pets like owls being a factor, though you can see them flying around the world map.

A Portkey into a Digital Wizarding World

At a glance, the map is vaguely similar to what you see in Pokemon Go, Ingress, and other real-world-driven mobile games. Only in Wizards Unite, it's immediately more diverse in terms of its structures. On the ground around your character (a typical wizard outfit, mine clad blue because of my chosen house Ravenclaw), you can tap ingredients for potions to collect, just as you might Pokemon to initiate catching in Pokemon Go. To initiate Confoundable encounters, you'll tap on an assortment of colored icons that randomly appear.

Harry discovering what it's like to pay rent in San Francisco. | Niantic

Your spell meter, which diminishes when you cast spells to free or battle Confoundables, is essentially a stamina meter. After poking around the inconclusive microtransaction store (which did not have final prices on anything), I found you can buy goods to replenish your spell meter, and more. At just a glance and with some heavy playtime, its microtransactions don't seem as in-your-face bad as, say, that other Harry Potter mobile game.

Across the world, you'll find a variety of Inns (think like PokeStops) which help refuel your spell meter, which is replenished with food of the Wizarding World or British variety, like fish and chips. Meanwhile at Greenhouses, which are buildings different from Inns, you'll be rewarded with a potion of some sort. Landmarks (based on real world landmarks) are distinct areas, with unique encounters and items awaiting players who explore them. Then there's where multiplayer comes in, with the biggest buildings you'll find on the map: the towering Fortresses.

In Fortresses, yourself and up to four other players (so five in total) tackle a quasi-arena battle in a "Wizarding Challenge." In under five minutes, your team is tasked with taking out all the proposed opponents, who drift around with little icons and bear a smaller mark next to it with what profession (class) is strongest against it. Tapping on an icon initiates a battle, similar to the hostile encounters in the overworld. If your team goes over the time limit or doesn't take all the foes out, everyone loses. If your team successfully overcomes the Fortress floor's challenge (of which there are many floors), you all get a handy unique reward.

The professions will be familiar to any Harry Potter fan, with Auror, Professor, and Magizoologist each having their own unique perks and expansive skill trees. You can switch between the professions with ease, building out each big skill tree if you wish, providing plenty of flexibility when your team needs it when tackling Fortresses. Auror (a combat-focused class) is led by wizard legend Harry Potter, Professor (which is nice and balanced) is led by Professor McGonagall, and the ever-friendly Hagrid is at the helm of the Magizoologist (which leans support in battle in terms of its stats, and also has perks for non-combat encounters with magical beasts). With weaknesses and strengths apparent in Fortresses, bringing a multifaceted team to battle will be essential to reap the rewards.

Weather, the time of day, and even the lunar cycle all tap into what you can collect and encounter in Wizards Unite. Werewolves, for instance, appear on full moons, a Niantic developer tells me during my demo. Weather like rain even affects the ingredients you can tap to collect on the map. With a number of factors changing up the Confoundables and collectable ingredients for potions, continued exploration through the game is greatly encouraged.

Potions, everyone's favorite Hogwarts class, are also a big part of Wizards Unite; netting budding witches and wizards all sorts of stat attributes. In encounters against hostile people and creatures, drinking a potion to bump up your attack power can mean the difference between failing the battle, and living through it to net another fragment for your registry. From poking around, potion brewing also bears a lot of customization. You can either wait on a timer (customary for mobile games) and let it brew normally, or stir it yourself with set-swipes, strengthening the potion's effects. The latter is a lot of trial and error though, with you having to guess the stir movements per recipe-and there's a lot of ways to stir your potion.

In place of customizable characters, players get Ministry ID Cards. There, you can select your own Hogwarts house (team Ravenclaw), customize your own wand with well over a dozen features (from wood to bendability), and even take your own ID picture. The ID picture is a new feature to Niantic's games, where players can take a selfie with a number of Instagram Story-like face filters. In an example during the presentation, house scarves and Luna Lovegood's famous Spectrespecs were just some of the options. The pictures won't be public to other users, but you'll be able to share them online if you choose to do so.

A tagline tossed out near the end of the presentation was that it'd be "your forever Harry Potter game." That is, in that ideally Wizards Unite is the sort of game that will never be uninstalled from players' phones. Part of maintaining that will be in bringing together the extensive lore behind the core Harry Potter series and the film series of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

As you discover Foundables, the book registry fills out with additional details, similar to the lore discovered on the website Pottermore. What will be in the registry at launch will not be the end of the content, obviously, as it will be expanded as time goes on. The mystery behind the Calamity, in particular, is a phenomenon that will be a central thrust, investigating who or what is responsible. Mysteriously in the Wizarding Challenges registry, I also stumbled upon old wanted posters of Voldemort, the Malfoys, and other Death Eaters. Niantic developers declined to elaborate on them coming from Wizarding Challenges or from some other unannounced activity entirely.

A surprise at the end of my hands-on demo, after taking down a fortress alongside other players, was using a portkey. Just as in Harry Potter proper, a portkey shows up in AR-in this case a literal boot, something fans will remember from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The portkey in AR outlines a square space, and after tapping on the boot, you literally step through a portal into a new world.

This particular portkey took me to Ollivander's Wand Shop. I moved the phone around, likely looking like an idiot in the process, soaking in the semi-room-scaled surroundings. I tapped on some glowing things, got some ingredients for potions, and then was ejected from the shop. Portkeys are unlocked after collecting certain portmanteaus, which are then unlocked using keys you collect (one key has infinite uses, other keys expire after one use but take you to a new place). The portkey isn't just a transformative step into a storied environment of Harry Potter history; it offers up unique rewards too.

Wizards Alone?

Niantic's prior games, Ingress and Pokemon Go, are ones built on interacting with others. During my time with Wizards Unite, I was left a little baffled at the "unite" part bid in the title. Unlike Ingress' territory-driven gameplay and Pokemon Go's communal (and competitive) center, Wizards Unite doesn't really have a similar hook of uniting players. Aside from tackling Wizarding Challenges in a team, there isn't really an impetus at all to play alongside friends.

While I'd say it's more robust than Pokemon Go's launch offerings, the lack of a strong social element does remind me of those simultaneously blissful and disappointing first few weeks of Pokemon Go. (Though, as many attest, it is a much more fully-featured game now than it was before.) Still, I'm sure when Wizards Unite launches later in 2019, I will play it obsessively for at least a month—or longer if it grabs me like an Accio spell. After all, it's basically my duty as the founder and former president of my high school's Harry Potter club.

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Caty McCarthy

Features Editor

Caty McCarthy is a former freelance writer whose work has appeared in Kill Screen, VICE, The AV Club, Kotaku, Polygon, and IGN. When she's not blathering into a podcast mic, reading a book, or playing a billion video games at once, she's probably watching Terrace House or something. She is currently USgamer's official altgame enthusiast.

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