When Niantic's new mobile game, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, launched on Friday (Jun 21), we wondered if it would turn out to be as much a sensation as Pokemon Go. Perhaps it is still too early to really tell, but after a week of playing the game, we may have an idea.
"Yer a wizard, Harry."
If you've always imagined being in Harry Potter's place as Hagrid the giant offers him this life-changing revelation, you probably have started playing Harry Potter: Wizards Unite.
Wizards Unite is an augmented reality mobile game Niantic co-developed with Warner Bros that allows players to cast spells, discover mysterious artefacts, and encounter iconic characters and beasts that feature in the Harry Potter universe.
When Pokemon Go was launched in 2016, it almost instantly became a worldwide sensation, making US$206 million in the first month. Three years later, it has been downloaded more than 800 million times and continues to be played by roughly 5 million people on a daily basis.
Could Wizards Unite go the same way? Already, we are seeing fewer Potterheads pouncing on the game - Wizards Unite was downloaded by under 3 million devices during the four-day launch period, but Pokemon Go was downloaded 24 million times.
Numbers aside, here is how the two games compare against each other, based on game plot, game play and graphics.
WHAT'S THE STORY?
It's important to note early on that while there are similarities, these are two different games. In Pokemon Go, the player is a kind of bounty hunter, while Wizards Unite can be described as a sticker collecting adventure.
The story line in Wizards Unite is more complicated than Pokemon Go, which is expected because the Harry Potter franchise includes more than 15 books and films.
In the game, grown-up Harry Potter and Hermione Granger are working at the Ministry of Magic with Newt Scamander, a character from the Harry Potter film spin-off Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find them.
A spell has been cast, causing what is referred to as the Calamity and putting the wizarding world at risk of being discovered by Muggles (non-magical humans).
Your job, as a witch or wizard, is to rescue displaced people, objects and memories from sticky situations and return them to their rightful place. These are called Foundables and include characters like Harry's friends Ron Weasley and Luna Lovegood, as well as iconic items and creatures like the Golden Snitch and Hagrid's spider buddy Aragog.
Each time you successfully rescue a Foundable, a "sticker" is entered into your Registry.
There is not much of a story in Pokemon Go, or at least not much that's crucial to the game anyway. The game is based on the popular television series and deck-building card game, and features many types of Pokemon that you merely have to "catch" in your PokeBall so you can add them to your Pokemon index, or Pokedex. As the catchphrases go, to be the "very best" trainer, you only have to "catch 'em all".
The more Pokemon you catch, the higher your chances of winning battles with other trainers' Pokemon and the higher your chances of levelling up.
In a nutshell, if you're not a fan of the Harry Potter series, much of the game will probably mystify you. Pokemon Go is easier to digest, even if you know nothing beyond the adorable Pikachu.
GAMEPLAY: SO MUCH GOING ON
Both games make use of your smartphone’s GPS in their gameplay.
In Pokemon Go, this happens: You see a pocket monster on the map. You tap it. Then you throw Pokeballs at it until it gets "captured". When you encounter a Pokestop, you "spin" it on your screen so it will throw up more Pokeballs for you to use. You have to wait five minutes between spins. Gyms in Pokemon Go are for battling your Pokemon with that of other real-life players.
Wizards Unite works in a similar way, but it is also so much more. The game has so many layers that your first few tries might feel like you have had a Confundus Charm put on you.
The game's main characters do pop up often to tell you what to expect next, but if you are anything like us, you're likely to tap the pop-ups away without reading.
First, you set up your profile. In Pokemon Go, you can choose your basic uniform and username, and that's pretty much it. But in Wizards Unite, you can pick your profession and your House (those quizzes you did sorting you into Gryffindor, Slytherin, Hufflepuff or Ravenclaw will come in useful here), customise your wand and put up a profile photo that is basically a selfie with Harry Potter-themed filters.
When the game begins, illuminated icons will start appearing on your screen much like how the monsters do in Pokemon Go, representing Foundables waiting to be rescued. You then tap the icons, trace the shapes on your screen that imitate the wand movement of certain spells and watch if your spell is successful. Go back to your map and potion ingredients might pop up - tap these to add to your bag; they can be used to brew potions that will help in your duels.
Duelling opportunities may come in the form of similar flashing icons on the map, but you can also engage in duels when you tap on Fortresses. A player may get the chance to duel with enemies ranging from monsters to Death Eaters, the Harry Potter gang's greatest rivals save for Voldemort.
Duelling and rescuing can use up all your spell energy. This is like the Pokeballs in the other Niantic game. In Wizards Unite, you can replenish your spell energy when you tap on and "dine at" Inns. Like Pokestops, you have to wait a few minutes before there is enough food for another top-up.
As Niantic uses the same map for both games, Inns are located where Pokestops are if you are playing Pokemon Go.
GRAPHICS: SO MUCH MORE ALIVE
When Wizards Unite first launched, we were most excited about its graphic potential, again because the Harry Potter series is renowned for its rich imagery. Wizards Unite does not disappoint. It just feels so much more alive.
Just staring at the map can be a mesmerising experience. The map in Pokemon Go is largely static - the only thing that is really moving is your avatar. In Wizards Unite, there are owls and paper planes (which is how memos are sent from each department to another in the Ministry of Magic) flying about.
The Foundables are also more interactive than the Pokemon you try to catch. For example, Peeves - the resident Hogwarts poltergeist - comes flying at you when you rescue him from a bell jar, before he is swiftly whisked away back to the school. The zombie-like Hag also tries to make a move at you, before she too is transported.
We don't remember being this engaged (or this frightened) when playing Pokemon Go.
USE OF AR: OUT OF THIS WORLD
Wizards Unite and Pokemon Go roughly use AR the same way. During spell-casting and Pokemon-catching, you can turn on the AR function so that it feels like you and your target are in the same place in real life.
Niantic's latest, however, takes AR one step further with its Portkeys.
In the wizarding world, a Portkey is an enchanted item that when touched will teleport you to another location. Portkey Portmanteaus are yet another item that pop up on the map. You tap on them to store them and walk specific distances to have them unlocked.
Once unlocked, a Portmanteau turns up a Portkey, commonly an old shoe. When your Portkey is ripe for teleportation, it will appear on the ground in front of you and when tapped, will open you up to a "different world", say a magical hut. The experience is - for the lack of a better word - unreal.
The biggest turn-off in Wizards Unite is the way it almost baits you into spending money.
The spell energy runs out surprisingly fast and it's not always easy to replenish, considering the Pokestops in Pokemon Go have been split into Inns and Greenhouses, where spell energy isn't always available.
In Pokemon Go, Poke Balls are not needed when you're battling in Gyms, but get used up when you fight in the Fortresses of Wizards Unite. When this happens, you are prompted - in the middle of a duel - to buy more spell energy. If you don't, you may get kicked out of the Fortress and lose your rewards.
But this could be one of the ways that Wizards Unite continues to remain a challenge. In contrast, Pokemon Go is incredibly easy and straightforward - the only real challenge as time goes on is to go after the new Pokemon as and when Niantic produces them, and to catch country exclusives as you travel.
Admittedly, we still play Pokemon Go, but at this point, it is mostly to pass time.
All these factors considered, can Wizards Unite become as popular as Pokemon Go?
Our guess is no.
Pokemon Go has attracted people of all ages, including seniors and those who don't identify as gamers. These people are unlikely to make the switch to Wizards Unite, simply because it is designed for Potterheads.
With that said, if you're planning to play, as the Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore would say: "Let us step out into the night and pursue that flighty temptress, adventure."