I wouldn't be the first person to heap praise on the "Harry Potter" movies. This might sound cheesy, but they make me feel at home. I see Hogwarts as a sort of land of magical misfit toys, and I'm kind of a grown-up, nonmagical misfit myself.
Over the years, the "Harry Potter" video games haven't been quite as welcoming or warm. They were either too narrowly focused, like offering a bunch of easy Quidditch matches, or they didn't flesh out the halls of Hogwarts enough.
But here comes the beautiful and fairly expansive "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" to deliver a Hogwarts that players can call home.
Harry, Hermione and Ron interact with each other and other students a lot. The game characters look exactly like the actors, though someone else is voicing Harry and Hermione's dialogue.
And while playing as Harry for most of the game, you walk and run about Hogwarts and its grounds in search of adventures based on the book and summer movie.
I don't think it's enough to just tell you Hogwarts is big. Here is a partial list of campus levels you explore repeatedly: the boathouse, clock tower courtyard, dungeons, entrance hall, first through seventh floors, grand staircase, Gryffindor boys' dorm, Hagrid's hut, herbology, hospital wing, library, Myrtle's bathroom, suspension bridge, Umbridge's office and the viaduct.
The downside is the game's adventure forces you to run back and forth across Hogwarts in search of clues and puzzles.
So, the first time I ran up and down those moving staircases, I was taken aback by the cool grandeur of navigating those playful steps, and I'd stop to chat with the people living in the paintings lining the staircase walls. But the 40th time -- not so much fun.
The game play itself is entertaining and breezy, but it's probably more exciting for a kid or a newcomer to games than to an adult, since there's not as much action gaming here as in typical movie-based games.
Many goals involve using your wand to move things around or to fix broken statues, in order to find missing ghosts and other items. These problem-solving challenges become routine for a hard-core gamer such as myself.
Playing "Phoenix" on the Wii may jazz up your experience a little bit. You swing the Wii wand to make Harry wave his magic wand, to cast spells to move furniture, uncover secrets and engage in battle. This helps the feeling of pretending to be Harry.
I'm not sure "Phoenix" will keep me playing all summer, but there is quite a bit of game here, plus standard minigames, such as the one where you match alike pairs from a deck of cards.
Eventually you can play as Dumbledore and other characters. And as you progress, you unlock bonus videos of cast members talking about the making of the game.
Altogether, it's not quite a great outing. But the colorful people, places and things add up into a sweet distraction in a familiar place.
("Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" retails for $60 for PS 3 and Xbox 360; $50 for the Wii; $40 for the PSP and PS 2; $30 for the DS -- Plays fun when not repetitive. Looks great. Easy to moderately challenging. Rated "E 10+" for fantasy violence. Three stars out of four.)