I’m standing on a street corner next to a tall inn, whose smoking chimney signals something’s cooking inside. In the distance I can see squat greenhouses and pointy fortresses. Owls and paper airplanes glide by, and every so often an object pops up next to me, including a bit of frog brain and powered dragon claw. I’ve just started playing the new AR game Harry Potter: Wizards Unite and I’m immersed in the world of Harry Potter, Newt Scamander, other familiar wizards — along with Muggles and No-Majs.
It’s not unlike standing on the same corner in Pokemon Go, next to a blue Pokestop, where I can see red and yellow gyms in the distance and Pokemon spawning at my feet. I’ve played Pokemon Go on and off for three years and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite for a few days, but in the time I’ve spent with the Niantic’s newest mobile game, it already feels different, because of how it makes uses of AR on Android and iPhone.
While AR in Pokemon Go brings you into the game as a trainer, in Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, it servers a much broader function of immersing you into to new and wondrous magical world, seeing it almost like Harry Potter does after learning he’s a wizard. Here’s how Harry Potter: Wizards Unite and Pokemon Go compare in their use of AR and whether being more immersive makes for a better gaming experience.
In-game maps are manageable in Pokemon Go
Just based on looks, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite runs circles around Pokemon Go. The Harry Potter game map is busy and alive: Owls and colorful paper airplanes glide around your phone screen, clouds slide by, a moon rises in the evening, chimneys smoke to indicate an Inn is replenishing its food supply.
And if you play in a car — don’t drive while playing! — you fly over the road on a magic broomstick. The game looks whimsical, like the Burrow, the house of the Weasleys, and it’s wonderful.
Pokemon Go’s map feels less lively. The map isn’t static — Pokestops spin when you tap them, Pokemon slowly rotate around the tops of Gyms, your trainer breathes in and out when resting — but it has fewer items to attract your attention.
On the flipside, Pokemon Go’s map feels less distracting. It has fewer structures and objects to interact with and fewer items and events that require your attention. And personally, while I don’t like the live camera in either game that by default constantly reorients you on the map based on which way you are facing, the one in Harry Potter feels especially confusing and I turned it off as soon as I could. (To do that, from the suitcase, tap settings in the top-left corner, scroll down and turn off Map Camera Idle.)
Winner: The map in Harry Potter: Wizards Unite feels rich and more immersive. It also feels cinematic, which might be too much. I’m going with Pokemon Go because it’s a nice balance of immersion and usability.
Gyms or Greenhouses: Structures in Harry Potter gives you more to do
The Harry Potter: Wizards Unite map is dotted with Inns, Greenhouses, Fortresses and even banners warning of Dark Arts traces, and they all provide jumping-in points to the game. Tap an Inn, for example, and you’re whisked into an AR dining room to gather food and replenish your energy to cast spells.
Inside the structures, dinner platters float, potted plants rotate in front of you, and you feel a bit like you’re entered a magical room. And when you place a Portkey, you are transported to room in the Borgin and Burkes shop in Knockturn Alley. In this AR room, you can move around, walk up to and examine objects, and gather five Wrackspurts to earn rewards.
Pokemon Go — with Pokestops and Gyms — has fewer structures to engage, and of the two, only Gyms really feel like you’ve entered a room, to battle Pokemon. I can spin Pokestops in my sleep.
Winner: Harry Potter: Wizards Unite offers a more diverse AR experience and feels more realistic. If the only new bit of AR the Harry Potter game offers was the room you reach via a Portkey, it would be worth it.
Wizards versus monsters: Greater challenge, greater reward
Unlike Pokemon Go, Harry Potter is not about catching them all. It is largely about exploring the unexpected magical world around you and interacting with the various characters and creatures you encounter. The ways you deal with characters is much more challenging and rewarding, too, from casting spells to collaborating with other players to contain dark magic.
In Pokemon Go, the sameness of tossing — and tossing and tossing — Pokeballs at Pocket Monsters you encounter can quickly feel like a chore.
Winner: Once again Harry Potter gets the nod here for variety.
The real reason Harry Potter: Wizards Unite wins
I’m not surprised that Harry Potter Wizards Unite does a better job of implementing AR: You’d expect its maker, Niantic, to build on all it learned from its Ingress and Pokemon Go games to create a rich, refreshed experience for your phone.
But does that make it a better AR game? Harry Potter has an expansive back story to pull from — between the original Harry Potter books and movies and the more recent Fantastic Beasts movies — and the game’s AR experience goes a long way to creating the charm and richness of Harry Potter’s magical world on your phone.
I wonder if Pokemon Go would benefit from such an immersive experience. With the goal of catching them all, Pokemon Go is in some ways much more about tossing Pokeballs and battling for gyms and not about exploring a new and charming magical world, and that’s the game’s true strength. In thinking about the game like an epic, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite weaves the AR tightly into a universe you want to return to again and again.