Harry Potter: Wizards Unite beats Pokemon Go every way but one

Pokemon Go was an instant hit, but Harry Potter: Wizards Unite does AR far better overall.

Clifford Colby Managing Editor
Clifford is a managing editor at CNET, where he leads How-To coverage. He spent a handful of years at Peachpit Press, editing books on everything from the first iPhone to Python. He also worked at a handful of now-dead computer magazines, including MacWEEK and MacUser. Unrelated, he roots for the Oakland A's.
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Clifford Colby
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I'm standing on a corner near my office in San Francisco. A few blocks away, I can see pointy fortresses and rounded greenhouses. Nearer, a smoking chimney of a tall, blue-roofed inn signals something's cooking inside. Owls and colorful paper airplanes glide by, and frequently an object appears near to me, including a bit of frog brain and ginger root. I'm playing the AR game Harry Potter: Wizards Unite and I'm immersed in the world of Harry Potter, Hagrid and other wizards and witches -- along with Muggles and No-Majs.

My view is not that different from standing on the same street corner in Pokemon Go, next to a blue Pokestop, where I can see red and yellow gyms a few blocks away and Pokemon spawning at my feet. I've played Pokemon Go on and off for three years and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite since it was released early last Thursday, but in the time I've spent with the new mobile game codeveloped by Niantic and WB Games, it already feels different, because of how it makes use of AR on Android and iOS.

In Pokemon Go, AR brings you into the game as a trainer; in Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, AR serves a much broader function of immersing you in a new and wondrous magical world, experiencing 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 deeply immersed makes for a better gaming experience.

In-game maps are manageable in Pokemon Go


The moon rises over wizarding inns, greenhouses and fortresses.

Screenshot by Clifford Colby/CNET

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 soar just above 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 upside, Pokemon Go's map also feels far less distracting. It has fewer structures and objects to interact with and fewer items and events that require your attention. Wizards Unite almost has too many items to interact with.

And personally, though I don't like the live camera in either game -- which by default constantly reorients you on the map based on which way you're 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 give you more to do


A Portkey transports you to a mysterious room you can walk around.

Screenshot by Clifford Colby/CNET

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've entered a magical room. And when you place a Portkey, you're transported to a 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 its pokestops and gyms, has fewer structures to engage with, 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 offered was the room you reach via a Portkey, it'd be worth it.

Wizards versus monsters: Greater challenge, greater reward


A thankful Ministry worker, with the Salesforce Tower in the distance.

Screenshot by Clifford Colby/CNET

Unlike Pokemon Go, Harry Potter isn't about catching them all. It's largely about exploring the unexpected magical world around you and interacting with the various characters and creatures you encounter. The way 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, 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 backstory 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 toward 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.