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Wonderbook Book of Spells Preview [E3 2012]

Greeted with an amount of skepticism that’s even abnormal by the standard of the already jaded gaming community, Sony’s announcement of the Wonderbook peripheral for the PS3 was something that people just didn’t know how to compute in their heads. Somewhat looked at as something that never ought to be in the first place, the Wonderbook showed Sony trying to be creative, and not in the way that they “copy” other companies, but at the same time it seemed odd nonetheless and the subsequent demo at Sony’s E3 conference was met with lukewarm reactions and complete chuckling thanks to the uncomfortable technical hiccup that occurred.

Far from being as uncomfortable as the infamous demos given during Sony’s E3 2006 conference or the mildly stiff demo premier for Medieval Moves, the first showing for Book of Spells was kind of cool but at the same time when a tech error occurs in a major demo it’s basically like a drip of blood spilling into the ocean, the sharks will come out and feast on it no matter what it is.  I’ll admit that watching the Book of Spells demo during the Sony conference was a bit uncomfortable since it was like watching a car crash on the highway, I wanted to look away but at the same time I felt compelled to keep my eyes peeled at the horrifying site that lay before me. But with that said I was nothing but surprised when I saw Book of Spells at Sony’s E3 booth as it actually looked fun and more importantly it was devoid of any odd glitches.

I don’t think Sony is trying to kid anyone in which key demographic the Wonderbook is geared towards as it’s obviously being aimed for the 6-15 year-old age demo.  By no means is the Wonderbook meant to hook in the same crowd that plays Uncharted or God of War but with that said I will admit that I was actually entertained by what the device showed at E3. Up in the comfortable 2nd floor of Sony’s E3 booth I was able to get a closer look at the Wonderbook and the Book of Spells – the key launch game for the device which has the world of Harry Potter being expanded in a licensed game that isn’t a crappy movie tie-in.  

Book of Spells may not have had the best showing at Sony’s E3 conference, but from what I saw the game looks entertaining and more importantly the tech worked. Even in a relatively low-lit room the game worked like a breeze as there weren’t any odd moments in which the PlayStation Eye wasn’t reading a particular movement correctly.  The movement from the PlayStation Move was tracked in a completely 1:1 way and the subsequent visuals that erupted from the Wonderbook via the power of wizardry were equally impressive.

Now I didn’t have a massive hands-on session with the Wonderbook but from what I saw things looked good as the device itself is rather hefty and didn’t feel too cheap. Sure, it may not have felt as solid as a high-end eBook or have the classic feel of an actual hardcover novel, but it didn’t feel like a lame Nook knock-off you would buy on the streets of Bangkok.  The size of the Wonderbook also shouldn’t be too much of an issue since it won’t take up too much floor space so it’s not cumbersome to whip the thing out and put it on the floor or a nearby coffee table.

On the topic of the big showstopper that is Book of Spells I was mostly impressed with what I saw.  In a lot of ways the game is a bit similar to what we’ve seen other Move games do when it comes to basic game mechanics.  Things like shooting spiders with the Move being a magic wand really isn’t a groundbreaking game mechanic as it’s not something we haven’t seen done before. But what did pique my interest was how the game was presented as it expands upon the augmented reality gimmicks we’ve seen employed in games such as EyePet.  The name of the Wonderbook is a rather fitting name for the device as I did feel a sense of wonderment upon seeing a mid-18th century style puppet theater suddenly erupt out of the Wonderbook and be represented on the screen of the TV.  There aren’t any elements in which the Wonderbook is pushing general AR gaming in a way never before seen, at least as of now, but the tech itself looked very fleshed out as moving the Wonderbook around didn’t result in any sudden model glitches or weird things such as that. In fact, moving the Wonderbook around merely showed more detail on the puppet theater which wouldn’t have been seen from the default view.

If I had to use one word to describe the Wonderbook it would have to be immersive.  The gameplay in Book of Spells may have been rather direct in a few areas, but seeing things pop out of the book or merely turning a page in the Wonderbook and seeing it represented onscreen as an ancient page of a book was simply cool.  There’s definitely a gimmick like nature in the Wonderbook, but it’s just something different that doesn’t seem too far-fetched in the realm of gaming like the begotten Wii Vitality Sensor.  The arching reach of the Wonderbook may be limited, but right off the bat it has the makings to be a potential must-have Christmas present for the little tikes out there that love Harry Potter or for the parents who want to grab a present that’ll hook the kids in without buying a game that features headshots.

Looking at the Wonderbook as a new PS3 product it’s kind of weird to figure out what sort of message Sony is going for.  The Wonderbook is definitely being billed as a full-on PS3 peripheral as opposed to a bonus item in a sense so it’ll definitely be next to the PS Move and the PS Eye in the list of core PS3 peripherals. The big question however is if the Wonderbook will have the software support needed to carry it as a major PS3 peripheral since it’s such a niche device in a sense. It’s not as if existing software can be adapted for the Wonderbook akin to seeing a racing game support the PS Move Racing Wheel.  

Right now the only announced Wonderbook titles are Book of Spells and Diggs Nightcrawler, both of which are expected to arrive later this year. While both of the launch titles for the Wonderbook will likely do a good job at showcasing the device, the long-term plans for the peripheral are a bit hazy since it’s not even something Sony can adapt into core games such as putting Move support in Killzone.  Sony will likely support the device through small PSN games handled by their UK studios, but I just hope the Wonderbook isn’t a one and done peripheral if Sony relies too much on partner support in the end.

The amount of skepticism core gamers have towards the Wonderbook is completely understandable since it’s odd to see Sony go in such a casual centric route.  If Sony actually supports the device with solid software it could prove fruitful in the end, especially if more mature authors are approached. While we likely won’t see a Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy game produced for the Wonderbook, seeing a mature Sherlock Holmes tale or something along the lines of A Game Of Thrones could be interesting as the possibilities the Wonderbook offer are certainly something older gamers may be able to enjoy.  As for now I’m going to keep my eye peeled on the Wonderbook as its appearance at E3 managed to impress a stoic and usually jaded gamer such as I.