If you've enjoyed the Lego Star Wars/Indiana Jones/Batman games and you're a fan of Harry Potter, there's really no need to read the rest of this review: we can state with confidence that you'll love Lego Harry Potter too. The mix of simple, entertaining gameplay, obsessive collecting and affectionate parody that the series established with the first Lego Star Wars still works wonders when moved to the wizarding world, and the result is a great game to play on your own, and an even better one if you've got a younger fan or two to play with.
You might, however, need a bit more convincing. After all, the formula is beginning to get tired, right? Well, actually, no. Lego Indiana Jones, with its more freeform, puzzle-based gameplay already showed signs of a willingness to mix things up, and Lego Harry Potter takes things another few steps further along. For a start, the team at Traveller's Tales have gone to greater lengths to make this one feel like one coherent story rather than a selection of episodes and levels you can dip into and out of at will.
You actually have to play the saga through from the opening of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to the end of Goblet of Fire, though there is still scope to replay finished levels or take a wander around the shops of Diagon Alley between chapters. True, this means you can't flick back and forth between episodes as you could in the previous games, but the upside is that the team has been able to use the linear format to build a more complex and interesting game.
The key to this one is - appropriately - magic. The tale begins with two playable characters who, as usual, you can switch between at will, or divide up between two players. Harry, has no real power at all, while Hagrid only has the bare minimum of abilities. Pretty soon, however, you've located Rod and Hermione, and, with a few lessons at Hogwarts, the spell book begins to fill up.
Wingardium Leviosa can be used to move or levitate objects, or reconstruct Lego bricks before your eyes into new and useful forms. Lumos can be used to shift tangling plants or, with an upgrade, fight off grasping tentacles. A variety of jinxes and curses can be employed to blast objects into bricks or tackle enemies, while more spells, more potions and familiar objects, like the invisibility cloak, become accessible as time goes on.
And you'll need all these spells, plus character-specific abilities like Ron's controllable pet rat or the digging powers of Hagrid's faithful mutt, Fang, to do two things. Firstly, Lego Harry Potter is a puzzle-heavy game. Where the Lego Star Wars and Indy games were very much about fighting battle droids, Stormtroopers and Nazis, this one is much more focused on using spells and mixing potions to remove any barriers standing between Harry and his next objective.
Whether you're trying to uncover and collect ingredients for a potion, open a locked gate or tackle a menacing Dobby the house elf, you won't get far unless you can work out which spells and abilities to use in roughly which order. To be honest, there's not an awful lot of brain-power involved; you can easily muddle through just by trying out all your options on anything that stands out from the general environment. But that doesn't mean it's not a lot of fun. What's more, some of the block-by-block building puzzles are a lot less automated than they have been in the past, requiring you to use your noggin and work out which bit goes where.
Secondly, Lego Harry Potter is fundamentally based around Hogwarts. You might have excursions to Hogsmeade or the haunted woods, but you'll spend most of your time in the halls, corridors, classrooms and open spaces of the famous School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. The trick is that, much like the worlds in the old Castlevania and Metroid games, certain areas will be closed off until you gain the spell or ability that unlocks them. Again, there are limits to the amount of exploration involved; while there's a degree of freedom, you'll find yourself following Nearly Headless Nick, the game's built-in guide, most of the time. However, it does give you a feeling of learning and development that was possibly missing from previous Lego games.
Now, the fact that locations repeat throughout the game could have been an issue, but instead it's quite the opposite. For one thing, you'll find new challenges in the different areas in each episode, meaning you never have to repeat the same experience twice. For another, Traveller's Tales has made every environment in the game richly interactive. Wherever you are, there are candles or torches to ignite, stacks of books to topple, objects to break and things to fiddle around with, not to mention hidden areas to discover and fellow students in need of saving. Whatever you mess around with, there's a reward in terms of new Lego studs and bricks for your collection, and you can use these later on to unlock new spells, models and costumes. In short, it's almost impossible to get bored, and if you've always liked the collecting/bonus-hunting aspect of the games, you're in for a treat.
As ever, though, the real magic is in how well the team has captured the spirit of the source material. Maybe it's the music, maybe it's the eye for detail, but you can argue that Traveller's Tales has done a better job here of replicating Harry's world than EA has ever managed in its more serious Potter games. Visually the mix of shiny plastic figures and more realistic environments works even better than before, and how the team has managed to create such believable versions of Alan Rickman's Severus Snape, Gary Oldman's Sirius Black and Kenneth Branagh's Gilderoy Lockhart with just some chunks of virtual plastic, some painted-on lines and wrinkles and a selection of recorded grunts, chortles and sneers is just amazing.
True, the parodies of the big movie moments aren't quite as familiar, and therefore not quite as hilarious, as those in the Star Wars and Indy games, but they still have some fantastic moments. In fact, the game's telling of the first Potter tale is arguably more efficient and entertaining than the one you'd find in the movie.
Best of all, this is a game of serious length and depth. You'll put more hours into just one playthrough than you would into certain big-name shooters we might mention, and when you throw in the many replay aspects you've got a bargain, especially if you want something you can play with the kids.
While it looks like yet another chip from the money-making Lego block, this first instalment of Lego Harry Potter turns out to be the most ambitious and sophisticated Lego game yet. The puzzles are the best of the series, and the gameplay is consistently brilliant. Roll on Lego Harry Potter - Years 5 to 7.