Ask your average hardcore gamer what their most anticipated game of the season might be, and its unlikely that Lego Pirates of the Cariibean would be on the tip of their tongue. LA Noire? Maybe. Duke Nukem Forever? Possibly. But a Lego game based on Disney’s blockbuster trilogy? Definitely not. But there is an audience out there where this will be one of the big games of the year - an audience of kids and gaming mums and dads for whom each Lego game is an absolute must. Well, these fine folks won’t go away disappointed by the latest stud-collecting, scenery-trashing, puzzle solving Lego extravaganza. In fact, it’s the best Lego movie adaptation we’ve seen yet.
Of course, it’s formulaic. The team at Traveller’s Tales hot on a winning formula with the original Lego Star Wars and have been polishing it ever since, so it’s no surprise that Lego Pirates still has one or two players pushing through a series of levels based loosely on the big scenes from the movies, or that each level consists of a number of areas where they’ll have to defeat baddies and solve simple puzzles. There are still new characters to enlist (around 70 in all), with different characters having different abilities that you’ll need to access certain rooms or platforms within a location, or use specific switches or fix specific objects. You can say that Lego Pirates is a development on Lego Indiana Jones 2 and Lego Harry Potter, Years 1 to 4, in that there’s more of an emphasis on puzzle solving than simple platform action, and in that the puzzles are slightly more complex than they’ve generally been in the Lego Star Wars games. However, if you’re looking for a Lego game that breaks the mould, this isn’t it.
Does it matter? No, for the simple reason that Lego Pirates proves that a sentence containing “formulaic” doesn’t always have to combine it with tired. The four worlds cover both the original movie trilogy and the brand new On Stranger Tides, and with each level there’s a real anarchic energy that perhaps has been missing from the most recent Lego titles, partly because the whole Pirates setting lends itself so well to high adventure, and partly because each area is so packed with silly ideas.
Sure, you could concentrate on the main objectives, but why be so serious when there’s a pirate tavern to wreck, Lego studs to discover and a pig to race around on while you tear the place to bits. Along the way, there are spooky swamps, phantom ships and smuggler’s caverns to explore. There’s a fantastic horse and carriage chase sequence on the streets of London, and giant spherical cages to roll around in across ramps and through tunnels on the cannibal island of Dead Man’s Chest. There are dogs to enlist so you can dig-up buried treasure, barrels you can climb in for sub-aqua excursions, and mermaids you’ll need to shatter barriers made of glass. And beyond all this, there’s a sense of depth and scale that takes the Lego series to a whole new level. While this world isn’t as solid and cohesive as the Hogwarts of Lego Harry Potter, it’s hard to resist its freewheeling attitude or its desire to throw in a surprise at every turn.
Most importantly, Lego Pirates is a veritable treasure trove of fun. It helps that the central hero - a certain Captain Jack Sparrow - is the series’ strongest lead to date, with a fabulous take on the Johnny Depp character’s boozy swagger, a great line in haphazard swordplay and an excellent unique ability - a compass that points the way to buried treasure or objects that prove vital for the game’s many puzzles. It also helps that the cutscenes show the cutscene artists at the top of their game, with brilliantly silly riffs on the movies that consistently find new ways to poke fun at the cast, the characters and the plot, and which manage the amazing feat of making Dead Man’s Chest and At the World’s End seem more coherent and enjoyable than they actually were at the flicks. Your mileage will vary depending on how well you (and preferably the kids) know the films, but our test panel was in serious danger of gut-bustage several times over.
The real beauty of the game lies in the detail - in the way that Lego Mackenzie Crook can use his eye as a missile, or the way that Lego Jack Sparrow or Lego Elizabeth Swann will punctuate a swordfight with silly slapstick special moves. Even the most basic enemies can be bashed to their constituent blocks in a host of amusing ways. And while it will only take you a couple of days to get through all four films, we all know that the only way to see and do everything is through the Freeplay mode, where you can check out each level using any character you’ve unlocked, now switching between any member of the cast at will. With new characters opening up new areas, thanks to their different abilities, the replay value is immense, and it’s going to be some time before you collect every stud, polish off every optional challenge and dig up every chunk of buried treasure.
What’s more, this is the first Lego game where the graphics are impressive rather than just charming. Maybe it’s the tropical sunlight, the more detailed textures or the sheer quantity of Lego bricks and studs being thrown around on screen, but Lego Pirates of the Caribbean actually looks spectacular at times. Plus, its unique take on split-screen, co-op action - with the view splitting intelligently as needed and the angle of the split changing to reflect the position of the players - is still unrivalled. In most games, it feels like a poor substitute for online play. Here it feels like the natural way to share the fun.
Are there criticisms? Well, some younger players might find the puzzles a little tricky, and there are odd points where even experienced Lego gamers might get stuck on what to do and where to go next, though you can usually rely on on-screen arrows or Jack’s compass for guidance. All the same, this is easily the most polished of all the Lego games, with few of the camera problems that have haunted the series, and some of the slickest platforming we’ve seen in a Lego game to date.
It’s tempting to mark Lego Pirates of the Caribbean down because it “merely” expands on a successful formula and makes it work on a more lavish scale. But when you factor in the brilliance of the levels, the wit and humour involved and the loving attention to detail you’d have to be a serious sourpuss to put the boot in. Taken on its own terms, it’s every bit as good as the latest hit shooter or racer. Knock off a point or two if you’re a serious hardcore gamer or you don’t know (or can’t stand) the films, but if you love your Lego games and love your pirates, then this is pretty much a dream come true.