I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that I really liked the first LEGO Star Wars game. It was new, refreshing and based on fun, not realism. But since then, the sheer volume of Lego releases has put me off somewhat. We've had Batman, more Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Rock Band, Harry Potter, even more Star Wars and now this... that's a lot of LEGO. But, based on what I've just seen, the series is on top form and slicker than ever before. Time to take notice.
For starters, this isn't just a licensed name, as the game covers plots, characters and settings from all four Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Yup, On Stranger Tides - the new film for 2011 - is in, making this worth a look for anyone with even a passing interest in the movies. The gameplay still involves you switching between LEGO versions of characters from the films, using their unique abilities to solve puzzles and find secrets. I completely agree that sounds like the most banal, generic idea for a game ever, but the premise alone cannot convey just how charming and enjoyable it is.
Above: LEGO models look surprisingly natural within impressively realistic environmental textures
Let's pretend you don't care which license your LEGO game has. What makes this one better than the rest? Well, while a minor technical point, the screen tearing of LEGO Harry Potter looks to have been fixed, at least in the early code I saw. Also, the cheap 6x multiplier for studs that you could unlock quite early on in that game (which rendered the 'True Wizard' challenges pointless) is now available much later in the game, and may be held back still further. That's a good thing.
There's also an improved character switching system. You meet characters mid-level which - once you've worked out how to encourage them - can be recruited to your party. At this point, they become easily selectable via a menu wheel, very similar to the spell selection from LEGO Harry Potter, and can be switched in at will.
Characters have their own abilities, such as Jack's compass, which shows you hidden items, and the blacksmith, who can forge 'hot' LEGO. The latter is simply the ability to build objects from piles of glowing red LEGO, but coming back through previously completed levels with newly acquired characters adds to the replay value significantly.
Above: The water isn't just for show - pirates can walk through it, other characters can swim. Holding a barrel over your head can extend your air supply. Logical, eh?
There are lots more hidden secrets this time round, some of them useful and some of them just for comic effect - think of the dancing enemies in the Star Wars original. Anything made of LEGO bricks can be interacted with, so half the fun is trying to work out what does what. With 90 characters, 20 levels (5 for each movie) and secret levels to unlock, there's a lot of game here.
Sadly, the custom level builder from LEGO Indiana Jones is still absent after its non-show in LEGO Harry Potter. TT argue that the creativity is in exploring the world and solving the puzzles, but this is one area that could be improved.
The original Star Wars entry had superb cut-scenes (seeing Luke's hand go haywire and jump around the room is a scene we'll never forget) and that tradition is continued in fine form. Sure, they echo moments from the movies, but a lot of artistic license has been taken to make the tongue-in-cheek even more daft. There are actually quite a few instances of carrots being added to the script. I don't think it was meant to happen that way, but it became a bit of a recurring theme during the presentation.
You wouldn't think that stiff, barely posable LEGO figures would afford any kind of emotional connection, but they do. Look - there goes Jack Sparr… sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow, mincing around with his hands up around his shoulders in perfect character. The team spent a lot of time making sure that simply moving the characters around was fun, because if just controlling a character is fun in itself, then the rest of the game should follow on.
Above: Hooray for Captain Jack! Those plastic limbs bend subtly to allow more nuances of animation
Speaking of fun character movement, there are also opportunities to ride around on pigs. I don't remember the films featuring pig riding, but the game is definitely all the better for it. You can also control animals as party members, like the dog from the jail cells, who can dig up items that Jack finds with his compass.
The team has deliberately made control easier. For instance, when progress is blocked, the game requires quite a lot of exploration before a solution presents itself, such as a set of posts to jump between. Traveller's Tales believe that finding the poles is the the challenge - jumping across them should not be. They want you to enjoy being as awesome as a pirate jumping across posts would be, so you can't fall off.
It sounds like a cop-out, but let's face it… nobody likes falling off things in videogames. The experience here is all about enjoyment, and that's something that a lot of game devs would do well to keep in mind.
Above: He'll wave around in a theatrical display of maintaining balance... but Jack won't move unless you say
Getting the Pirates of the Caribbean license has surely made designing the levels much easier. The films are full of set-pieces that may as well have been designed for play in a videogame. The bone cages, the duel in the smithy... if there isn't a section on the runaway waterwheel, I'll be very suprised. The action is simple enough that anyone can grasp what's going on (something that will surely be tested for the third film's levels *cough*) yet never oversimplified. It's child friendly without assuming children are stupid.
Above: There's a section where you walk around inside the bone cage hamster balls. Poor Will looks worried
I had a few minutes of hands-on time with the 3DS version (before the battery ran out - d'oh!) and was very impressed with what I saw. The movement of the game is much more like the 360/PS3 LEGO games compared to the almost slow-motion movement of the LEGO Star Wars 3DS game. The 3D itself is particularly worthy of note. Most games look (to my eyes) a bit too strange with the 3D slider right up, but in the blacksmith's area that I saw, even with the 3D all the way up, everything looked solid and just as strong as the 360 version, albeit with a slightly reduced frame rate.
Above: Don't worry about the resolution - on a 3DS screen and in 3D, this looks awesome
I can only speak from my own experience of losing interest in the series a little after finding the lack of signposting in LEGO Batman a little too confusing. But after enjoying my time with LEGO Harry Potter, I'm well up for this. Not only because pirates are way cool, but because the game itself looks like a lot of fun - especially in co-op. And I want to see the cut-scene with the pig and the perfume again. I'll let you find that one for yourself.
The argument that put me off the series still stands. You could easily point out that this is just a reskin of LEGO Harry Potter and that there isn't much here that's genuinely new. But the constant small revisions to the formula over the past few years have resulted in a game that's very easy to pick up, yet very hard to put down. If a game looks this great, responds so well to experimentation and has such an enjoyable license, there's no excuse for not giving it the attention it deserves. Even alongside the more hardcore offerings on the horizon, I'm really looking forward to this one.
14 Mar, 2011