LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 – first look

Deep within your brain, there’s a little lobe that desperately wants you to act like a nine year-old. This little lobe is in control every time you queue up The Princess Bride on Netflix or decide to buy a candy bar to reward yourself for a trip to the dentist. In that lobe, there’s also a little box with all your favorite moments from the original Star Wars or Indiana Jones or Batman movies, along with your memories of building and smashing LEGOs together on the carpet of your living rooms on Saturday mornings after the good cartoons ended.

Now, the LEGO series is at its best when it’s targeting that particular lobe and tickling it with all its might. To that end, LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 certainly seems to be following suit. So is it successful? Well, we only got to see a little taste of Harry’s new adventures in our short demo, but we’re happy to admit that yes, we did feel some tickling.

Like the previous LEGO games, LEGO Harry Potter’s characters and dramatic scenes appear in goofy slapstick LEGO-vision, with plenty of color and charm so you won’t feel lost in the sea of fan service. That said, sharp-eyed Potter fans will note that each location from the Harry Potter Universe has been translated faithfully into the LEGO style: Diagon Alley, the Grand Staircase and even the girls’ bathroom look pretty much like you’d expect them to look.

However, what makes LEGO Harry Potter special isn’t the look – it’s that each of the game’s locations has so many uniquely interactive objects. For example: in the past LEGO games, most of the objects you could mess around with were mostly there to be destroyed. You could zap pieces of scenery like crates with your blaster or sword, breaking them open with a little explosion and revealing some more studs. Cool, yes – but now there’s more.

As Harry Potter, say you use your wand to zap a few chairs in Leaky Cauldron. They don’t explode; rather, in a neat little sequence, they come alive, stack on top of each other and make a little staircase for Harry to climb up and collect more studs. Obviously, the end result in both scenarios is the same (you get some studs), but the creativity in these little details makes all the difference in alleviating the boredom of zapping everything in sight for room after room. (Of course, we saw plenty of wanton destruction, too; this is a LEGO game, after all.)

Keeping in line with LEGO Harry Potter’s bigger emphasis on exploration, the action has been changed a bit - hopefully for the better. You’ll have to fight off the occasional baddie, sure, but you’ll almost never die or be penalized for playing poorly or getting hit. In fact, there isn’t even a visible life meter anymore. LEGO Harry Potter’s not out to punish you or throw you through a gauntlet of same-y action stages chosen via a traditional hub world. Instead, the game will amicably guide you from class to class within a fully realized Hogwarts, teaching you new spells for manipulating the environment or bringing down a particular adversary. As you follow the plot of the first four books, the challenge comes not from taking down goons, but from interacting with every object you find and collecting enough gold bricks and House Crest pieces to unlock hidden characters and the like.

As far as the spells go, we saw Immobulus, which froze some enemies in place, and a transform spell that lets you turn your fellow students into frogs. (Yes, they get better.) Wingardium Leviosa which functions pretty much like the Force did in LEGO Star Wars, but you’ll be able to manipulate some objects in mid air using real physics and stack platforms yourself to solve trickier puzzles. We’ll have to see if the spells can lead to any real brain-busters, but we’re excited about the possibilities the spell system could open up, and we haven’t even seen half of the ones you can unlock.

So where does this leave us? Well, from what we’ve seen, we can say this: not only is the Harry Potter universe one of the best settings for a LEGO game yet, but its new gameplay tweaks might make LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 the most accessible LEGO game to date as well. Sure, the action is less of a focus than the adventure here, but we’re impressed with how much mileage developer Traveller’s Tales is getting out of the Harry Potter universe both in terms of aesthetics and new gameplay features. We’ll see if there’s enough new stuff there to wow us when the full game comes out in May, but in the meantime, there’s a little lobe in our brains that’s keeping us very interested in what’s to come.

Feb 1, 2010