There have always been LEGO-themed video games, but it wasn't until 2005, when Traveller's Tales developed LEGO Star Wars for Eidos, that the brand really took off as a video game franchise. What originally sounded like a risky idea turned out to be an inspired stroke of genius as the games captured the imagination of hardcore and casual gamers alike. After iterating through a number of licenses, the LEGO franchise took on Disney's "Pirates of the Caribbean," and the end result is just as much fun as ever.
If you've never played one of the LEGO action games, they all follow a similar premise. Take a well-known licensed property, reimagine it with LEGO minifigures and LEGO bricks, wrap it all around a new hub level and voilà, instant game. The draw comes from solving puzzles as well as exploring the world with different characters to discover all of the hidden goodies. Part of the brilliance is the simple fact that it is impossible to find everything your first time through, so replay value is more or less guaranteed.
For LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, the game delivers its interpretation of all four of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, including this year's release, "On Stranger Tides." Each film is represented by five levels, for a total of 20 levels of gameplay, plus the port area, which serves as the hub.
The story behind each film is revealed in gameplay as well as in animated cut scenes, which appear in every level. These cut scenes are all rendered in the LEGO style and stick to the general gist of the original movies; however, specific elements are usually slightly tweaked in order to keep with the family-friendly nature of the game. Words are also completely absent, with the developers opting to stick with grunts, groans and facial expressions to convey what is happening on-screen. Although some of the animated sequences seem to be a bit longer than necessary, they all fit nicely into the world.
Of course, cut scenes don't make the game, so LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean saves the best set pieces for the actual gameplay. In short, if there was something big, bold and brash that happened in the films, expect to play through it here in the game. For example, the sword fight between Captain Jack and Will Turner in the blacksmith's shed in the first film is a playable section. The bit where Jack is telling Will they need to find a crew is an animated cut scene.
Each of the playable levels is richly detailed, both with nods to the movies as well as the previously mentioned hidden areas. As you play through the game, you will unlock multiple characters, each with a special ability. Once a level has been completed in story mode, you can return to it at any time and play through it with your entire roster. Knowing when to use which character is the only way to completely clear a given area.
Speaking of characters, it would have been easy for the developers to simply create clones with different heads, but they didn't take any shortcuts. Not only do the playable characters look entirely different, but they also sport different special abilities. For example, Jack has his magic compass, which always points him to a hidden object. Mister Gibbs sports a hammer, allowing him to fix mechanical equipment, and the mermaid from "On Stranger Tides" has the ability to breathe underwater.
Notable care has also gone into the animation of the characters. This is most noticeable with Jack, as the team at Traveller's Tales has somehow managed to capture the manic energy of Johnny Depp in stylized minifigure form. Even his wild run is intact and immediately recognizable.
In-game puzzles appear to have been streamlined a bit over prior games, with necessary player actions being more obvious this time around. There is still the occasional issue with precision jumping, but the overall frustration level is kept to a minimum. This isn't a game that challenges you by being obtuse. Instead, the challenge is focused on discovering all of the game's secrets.
Unfortunately, LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean also inherits some bad habits from its predecessors, with the biggest of those being the lack of online co-op support. You would think that after this many games, Traveller's Tales would have figured out how to support two players over Xbox Live, but alas, it is not to be. The game is limited to local co-op, which supports drop-in/drop-out play, and that's a plus.
However, the implementation of split-screen is a definite negative. Rather than both players being on the same screen or even have a fixed split-screen, the game uses a dynamic split-screen. This means that the relative position of the players in the world determines how the screen is split, and that split can move — constantly. At one point, you can be on the left while your partner is on the right. A few minutes later, the situation might be reversed. It's one of those things that sounds great on paper, but is annoying in practice.
Another complaint has to do with enemy identification. When you're fighting against a foreign navy, all is well because the uniforms are usually easy to spot. However, when fighting pirates, things get a little dicey because you can't always easily tell who is allied with whom and who needs to be killed. Thankfully, LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean doesn't feature friendly fire.
Finally there is the friendly AI. When the computer is opposing you, the AI is very good at being aggressive, but when it is controlling your allies, the AI can be somewhat brain-dead. It isn't uncommon for the AI to get in your way, despite your best intentions.
With strong production values, great visuals and an excellent audio score to back it all up, LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean is easily one of the best efforts in the franchise to date. No, it's not perfect, but the game has strong appeal across the board. It's also one of the few cases where a licensed game is better than one of the movies on which it is based.
Editor's Note: Be sure to check out our review of "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" for detailed thoughts on Captain Jack's latest adventure.
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