LEGO Harry Potter is a game that cements our belief that when it comes to games, the media have got it entirely wrong. While Medal of Honour turns heads, and Grand Theft Auto pops up in the headlines all the time, you'll never hear a story about LEGO Harry Potter, because, well, it'd be impossible to assign it to any bad news story. And if anything, that's almost a shame, because it means all those stuffy media types, who think games are the most evil things since Furbies took control of our children, can cast their stereotypes from the ivory towers, and worry every parent across the land that games are evil, addictive, horrible things, without any positive points at all. But if you were to sit anyone down with LEGO Harry Potter, within seconds, they'd see the error of their ways, as LEGO Harry Potter is not only the best LEGO game so far, but it's also one of the finest games out there.
Over the past few instalments, the LEGO games have polished their gameplay to perfection, but while LEGO Harry Potter follows the formula of the other games, this time, things are a bit different.
Family friendly gaming with an emphasis on fun, teamwork and problem solving, in LEGO Harry Potter, you and a friend can take control of Harry, Hermione, Ron, or any one of over 100 other characters (including Hagrid's dog Fang, and Hermione's cat, Crookshanks!), inside the magical, if slightly more plasticy world of Hogwarts, as you follow the story from the first book, all the way up to the Goblet of Fire. Where other LEGO games limited you to going from level to level, in LEGO Harry Potter, you're practically free to roam Hogwarts and the surrounding area as you see fit, going to lessons to learn new spells, exploring the famous school to find hidden areas (and the game's many collectibles), or strolling down Diagon Alley to buy new spells, and characters for you to play with. As you may imagine, with so many secrets to be found and passages to be uncovered, there's plenty to do - and that's without taking into account the proper levels, which take you through the story of the books - from the Quidditch matches, to battling Voldemort, solving Tom Riddle's diary, and taking on the Triwizard tournament.
The levels themselves are a great mix of platforming and puzzle solving, and again, everything benefits from the star power tag team of magic and LEGO. Whether you're trying to put bricks together, Tetris style, to form a LEGO staircase, searching an area to find the ingredients for a polyjuice potion, or trying to figure out how to get the illusive red bricks, which are hidden in every level, there's always something for you to be looking for. Each character has a different set of abilities, and you'll need to switch between the characters you're given to finish a level - or at least, to finish it well. In any one level, you may need to get your friend to lift up a platform, which you jump onto as Hagrid, to pull a huge chains that moves heavy objects, before switching to Fang to dig a hole, and uncover some hidden LEGO bricks, which you'll then magic together with Harry to reach a previously inaccessible area.
Each of the levels are incredibly heavy on exploration, puzzling, and teamwork - and through trial and error, and working with your friend, you'll uncover the game's secrets. It's all about switching between characters, and making the most of their abilities - and, because certain parts of the level are inaccessible on your first play through, you'll need to come back when you've unlocked more characters or spells, and replay them all, if you want to finish the game 100%. And you will, because you'll have so much fun doing it.
Everything's dosed in the trademark LEGO humour, which is bound to raise a smile amongst adults and children alike. You can't help but crack a smile or snigger at the slapstick comedy, and although it rarely descends into full on belly laughs, the game's humour's one of its most appealing points. It's rare a game makes you laugh (at least, deliberately), yet somehow LEGO Harry Potter manages it time and time again.
The levels and cutscenes are all stuffed to the brim with references and details for Potter fans to enjoy, but even if you've never really paid that much attention to the young wizard (like myself), you'll never really feel out of your depth here. While the odd puzzle may require knowledge of the story to realise what you've got to do, everything's solvable with a little intuition - although if you didn't follow the story before, you probably won't be any the wiser when you've finished!
All in all, LEGO Harry Potter takes an established formula, tweaks the recipie slightly, and succeeds where LEGO Indiana Jones 2 failed. It's stuffed to the brim with collectibles (with some 200 gold bricks waiting as a reward for finding them), retains the series co-op gameplay, and makes everything all the better by giving you more freedom to explore Hogwarts as and when you see fit.
It's the sort of game you'll pick up and never want to stop playing, and a game with enough stuff in it, that you'll still be coming back to it in six month's time. Perfect for family, adults, and children alike - and quite possibly the best game this year so far.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360