If there's one thing LEGO games have always been famous for, it's replay value. Playing only every now and then, it took us almost a year to finally get all the gold bricks on LEGO Harry Potter, so we're practically snowed under with LEGO goodness now. With the recently released LEGO Star Wars 3: The Clone Wars being followed just a month later by the incredible-sounding LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, we were beginning to worry - not only about how we'd ever get time to play through the LEGOy goodness, but also about whether the developer, Traveller's Tales, could really put out two, top quality LEGO games within the space of one another.
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The answer is a resounding "yes!" - at least in the case of LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean. While LEGO Star Wars 3 was something of a blip in the series, introducing a number of frustrating new "features" into its levels, LEGO Pirates is as traditional a LEGO game as it's possible to get. With the emphasis firmly back on co-operative adventuring, slapstick comedy, and problem solving, there's more to this than just button mashing - it's a game that it's impossible not to love.
With the brilliant trilogy-of-four-parts (and Disneyland ride) providing the setting for the latest plastic adventure, LEGO Pirates takes in the events of the four films, with five levels based around each, and a hub port for you to explore. And while you may wonder how a game where the character's barely speak a word (unless that word just happens to be "grr", "yarrrr" or "oi!") could possibly tell the story of the films, somehow, it manages it. In fact, the cutscenes are quite possibly one of the best part of the games, if only for all the silly little touches - whether it's a pig in a hat saluting Norrington as he receives his promotion, or simply the way the LEGO Captain Jack runs, everything's faithful to both the films and the LEGO here - and it all meshes together perfectly.
As before, the game's been designed for co-operative fun, with you and a friend exploring the locations from the films, and trying to solve some story-based puzzle. Whether you're breaking Jack out of his cell, transporting a monkey from one end of a swamp to the other, or sneaking up on Captain Barbossa, each level is basically a series of fairly simple puzzles waiting to be solved - although you'll need to think in LEGO logic. It's never simply a case of using a LEGO plank to level Jack out of his cell - first, you'll need to convince a dog to help you (luckily for the kids, he has a giant bone above his head, as a rather obvious hint as to what you've got to do). Then, you press Y to switch to the dog (as you can do for any other character that's part of your team), and dig something up.
There's a good amount of variety to the levels, too, as you're never doing the same thing. While the standard puzzle solving technique of finding the various LEGO bricks that have been scattered around the environment, and then holding B to build a series of ever more elaborate models may sound repetitive, it's not, because the puzzles go a lot further than that. There's always something different to do, whether you're rolling around in a giant bone sphere, firing cannons at the Black Pearl to destroy their hatches, or finding bits of firewood in increasingly more elaborate ways in order to get yourself off a desert island. While the puzzles are never too challenging, you do have to stop and think about how you can reach a certain part of the level, or open a certain door - and which character you'll have to use in order to do it.
As with the previous games, each character has his or her own set of abilities in the game, many of which are borrowed strongly from the films. While the cursed pirates can breath underwater, and sink to the bottom, allowing for all manner of underwater exploration, Will Turner has a throwing axe, which can be used to hit far off objects, females, like Elizabeth, can jump higher than men, and Jack Sparrow has his trusty compass - which, in the game, can be used to lead you to certain items of treasure.
With a vast array of characters, each with their own powers on offer, the levels have all been cunningly designed in order to provide the most replay value. Play through any level for the first time, and you'll only have access to a certain selection of characters - usually two or three, who've been chosen to fit the film's plot - and undoubtedly, you'll go past things you need a different character to use. Whether it's black and red LEGO bricks, which only Blackbeard can use, silver bricks, which can only be destroyed by a character with a big gun (or bombs), or a flowery pattern on the ground, which indicates you'll need a woman to jump high and reach a ledge, each level's packed with secrets and hidden passages that you'll never find on the first time through, meaning those who take time out to explore will be best rewarded.
LEGO games have always been famous for asking you to find ridiculous amounts of collectibles, too, and LEGO Pirates is no different. Each level has ten ship-in-a-bottles to find, which when you've collected them all, form a minikit of a boat. Along with that, there's eight pieces of treasure to be found, which you can locate using Jack's compass. All you have to do is hold B, and select the item you want to go for, and a path will appear on the floor for you to follow. Collect all ten ships-in-bottles, all eight pieces of treasure, or collect enough studs (the game's currency) to fill the bar, and not only will you become a true Pirate, but you'll also be rewarded with a Gold Brick, which in turn can be used in the game's port hub to build your way into other areas...
It's this addictive progression that's a large part of what makes LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean so much fun. There's always something else for you to get, another character to buy, or another part of a level you can access, and it'll take you a while to see it all. Only not quite long enough. If we had one criticism to offer of the game, it's that each film now only has five levels, as opposed to the six we usually get from LEGO games, and there are "only" 85 Gold Bricks. That may seem like a lot, but when you compare it to LEGO Harry Potter, it feels like something of a step down.
Whether that's an issue of churning out too many games in too short a space of time or not is up to you, but one thing that remains clear is that LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean is an excellent game. If you're umming and ahhing between the two recent LEGO games, or are looking for a game to play with your partner, or child, then this is the one for you. You won't find anything better for a long time yet.
Format Reviewed: Xbox 360