TT Games has been taking Lego out of the toybox and putting it on game platforms since the mid-noughties, and considering how prevalent their signature on family-friendly content has been for the last half-decade, a Pirates game based on the Disney films seems like an obvious choice. This is the first Lego title published under Disney's watch, after years of bouncing between Warner Brothers and LucasArts and cranking out everything from Batman to Lego Rock Band.
The upcoming Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is slated for the big screen in 2011, but the game focuses on the entire Pirates opus for its references, following the most significant parts of the storyline that takes place throughout The Curse of the Black Pearl and the three films that follow. You'll have access to over 70 of the films' characters, many with specific abilities that will lend themselves to certain puzzles. Davey Jones, the Cthulhu-faced captain of the Flying Dutchman, can pass through the deck and to other areas on his ship. Jack can use his compass - the one you'll recognise from Curse of the Black Pearl - to point him in the direction of "what he desires": treasures and novelty objects that will be hidden around the map. Some of the visual references are included in the game as simple gags, but it's surprising what those touches add to the world. One look at the walking animation of Jack Sparrow - his trademark camp stumble - and you instantly know the studio isn't going to simply phone this one in.
The short demo I had on 3DS differs slightly from the console experience. Specifically, combat has its own flavour on handheld thanks to Street Pass mode which allows for random battles with other players who have activated the mode. This same mode lets you unlock new characters that can be used in the main story mode. The game also incorporates a new fighting system that I tried out in a short scene between Will and Jack - another reference from the first film. It's essentially a Bop It formula of combat: you're shown the buttons to press and hit them in the same order. Easy enough but oddly satisfying even in its simplicity.
Impressively, even in that one short sequence the game tipped its hat to the same scene in the film multiple times. Everything from the donkey that loiters around in the background to makeshift see-saw that Will and Jack make use of for a key part of the fight is used as puzzle elements in the game. Scaling walls is an integral part of the platforming in Lego Pirates, and climbing after Jack or to higher platforms to collect gems is one of the focal points of the level.
On the console demo I finally saw elements from films beyond the first of the series. This time Jack is captured by the natives, a la Dead Man's Chest, and is caged inside a giant wheel. The result is a level that has you manoeuvre down the valley, avoiding traps and hitting pressure pads to proceed through the jungle. Later on we were given a quick look at a level elsewhere on the map, which showed how water can affect the puzzles - a level, we're told, that gestures at the scenes of lost souls marching along the bottom of the ocean. Unlike those lost souls, the character we watched is a bit more precious: your health meter turns blue, giving you a certain amount of time before you'll need to get air. There wasn't much to be seen beyond that, but its underwater system is at least a hint at some of the possible puzzles to come.
After half a decade's worth of Lego games from Traveller's Tales and a dozen titles to their name does it offer much more than we've seen in the franchise's earlier games? It's still incredibly early days. But the brief demo showed a Lego game that's recreated the pulp, Boy's Adventure feel of the Pirates of the Caribbean films in full.
LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean: The Video Game will hit all leading platforms in May.