The latest LEGO video game, LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, takes the now tried and tested formula of basic combat and platforming mixed in with simple puzzle solving, and lays it over the top of the four films starring Johnny Depp (including the yet to be released On Stranger Tides). The result is a typically tongue-in-cheek adventure for all the family to enjoy, but there's little here that we haven't seen in numerous other LEGO titles and a bit more frustration than I'd have liked.
Pirates of the Caribbean features one of the most iconic characters of modern cinema in Captain Jack Sparrow, so it was essential Traveller's Tales nailed his movement and personality. The studio has done an excellent job, with Jack's swagger coming through perfectly and his mannerisms in cutscenes being spot-on. Other characters, such as Elizabeth Swan and Will Turner, are well animated and convey excellent emotion given their brick appearance, but they're nowhere near as fun or stylish as Jack.
Storytelling in the LEGO games is, to put it nicely, quite loose, and that usually works well when combined with a smart sense of humour, but here it's easy to get completely baffled by what's going on. The first film has the easiest plot to follow, but after that the voice and text-less cutscenes can't convey the complicated plot well enough. Someone looks at a picture, makes a funny facial expression and lets out a comical noise, and you're left scratching your head as you try to recount the events of the movies that you might not have seen in years.
The gameplay seen throughout most of LEGO Pirates is more or less what you'll expect if you've played any one of Traveller's Tales' previous outings with the plastic bricks. Depending on your playable character you'll punch, slash or shoot enemies and destructible objects, while pick-ups grant you the ability to operate certain bits of machinery, dig the ground or mend broken bits of equipment. On top of this there's some rudimentary platforming and plenty of 'find the right bit to put on that platform' puzzles.
Being a game for everyone means that nothing here is overly taxing, although the platforming can cause trouble due to the occasional awkwardness in getting your LEGO character in the right place. Puzzles, too, are never brain teasers, but frustration rears its ugly head when the solution isn't abundantly obvious or the game points you in one direction when you need to go in another first. There was also one occasion where a puzzle couldn't be solved due to a glitch, meaning the level had to be restarted, and the game hard locked twice, forcing a restart.
Gameplay sequences tied directly to moments from the films offer the most creativity, such as giant balls you can roll around in and the runaway wheel from the second film - each delivering something more than another fetch puzzle or basic combat. Big moments from the films also serve as impressive encounters, such as the giant Kraken from Dead Man's Chest.
Completing the four movies will take a good 10 hours or more, and linking all these together is a large hub that can be fully explored. If you wish you can play the entire game alongside a friend via split-screen, which divides the screen in a way that lets you identify the direction your co-op partner can be found. There's no online play, but in reality LEGO Pirates is the kind of game you wouldn't play online.
Co-op play for two is encouraged, but specific two-player puzzles don't crop up all that often meaning it's perfectly possible to make do with the AI if you don't have a friend by your side. As is the LEGO norm, levels contain plenty of areas and items that can only be reached by certain characters, so obsessive collectors will want to return to completed stages in Free Play mode in order to mop up everything. Having said that, Pirates suffers slightly from character overload, with many completely unrecognisable to anyone who isn't a die-hard fan of the movies.
Anyone who played the recent LEGO Star Wars III will have noticed that the space sequel looked considerably smarter than its already decent looking predecessors. Pirates doesn't have the same shiny space locations as Star Wars, so suffers slightly as a result, but the lighting is often excellent and the four films provide plenty of variety in locations - although, quite expectedly, boats play a big part. AI characters have a habit of walking into walls and did get stuck trying to get up ladders on more than one occasion, but overall Pirates is a smart looking game with plenty of character.
As far as movie-licensed games go, LEGO Pirates will likely be one of the best this year, and it's also up there with the best LEGO titles released. It's not quite as whiz-bang as LEGO Star Wars III and feels quite formulaic at times, but there's no denying it has charm and widespread appeal. A few irksome bugs and glitches hurt the overall package, but it'd be hard not to get enjoyment out of what Disney and Traveller's Tales have put together.