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Review: LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean: The Video Game
by Tom Acres

Since 2005, Traveller's Tales' LEGO-themes games have tackled various high-profile film and book series, and have captured the hearts of both casual, young gamers and the gaming-obsessed alike. Can their latest installment stand up to that reputation, though? Tom Acres wonders that question. Reviewed on PlayStation 3.

Since its inception in 2005, with the original LEGO Star Wars game, Traveller's Tales' family-friendly, LEGO-themed action games have gone from strength to strength. Rather than fall into the all-too-predictable trap of resting on one's laurels and simply churning out the same game with the same flaws and no improvements, each subsequent LEGO game has offered far more than simply a new skin to entice gamers back. The UK-based studio have been averaging a game a year thus far, but many feel they may finally be pushing their luck. After the March release of a fourth game based on the Star Wars franchise, Traveller's Tales shipped a new game just two months later: LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean.

Thankfully, there are just enough innovations and advancements made in this latest installment to draw you back in, except if you're perhaps one of those suffering from serious LEGO fatigue.

LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean is structured in just the same way as any LEGO game before it: a hub allows you to run about and unlock characters or just explore, as well as providing access to all the available levels. In the case of Pirates, there are twenty levels spanning all four of the films: Curse of the Black Pearl, Dead Man's Chest, At World's End and On Stranger Tides. Whilst it could easily be argued that the films get progressively worse, the crazier and grander set-pieces from the latter films do make for some enjoyable gaming situations. Duelling atop a giant rolling cage in Dead Man's Chest is commendably well done, as is the Maelstrom set piece from At World's End, and some large scale battles from the latest adventure that I won't spoil here. Of course, all these grandiose moments are interconnected by the same old platforming, puzzle-solving and simple combat that the series has become known for. Nothing is drastically different, but it's difficult to envisage exactly how the structure of these games would be changed. All the elements come together nicely, and fans wouldn't have it any other way.

The twenty levels on offer will probably be enough for around ten hours of enjoyment on your first playthrough, but one of the big draws of the LEGO series has always been replaying levels with different characters to collect studs, unlock new bonuses and - of course - scurry after those delicious Xbox 360 achievements and PlayStation 3 trophies. The formula of playing through the levels, collecting studs, buying characters, unlocking cheat codes and then replaying levels again still works. Smashing everything in sight to hoard more of the game's currency has a strangely addictive quality to it, as all the prior games also have. Everything that has made these games enjoyable, and stopped them from becoming stale despite their recycled mechanics, are here. There aren't many surprises to be had in that sense.

Recycled structures and predictable design might become a problem if the gameplay wasn't being continuously improved and refined. Whilst the mix of platforming, puzzles and combat is still here, each aspect has been markedly improved in each game, and the same holds true here. Platforming still feels a little loose, but the way the levels are designed means that the consequences of this aren't felt quite so dramatically as in prior games. Platforms are easier to jump to, swinging on poles is a breeze, and climbing and shimmying along ledges is also handled well.

The puzzles are probably some of the best in the series so far; there's a fair amount of standing on buttons and pulling levers, as you'd expect, but there are also some more creative sections on offer, such as rearranging and directing mirrors to direct beams of sunlight. Any potential frustration caused by these puzzles has been removed with the addition of handy hints and prompts to give you an idea of what you ought to be focussing on and where exactly you need to be. Plenty of 'what do I do now?' moments have plagued the LEGO videogame franchise for a number of years now, so it's nice to see Traveller's Tales take steps towards addressing that issue. Experience breeds quality, and that's certainly the case here.

What surprised me the most about the refinements to the overall gameplay was the combat, which is now genuinely quite thrilling. Sword duelling is fun to execute, with blocks now a possibility, and the fights seem far better choreographed than in prior games, in which random pushing of the attack button without any real brain power was the one and only route to success. Other items can also be incorporated into the mêlée combat, with sidearms like spades and rum bottles being used to turn the tide of a battle in your favour. As with all the past LEGO games, different characters make use of different weapons, so whilst many of the characters will be taking on the enemy with swords, there's also a fair opportunity to wield firearms and bombs to take down foes.

As always, there is a ridiculous number of characters to unlock, and the rich lore and wide variety of the wacky individuals from the film series lends itself very well to the LEGO treatment. The films themselves are already pretty ridiculous by their nature, so Jack Sparrow and his motley crew fit right into the ridiculous cinematic style that Traveller's Tales have polished to near-perfection since 2005. As ever, there is a tonne of lovely little touches spread throughout the game, like LEGO Sparrow's fantastic walk animation, and the way the cursed crew of the Black Pearl seamlessly turn into skeletons when they step into moonlight. The game does a great job of recreating the feel of the movies, all whilst providing plenty of laughs along the way, thanks to the brilliant pantomime style that the series is famous for.

The LEGO games have always been better enjoyed with a friend, and whilst that still holds true with LEGO Pirates, this is one area where Traveller's Tales' attempts to improve the system haven't quite hit the mark. The dynamic split-screen element that was introduced in last year's LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is still here, and whilst it looks great on paper, in practice it can cause some frustrations. When you and your buddy are a fair distance apart and trying to accomplish different sections of a level, it works fantastically well, but when you're still relatively close together and trying to attempt a tricky platforming section, it can all go pear-shaped rather quickly. For me, the split-screen simply comes into effect far too quickly, resulting in situations where the screen splits even when two players are still quite close together. The way this occurs is quite jarring and more than a little off-putting. It's commendable to see the developers try to improve the system - and, as I said, it seems like a great idea in theory - so we'll see how the system can be improved further in future titles.

One aspect that I'm not sure can be improved much more are the visuals. I promise you that I don't exaggerate when I say that this is a simply stunning game. It's always been great to see LEGO Jedi or wizards running around, and the look-and-feel of the movies is captured just as well in LEGO Pirates as it was in LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Harry Potter and every other LEGO-franchise game before. But even on a technical level, this new title is fantastic to look at. Graphical elements like high-contrast lighting, reflections, motion blur and depth of field are all used to fantastic effect. Animation on the characters is superb, the LEGO bricks are terrifically modelled and the realistic environments not only do a great job of contrasting with the LEGO theme, but also look beautiful in their own right. This is not just a great-looking game by LEGO standards: this is a great looking game by any standards.

As you'd expect, the visual presentation is supplemented by an excellent audio presentation. Hans Zimmer's terrific musical score is present and accounted for, with plenty of other sound effects ripped straight from the films. Grumbles and other audio exclamations from the characters are fantastically well done, working brilliantly in conjunction with the animations to help deliver the hilarious cutscenes.

Like I said at the start, it could be easy for Traveller's Tales to rest on their laurels: these games are guaranteed to make money and there's little motivation for Traveller's Tales to really make effort to improve them each time, but the way in which LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean is so much better than March's LEGO Star Wars III shows just how much work goes into each of these games. From the visuals right down to the level design, every aspect of these games improve with each subsequent entry in the series, and that trend isn't likely to end with LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean. It may well be a kids' game at its core, and there's still room for improvement in terms of gameplay and variety of tasks, but it's a damn good kids' game. And it's still one that any gamer who has ever enjoyed the LEGO series will be able to play through, with a huge grin on their face.

8/10 [?]

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- Tom Acres

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