We were given a great tip the other day. Wrap all of your old, discolored LEGO bricks up in a pillowcase, make sure you tie a knot in it and then whack it all in the washing machine. Sit tight for 10 minutes, take it out and your grubby LEGO bits will be as good as new! Despite our age, LEGO still hasn’t lost its appeal over the years and we still think that sitting in your bedroom with a pile of LEGO trying to recreate the likes of The Millennium Falcon is infinitely more fun and rewarding than playing a video game based on the insanely popular brick building game.
Nevertheless, you’ve got to hand it to Traveler’s Tales. The British Software House has taken a franchise that really shouldn’t have worked as a video game and has paired it with some of the most legendary big screen franchises. With a touch of creativity and sense of humor it has done a stupendous job at producing games that are simple enough for children to enjoy yet still appeal to adults and that big kid inside us all.
LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is yet another fine example of the work that Traveller’s Tales has done with the LEGO series of games. Though it uses the same blueprint as the last couple of titles (this is essentially just more of the same brick-smashing antics) it shows a great understanding of the subject matter to deliver a game that still crackles with that creative spark and makes you warm to it with its tongue-in-cheek humor.
Each of the main events from the first four books are featured in the story campaign. From the fight against the troll in the bathroom in The Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone to the TriWizard Tournament in Goblet Of Fire, all are playable set-pieces. In between bouts of Potter’s heroic antics, you’ll largely be smashing objects made of LEGO to collect studs to spend on spells and tokens, brewing various potions and searching around Hogwarts and the surrounding areas as you build objects, solve environment-based puzzles and search for well-hidden collectibles on your way to, hopefully, defeating “You Know Who.”
The main hub this time around is Diagon Alley, which has numerous familiar places to visit that add some extra replay value to the main storyline. Here you can unlock Character Tokens and pimp them with a nifty little customization tool, or you can access the LEGO builder in Gringott’s Bank and play bonus areas with Gold the bricks that you collect. Or you can simply access Free Roam mode and play through unlocked levels at your own pace, or purchase new spells with your hard-earned studs.
Following the main storyline, you travel around Hogwarts and surrounding areas such as Hogsmeade smashing up bricks with your range of magical spells that have been learned during lessons, taught by the likes of Snape and LockHart, or purchased from Wiseacre’s Wizarding equipment in Diagon Alley. You’ll be making and guzzling potions such as PolyJuice that allows you to go in disguise as another character, or using your invisibility cloak to slip past prefects and access restricted sections where, predictably, you’ll be smashing up more objects, working out how to get the next area by moving bricks around and creating objects with a swish of your wand and a yell of "Wingardium Leviosa."
If you’ve never watched any Harry Potter films or read any of J.K. Rowling’s books the story will make little sense as the LEGO pieces don’t speak English and there’s no subtitles to fill you in. Instead the LEGO characters mumble unintelligibly, but amusingly, given subtle hints as to their mood. Traveller’s Tales has done a great job at capturing the individual character’s personalities in the game through sound, well produced cut-scenes and a few funny moments in which the studio has taken themes from the film and used its own creativity to give a slightly different take on them.
The developer hasn’t shunned on the amount of playable characters in the game either, cramming in approximately 167 in total, ranging from a goblin at Gringott’s to head honcho, Albus Dumbledore. Each character has specific strengths and weaknesses and often you’ll find yourself in an area with three of four characters, having to switch between them to use their skills. You might, for example, switch to Ron and summon Scabbers the rat to run up a drainpipe, before using Harry to cast his Immobilus spell at some pesky pixies, before using Fang to dig in the ground to unearth a tree that then topples over giving you a safe passage across the ravine.
The levels are well designed, in a way that makes you have to switch characters to utilize their various powers. Hagrid, for example, has the bulk behind him to pull heavy chains (though Harry can as well later in the game when he drinks a magical potion) and you’ll often be stuck in sections until you can work out that you need his strength to move. Despite many of the environment-based puzzles being relatively simple to solve (certainly for adults,) there’s a few tricky and logically challenging ones to get past too and it’s still a lot of fun creating LEGO structures and using the array of characters and their skills to move through each chapter.
That fun is doubled when you join up with a friend in co-op mode, which first featured in Lego Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure Continues. It’s a shame that co-op play doesn’t extend to the online arena, but its inclusion is certainly a welcome one. As a solo experience, we were occasionally frustrated with the way our A.I. teammates didn’t always do what we wanted them to. At one point, for example, one of you needs to stand on a platform while another casts Wingardium Leviosa on it in order to make it rise to the next platform. Our A.I. teammate did eventually do what he was supposed to do, but playing with computer controlled players doesn’t replace having a human player by your side who can consistently make intelligent decisions. It’s fair to say that LEGO Harry Potter is much more fun with friends in split-screen mode.
There’s an infinite amount of things to do, and to complete LEGO Harry Potter 100% will take even the most hardened game a great deal of investment. Disappointingly for some, however, is that you can generally get away with just waving your wand around at random items and moving through your spell tree when your stuck in the hope that you’ll randomly construct an object or trigger something that will help you gain a Hogwart’s Crest or a Gold Brick perhaps. Hogwarts and the surrounding areas are certainly fun places to explore, and there are some impressive moments to look forward to, but those expecting to see the LEGO series evolve here may be somewhat disappointed.
We’re not remotely disappointed though. The LEGO franchise was perfectly fine how it was and LEGO Harry Potter offers an explosion of color and all the addictiveness of collecting studs set against the appealing backdrop of the Potter universe, complete with some fine set-pieces and magical moments. Is it the best LEGO game so far? Well, that’s really going to depend on whether you like Harry Potter or not and just how big a fan you are. We’re fans of Star Wars, Batman, Indiana Jones and Harry Potter and if we had to vote right now for our favorite LEGO game/movie-tie in…Harry Potter wins!