Review: 'LEGO Harry Potter' vastly improves a stale formula
|LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4|
GOOD: open exploration and fun spellcasting
BAD: won't make sense to a newbie
FINAL: You WANT this game.
Courtesy Warner Bros. Entertainment
While once fresh and shocking ("They made a LEGO game based on Star Wars?!?"), the LEGO franchise has bottomed out in recent years. The cookie cutter releases were becoming predictable and tedious, with the same old bugs showing up in game after game. Tarnished with camera issues, multi-player glitches and a creaky presentation, the LEGO formula was stale. Fortunately, Harry Potter has arrived to work his magic.
Arriving ahead of the "Deathly Hallows" movie curve, "LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4" combines the progressively eerie Potterverse with the consistently adorable world of LEGO. The game follows the storylines of the first four movies. I'd charitably say it is based on the original novels, but the game clearly takes its visual cues from the films. With a little imagination, you can even see actor likenesses on those yellow LEGO mini-figure heads.
The biggest advancement is the use of Hogwarts as a massive hub world. Not simply limited to a few rooms that act as menus to enter the game's levels, the castle allows for unfettered frivolous exploration. Packed with secrets to unlock and fellow students to pester, this Hogwarts is more fun than the past seven Harry Potter video games combined. Since the game trickles out spells and abilities while you work through the story, there's always something new to try out and plenty of reasons to replay completed levels. It is an enjoyable little grind.
"LEGO Harry Potter" features over 150 playable characters, but don't bother feeling overwhelmed by that number. A sizable portion of those choices simply serve as costume changes for the same characters, such as Ballgown Hermione and Pyjama Ron. Of course, it is pleasant fan service that tertiary names like Hannah Abbott and Madam Pince are included on the roster.
These LEGO games have always been about separating the characters among different classes, to be used to unlock special caste-specific secret areas. Back in "LEGO Star Wars," you had to be one of the Bounty Hunters in order to make it through a door locked with Boba Fett's image, for example. In "LEGO Batman," only a poison-proof villain character could cross the puddles of toxic green slime. While "LEGO Harry Potter" still has some class distinctions (most notably divided among the four Hogwarts Houses), most of the game's puzzles unlock through a series of book-accurate spells.
Lumos makes Harry's wand grow and is used to destroy light-fearing plants. Wingardium Leviosa levitates objects. Expecto Patronum is the only way to best the game's fearsome Dementors. In a stroke of genius, when you target an object with your wand, the game always knows the proper spell to use. So while you can manually select between the spells, it is far easier to just trust the system. This is also friendlier for younger players. Although, it must be noted that players must make it through the four-part storyline to unlock all the spell types.
Although fans can attest to how the Harry Potter books slowly grow darker, these adventures are a good fit with the cute LEGO styling. Many of the puzzles that must be solved are downright silly; the game glosses over most of the serious aspects of the series. In fact, the game steamrolls through the four books at such a breakneck pace that it will make very little sense to a non-fan. Characters come and go with no explanation, turning the major plot points into a greatest hits collection.
"LEGO Harry Potter" tweaks the split screen system introduced in "LEGO Indiana Jones 2," making it much easier for two players to play at the same time. It is fascinating to see in action, because the divide is not locked into place as in most split screen games. It rotates in real time, always seeking the best way to present the views of both players. While this feature is certainly preferable to the half-baked, co-operative multi-player found in previous LEGO games, the constantly flowing and adjusting split screen border can be disconcerting in action.
Although woefully underexplained, "LEGO Harry Potter" contains a building mode where gamers can make their own levels to explore.
As a brand name, the reliably popular Harry Potter is a great magnet for getting people back to a much improved LEGO game. Both franchises are well-served by "LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4." No doubt "Years 5-7" is far enough along to hit store shelves sometime before the high fades.
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