Hearing that a new LEGO game is out is a lot like hearing that the McRib is back. You’re confused for a second, then you resolve that you don’t care anymore… maybe even staying away for your own good. I had similar thoughts when kicking up LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean for the first time, but within minutes it’s impossible to deny. Just like the McRib, LEGO Pirates makes you sit back, satisfied, and think “they’ve done it again.”
Pirate’s game structure closely follows the template laid out in previous LEGO games with a few tweaks here and there to make the experience smoother. The game follows the movie franchise’s four films (Yep, On Stranger Tides is included) with five levels each. These levels offer goofy and challenge-free platforming that manage to work in some impressive variety. Some levels are based around hub-based collection (collecting crew members or pieces of eight), while others (like the ship to ship battles) are more combat focused.
Merely completing the levels is so easy that anyone, regardless of skill level, can knock through them in one sitting. As with previous LEGO titles, the real meat comes in obsessively collecting every gold brick, red hat, and LEGO bit (the game’s currency) tucked into the levels. This process is easier in Pirates than previous games, thanks to certain gameplay additions. Now, when replaying a previously cleared level in Free Play you can switch to any unlocked character from the game’s entire roster–necessary because you must employ their different skills to explore the levels fully. On top of that, the game’s main protagonist Jack Sparrow has a compass that directs you to many of a level’s secrets. You still have to figure out how to retrieve them once located, so it’s far from an autopilot.
Grinding through the game’s content can be satisfying alone, but Pirates exhibits the same co-op magic that have made the LEGO series a staple of family game time. Though the game is couch co-op exclusively, it uses the same dynamic split-screen introduced in LEGO Harry Potter; if you separate from your partner, the screen will automatically divide at an angle perpendicular to your separation. This means you can explore at your whim without trapping your buddy in a corner or dragging him into a pit.
Though killing your partner over and over again is a time-honored co-op tradition, Pirates includes plenty of constructive activities. Many puzzles require active participation from both players to proceed. When playing alone, the AI capably participates in these puzzles, but working through them with another human is more satisfying. Thanks to button prompts and constant direction, solving these puzzles require nothing more than minor experimentation, but that means the game is 100% significant other/little nephew safe.
Personally, I’m a big proponent of couch co-op for games like this, but it’s still a bummer for those with friends in other states. As for achievements and trophies, the text description on the awards now separate those that are only tied to the first player and those that can be awarded to the co-op partner as well. It’s helpful, but still short of a full, elegant solution.
So far, this review is what you could expect of the series, but check this out: LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean has extremely good graphics. I don’t blame you if it’s hard to wrap your head around that–we are talking about cute little dudes made out of plastic, after all. However, Pirates combines LEGO props with photo-real environments–a direction that should be visually jarring but oddly isn’t.
This approach provides the best of both worlds. The LEGO characters are animated extremely well–LEGO Jack Sparrow’s pirate swagger is the stuff of legend, and when you attack an enemy, an animated sword fight plays out that roughly matches what you always imagined as a kid when you smashed the bricks together while making fight noises. This is all against the backdrop of incredibly detailed, realistic backgrounds. Rather than detract from visual unity, the split actually helps gameplay. You can interact to some degree with anything made of LEGO, meaning you can smash it for bits or puzzle components. This means that puzzle features don’t blend into the background, and prevents you from getting stuck or lost.
The greatest part about Pirates’ sound is the complete Pirates of the Caribbean score. Each level in the game is musically faithful to its counterpart in the movie, so much so that a passerby could tell that I was in Tortuga without even looking at the screen. The main Pirates theme kicks up during most fights, which almost approaches musical saturation in some levels. Luckily that song is so damn good it doesn’t become annoying, though it approaches that line.
Other sound effects include the plastic clicks of LEGO pieces bouncing around and the expressive grunts of the LEGO characters themselves. These work extremely well; this is weird to say, but LEGO Jack Sparrow’s grunts sound dead-on. Though the stories of the movies are retold well enough with nothing but pantomimes and grunts, you’re likely to be lost if you haven’t seen the movies before.
While previous LEGO games suffered from occasional control hitches, Pirates is refined to the point of near-perfection. Making pinpoint jumps can be a little touchy given how blocky the characters are, but it’s much better than in previous games. Switching characters and using character-specific abilities is much easier now; these actions are mostly accessed through radial menus with large graphics, making it easy to identify what you want.
With loads of unlockables, downright adorable presentation, and solid co-op gameplay, it’s extremely difficult to think of a person that wouldn’t enjoy LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean. Maybe if you hate the movies, hate LEGO games, or just plain hate happiness, you shouldn’t give this game a chance. However, if you’ve ever enjoyed a LEGO game, this one features enough improvements on the formula that Pirates deserves your attention.