LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean Review
I have no idea how Traveler's Tales does it, but they keep making fantastic games even while going way off-script on some of pop- and nerd-culture's most beloved franchises. They release two or three games every year, and each time they add just enough new content - or rework the gameplay just enough - to keep things fresh. It's the same with the just-released LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, where you take control of the LEGO-ized version of Jack Sparrow, Will Turner, and a massive cast of major and minor characters through the most memorable scenes of all four Pirates of the Caribbean movies (including the upcoming fourth one).
All of the standard LEGO game trappings are here: no voice acting, wild gesticulations that tell the story, and lots of new, irreverent gimmicks and gags to keep even the darkest of scenes relatively light-hearted. TT has done a great job capturing the essence of Jack Sparrow here, with little grunts and word-less sounds that, when combined with the limited amount of facial features that you could paint onto a LEGO figure's head, actually make a pretty good analog of Johnny Depp's character. The rest of the cast hasn't gotten quite as much attention, but at least they got the most important one down perfectly.
As is with previous games in the series, you'll run around LEGO-ized scenes from the movies, solving puzzles and getting into a bit of easy sword-fighting action, collecting LEGO studs in order to unlock new characters and secrets. Every stage - well, nearly every room you enter - includes secret things you can do for mini-kits and gold bricks, which lead to even more unlocked stuff. Many of these visual puzzles are well-hidden, so you probably shouldn't expect your seven-year-old kid to 100% the game in the first week or two, but TT has done a solid job of making sure that progress comes quickly as long as you can solve the one major puzzle in each area you discover. Sometimes it's not immediately obvious what to do in some rooms, but I never managed to get stuck for very long. (Plus, there's always the internet.)
What makes these games so great is the drop in/out cooperative play, allowing two players to work together to find solutions, or at least have one person working on the main puzzle and one working on an optional goal. Sometimes the split-screen mode and the camera can be a little disorienting, and you're not really free to roam when playing together, as each room or area is split off from the next (fortunately, not with loading screens) and it's kind of annoying to be exploring or trying to figure out a puzzle, only to have your buddy instantly pull you out of what you're doing and drag you to the next room when he or she accidentally gets too close to a doorway.
But once you start communicating and wrap your heads around each other's playstyle, this LEGO Pirates becomes a real joy to play, and the graphical upgrade that we're seeing in TT's latest games makes everything look crisp and sharp. At first I wasn't sure that the real-world Caribbean settings (which are not LEGO-ized) would work well with the stylized actors and items, but after only a little while with the game, I found it to be not only charming, but also helpful since you can't interact with items that aren't made of LEGO. It's a good way to keep you on track to search in places that the developers intend.
And there's quite a bit of searching to do, because if you want half a chance of unlocking all of this game's stages, characters, and more, you'll really need to go back through the game over and over again, finding more stuff and unlocking things as you go. TT has gone out of their way to hide many important (but optional) goals, but really that's just for the completionists; if you just want to play it through one time, enjoy it, and call it a day, then there's plenty to like here - especially if you're playing it together with someone else.
With LEGO Pirates, Traveler's Tales didn't really intend to create a pitch-perfect reproduction of the tone and feel of the movies, but even in their crazy cartoon style, you might be surprised at just how much they got right. Adventure gaming fans now have plenty of stuff to choose from, especially with TellTale and Double Fine making pure gold on a regular basis, but I think that the LEGO games are a great choice too, and Pirates might possibly be their best one yet.