It has been many years, an entire console generation, since the LEGO franchise was born. The formula for the series is well established at this point: simple fighting and puzzles, moderate platforming, and environments that can be reduced to LEGO bits. As more and more properties are adapted into plastic brick form, the formula is tweaked, and new ideas are tried out. LEGO Harry Potter added potions and magic. LEGO Star Wars III brought RTS levels. With the latest iteration of the franchise, though, Traveler's Tales hasn't emphasized new features so much as refining the core experience.
One of the most noticeable improvements in LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean is the graphics. It is easily the best looking LEGO title to date. Environments in previous games had a plastic sheen, which was appropriate. But in LEGO Pirates, the backgrounds are more realistically rendered. The beaches, docks, and especially the various ships and boats you'll encounter are highly detailed and gorgeous to look at. It's good to see such attention to environments in a series that hasn't been known for great graphics.
The LEGO characters themselves are the real stars of the show. The stubby-legged, plasticized versions of the Pirates characters are as adorable as ever. I was really looking forward to seeing how Jack Sparrow, one of the best characters in recent cinema, was adapted in LEGO form. Traveler's Tales absolutely nailed it. All of the eccentricities of Johnny Depp's portrayal are here, from the roguish grin to the swaggering walk. The other characters are well-realized, too, but LEGO Jack Sparrow is absolutely perfect.
LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean uses the now-familiar hub world system, which is unlocked after playing through the first level. From here, any of the four stories, including that of the most recent film, On Stranger Tides, can be selected. Once levels are played through in Story Mode, they become available for Free Play. Considering four different movies worth of levels are included, each of which can be replayed to find hidden secrets, LEGO Pirates is one of the biggest LEGO games from a content standpoint.
Besides the tremendous amount of destructible LEGO objects that can be whacked into a shower of bits, the light puzzle elements return. Generally speaking, the puzzles are easy and the game points you in the right direction. Adult gamers may find them a bit tedious, but the intended audience, kids, will certainly not mind. From time to time, a puzzle comes along that is a bit more difficult, but these are few and far between.
In contrast to the simplistic puzzles, the platforming sections are at times very frustrating. It's not so much that they are too difficult, but more that the quirky camera angle and very loose control mechanics combine to make things far tougher than they should be. This has been a drawback to the LEGO series for a long time, and even in this latest game, these issues remain. Perhaps more frustrating are the bugs that crop up, ranging from merely frustrating (getting stuck in the environment) to rage-inducing (total lock-ups or drowning death loops). It really is a shame that such a beloved series is still buggy at all so many iterations later.
The cooperative elements of LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean are pretty much what you'd expect. The controversial split-screen local co-op has returned, allowing two co-op buddies to wander far, far away from each other through the at-times large levels. I am of mixed feelings about the split, which often spins at a dizzying rate. More options are great, but you lose the sense of teamwork when you are so far removed from your partner. Online co-op, sadly, is missing once again. This is something fans have been begging for for years, and the continued omission is perplexing.
Overall, LEGO Pirates is a solid game, and pretty much exactly what you'd expect. The series continues to be popular, and for good reason; however, there are several weaknesses in the formula that have never really been addressed. LEGO Pirates is still enjoyable, though, and is one of the better LEGO games in the series, especially with that rascally Captain Sparrow aboard.