Review | 6/30/2010 at 4:55 AM

LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 Co-op Review

We’ve already had Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and even Rockband; so many people thought that the LEGO based family friendly games had run out of steam (or plastic).  Despite this, when the announcement was made that the next game would be based on the first four Harry Potter films (and to a smaller extent the books), interest was piqued once more.  I have played and completed all the LEGO games and have found them great entertainment and easily accessible for my casual gaming partner.  The recent LEGO Indiana Jones 2 was able to reinvigorate the franchise with its open hub worlds and the ability for the co-op players to explore separate parts of the level.  Could Harry continue this upward trend, or would the series start to grow stale once more?

Out of all the games that I play, the LEGO based franchise is the one that my partner likes best.  LEGO Harry Potter continues the same gameplay that made the previous releases so easy to pick up and play for both hardened and casual gamers alike, but with some tweaking along the way.  In story mode you mostly play as Harry, Ron and Hermione, with a few cameos from the rest of the cast.  You work your way through a series of levels themed around the memorable sections of films 1-4.  Once again Traveller’s Tales have managed to capture the magic of LEGO and the film franchise they are paying homage to.  The silent cutscenes that play throughout the story mode are brilliantly canny and are able to both tell the well known story of Harry Potter, but also give it an amusing twist.

At its core the game is very similar to all the LEGO experience before it.  You work together to smash, crash and build your way across a series of levels collecting numerous items in the form of gold bricks, new characters or cheats.  Traveller’s Tales have a habit of building on their previous game and not taking anything away.  This may sound like a good thing, but LEGO Harry Potter is the iteration in which the world of Danish building blocks starts to get a little confusing, especially for younger players.

Co-op pals, miles apart?

LEGO Indiana Jones 2 introduced a couple of innovations that changed the way the LEGO games worked.  Previously the players would jump in and out of a level from a single hub world and throughout the game they would have to stay on the same screen.  This meant that co-op pals would often find themselves trying to run in opposite directions and failing.  In Indy 2 you could now separate within a level and Traveller’s Tales gave the players a huge world in which to escape one another.  It was liberating, but in hindsight it altered the co-op dynamic.  No longer were there many puzzles that required two players to complete e.g. one person holds down a switch to allow another player to pass. 

This error has been compounded in LEGO Harry Potter and at times it feels like you are playing two separate games on the same screen.  Each player will miss out on so much of the funny Easter eggs and magic of the game because they are too far away from the action – a shame.  The levels themselves are a mixture of those that allow the new co-op splitscreen feature and those that revert to the older style of keeping both players together.  This is all down to the confines of Hogwarts and the fact that most levels take place in doors.  With so much set dressing in these enclosed spaces you often feel cramped and too much can happen at once. The outdoor sections are not as liberating as in LEGO Indy 2 with few vehicle levels in the story mode and no playable Quidditch to be had.  Also of note is that only player one will receive achievements/trophies; a little strange for a game so geared towards a co-op experience.

Despite its issues Harry Potter is the most generous of the LEGO games yet when it comes to activities – story mode, free play, bonus levels and a level designer are all included.  To get 100% in the game will take a long time.  This is great news, but as you boot up the game it can be a little daunting.  For the first time in a while I was forced to open up the gaming manual to find the different areas such as where to buy characters and cheats.  They are all hidden away in a LEGO version of Diagon Alley, which is brilliantly realized, but confusing to someone who is dropped into the world.  Hogwarts is also created in great detail, but when you are forced to retrace your steps countless times in the story mode it can get tiresome.  The ghost of Nearly Headless Nick is used to guide the players to their next destination, without him the game would be almost impossible to traverse.

This confusion is found throughout the game and it is probably down to the fact that it is a Harry Potter game.  In Star Wars, Indy and Batman you were able to play as distinct class types e.g. a small character, a woman who can jump high or a man with a whip.  You and your co-op partner knew which type of person could do what puzzle.  In LEGO Harry Potter they have to stick to the three main characters and give them nearly all the abilities.  These come in the form of magic spells and you can carry up to eight of them.  I liked the fact that you unlocked them slowly over the four films, but it was very confusing having to cycle through 8 similar looking spells to discover which one to use.  I can imagine this will prove very difficult for children.   

By giving the gamer more with each LEGO game Traveller’s Tales are on the cusp of losing the accessibility and simple fun that made the games such family favorites.  People don’t want to be overly challenged by a LEGO game, but a fiddly magic system and confused level design will do just this.  I still enjoyed the game as Traveller’s Tales are masters at taking established IPs and producing a fun experience.  The core of what has made all their games entertaining is still apparent; evocative set design, fundamental 2 player co-op throughout, and wonderful cutscenes.  On the 360 and PS3 there are few family orientated co-op experiences that can beat the LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 and for Potter fans this is a must.  I would argue that LEGO Indiana Jones 2 has been the best balance yet of co-op and open gameplay, but Harry is still worth playing for families or more casual gamers.