Traveller's Tales' Lego action series may have been skirting the risk of oversaturation for a while now, but it's hard to fault the company's prodigious output when it keeps upping its own quality bar. Lego Pirates of the Caribbean is already the second Lego game in the first five months of this year, so it's no surprise how closely it hews to the specific formula these games have been using since the very beginning. But Pirates advances the look and feel of the Lego series in enough meaningful ways that it's mostly a genuine pleasure to play, provided you haven't had your fill of Lego action already.
This package covers all four Pirates of the Caribbean movies, including the new not-quite-yet-released-at-the-time-of-this-writing flick On Stranger Tides. You get five lengthy levels per movie that all spawn from an island hub area, which is itself bursting with scores of unlockable characters, cheat code-enabling pickups, and sundry other collectibles. This series has always been about amassing as much of its collectible riches as possible, and I still found myself getting sucked into the feedback loop of collecting Lego studs to buy new characters and cheats so I could go back to previous levels and access new areas so I could get even more studs so I could buy more... well, you get the picture, but the point is, the formula still works.
At least it works when it's supported by well-designed gameplay and a subject matter that lends itself to the irreverent Lego treatment, and Pirates succeeds on both of those fronts better than some past Lego games. The movie franchise itself is already pretty silly, so Captain Sparrow and friends slide right into the ridiculous, mute cinematic style Traveller's Tales has polished to a high sheen over the last few years. There are plenty of great little touches spread throughout the game, like Lego Sparrow's ostentatious walk animation or the way the cursed crew of the Black Pearl seamlessly turns skeletal when they step into moonlight. The game does a great job of recreating the feel of the movies and eliciting a good number of chuckles.
Trial and error has traditionally ruled the experience of playing these Lego games. In this one you'll still spend plenty of time busting up every piece of scenery you can until you figure out what it is you need to do--which still has a simple charm to it, don't get me wrong--but at least Pirates is a little better about directing your attention via floating button prompts and other onscreen iconography than previous Lego games like Batman and Harry Potter. In this relative absence of head-scratching "what the hell do I do now?" moments, the game peppers some more thoughtful environmental puzzles here and there, as well as some neat action setpiece moments that have you sword fighting up on catwalks or riding giant water wheels through the jungle. The game isn't without its frustrations: any sort of platforming or jumping-based puzzle usually ends in gritted teeth, and the dynamic split-screen that comes into effect in co-op isn't as intelligent as it should be. (Put those two specific things together and you may end up throwing a controller.) But these levels are more varied and rewarding to play through than I remember those old Lego games being.
It's kind of shocking how much the graphics and presentation of the Lego series have matured over time, culminating in this game with a visual style that doesn't just look fantastic for a Lego game, but for any game. The developers have added so many little cinematic tricks to the game's repertoire--things like high-contrast lighting and reflections, motion blur, and depth of field--that it looks way, way better than you would expect a kid-friendly game like this to look. Graphics don't make the game, of course, but they sure make it a whole more pleasant to look at.
That's the biggest success of the Lego franchise to date, and specifically of Lego Pirates: it's a game for kids that adults can have fun with too (and one they shouldn't be ashamed of enjoying). It's nice to see this series mature and evolve over time, and while Traveller's Tales will need to continue upping the ante if it intends to keep putting out new Lego games at such a rapid clip, for the moment Lego Pirates offers plenty of reasons to jump back in and mash a few plastic bricks together again.