Lego Pirates of the Caribbean is a great example of how much the popular series is beholden to its source material. Or maybe it's an example of what happens when a game has to be developed on relatively short notice? In any case, while it's still a very solid game in its own right, Lego Pirates of the Caribbean is a step back for the Lego line of adorable action-adventure puzzlers.
That's strange, given that the Pirates franchise seems like a perfect fit for the Lego series. The four movies means that it can easily be divided up into distinct episodes, and the numerous action sequences offer up plenty of fodder for the designers. And yet the source material manages to feel both underused and restrictive on the game's creativity.
Case in point: for a franchise about the open seas, the level design feels oddly limited. The elaborate stages that characterised previous efforts are still around, but it feels like they're in the minority. More common are stages like the one aboard the second movie's Flying Dutchman, where much of the level is spent hunting for various items to gain access to new parts of the ship. I'm guessing that it's a natural consequence of developing a game in which much of the action is either set on a ship or a tiny desert island.
My issues with Lego Pirates aren’t limited to level design, though. A prime example is the manner in which new characters are acquired. Unlike previous Lego games, they cannot be found in one shop. Instead, new characters can be found wandering around the port that serves as the game's hub, and they must be defeated in a duel in order to be purchased. I'm sure this seemed like a good idea during the production meetings, but the execution is really problematic.
More often than not, new characters get tangled up with old, making it difficult to actually engage them. And when they are defeated, they almost always flee, making an actual purchase problematic. Why couldn't they just be stunned after being defeated?
The Pirates of the Caribbean universe seems to have given rise to a lot of short-sighted design decisions like this one. As long as we're talking about duelling, I've lost count of the number of times that I ended up killing my poor co-op partner because I accidentally became stuck in an attack animation. In this case, the canned animation makes for some nifty looking sword fights, but it also makes the combat that much clumsier. I think the developers would have been better served limiting attacks to the single strokes of previous Lego games, and only cutting into the canned animations after engaging with another character.
While all of that is irritating, my biggest problem with Lego Pirates of the Caribbean is that it just doesn’t compare favourably to some of the more recent entries in the franchise, like Lego Harry Potter. After having the chance to explore the wonderfully detailed Hogwarts, the generic port found in Lego Pirates just doesn't cut it.
Given the history of the Lego franchise, I'm surprised that they didn't just use Tortuga. The standard line is that Tortuga is a level in the game so they couldn't use it as a hub world, but I think that's a pretty poor excuse in this instance. Regardless, while there's plenty to do in the Lego Pirates hub, the fact that it lacks a real connection to the franchise means that it's not nearly as interesting to explore as, say, Mos Eisley cantina.
I'm guessing that some people will point to Lego Pirates as an example of the franchise becoming tired and overdone, but Harry Potter at least has proved that there's plenty of room for creativity within the formula. Lego Pirates seems ill-conceived in pretty much every way possible, from the level design to the sword fighting mechanics. Even the elaborate puppet shows that are used to mime out the plots of the movies don't quite work, mainly because they're incredibly confusing. If I hadn't seen the actual film, for instance, I wouldn't have had the faintest clue of what was going on in At World's End.
All in all, Pirates of the Caribbean is a disappointing game. Maybe I was a mistaken on it being a natural fit for the franchise, or maybe it was just poor execution on the part of the developers, but this is certainly one of the weaker entries in the series. And yet, for all my complaints, the formula still works. It's still fun to unlock new characters and hunt for secret collectibles.
In other words, I still have plenty of hope for a Lego Lord of the Rings.