The cards were stacked against LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4. This is the fourth franchise to get the LEGO treatment and something like the seventh LEGO game if you include the double-dip on the Star Wars adventures. People know the formula of stud collecting, character unlocking and drop-in/drop-out co-op pretty well by now. When I -- a seasoned LEGO vet -- sat down to play Harry Potter, even my eyes began to roll a bit at the thought of the "blast everything" quest I was about to set out on.
Then, LEGO Harry Potter won me over with gorgeous environments, clever use of the famed spells, legitimate humor and adorable references that show how dialed in Traveller's Tales is to this franchise. After a few hit or miss LEGO outings, this is the game fans have been waiting for.
If you've played one of the past LEGO games -- Star Wars, Batman or Indiana Jones -- the setup to LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 should be pretty easy to wrap your head around. Here, you're going to play through the defining moments of the first four movies/books and you're going to do it as little plastic LEGO pieces in a little plastic LEGO world. Harry and company will blast blocks apart with their spells and tricks, and this will cause colored studs to spew out. You collect the studs so that you can buy new characters and powers before exploring the levels to find secret blocks, characters and students in peril. If the visuals didn't tell you, the whole thing is kid friendly: if you are defeated you simply lose some studs and respawn, and a second player can drop-in and drop-out with the push of a button.
So if the formula's the same, what's so great about LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4? A bunch of stuff. For starters, the spell system is a fresh idea. LEGO Batman had different suits for the main characters and LEGO Indy had the whip and a few other items, but LEGO Harry Potter equips the kids with a number of magical spells that each have their own specific purpose. Wingardium Leviosa is the most basic and the most useful. You'll use this to lift items so that your partner can reach high studs, assemble items, and break apart other objects for the studs they're made of. Lumos scares away attacking plants, Riddikulus knocks back your worst fear, and so on. These are each color-coded and can be switched on the fly via your controller's 1 and 2 buttons.
I had a great time using these incantations. Levitating books back onto the shelf and rearranging LEGO blocks to make stairs was fun, but it was the wonderment of what I'd learn next that really kept me going. See, because these spells are so particular in what they do in the LEGO Harry Potter world, the game's teasing you with what's coming later. You'll walk down the hill to Hagrid's and pass Cornish Pixies holding items just out of your reach and treasure chests with locks that appear to be unbreakable. You know that you're going to learn how to best these challenges, but you don't know when.
What's awesome about Hogwarts is that it's a living, breathing place. I dig that the game remembers what benches I've already shaken down for studs years later. This is your playground, and it feels like it.
This is all part of another thing I love about LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4: the hub world is back and it's better than ever. Four years of levels could get confusing, but the game does an excellent job of keeping you on track while letting you explore at will. You always start in the Leaky Cauldron and can replay a level with the characters you've unlocked or abscond to Diagon Alley to enter cheat codes and spend your studs on new characters. If you want to jump back into the story you can head into Hogwarts and start following Nearly Headless Nick to the next mission.
All of that gameplay stuff aside, the other thing that hooks me when it comes to LEGO Harry Potter is how Traveller's Tales nailed this franchise. The environments the developers have come up with are great -- Hogwarts looks like Hogwarts and has the twists and turns you'd expect, Diagon Alley is hopping, and the levels are filled with crap to blow up. There are more than 160 characters to unlock that range from well known folks such as Ron in his tux to more niche people like Krum as a shark.
The humor they've infused into this lore is also awesome. Zapping a radio only to have a bunch of skeletons run out and dance, watching Moaning Myrtle put on a synchronized swimming routine, and having the cheeseball ending image of the film Prisoner of Azkaban cranked up to an even more absurd level are just some of the things that cracked me -- a mid-range Potter movie fan -- up to no end. Oh, and don't even get me started on how cute the screeching mandrake roots are.
Now, LEGO games always seem to have the same problems -- poor platforming, silly vehicle segments, and bad AI partners. LEGO Harry Potter both bests and succumbs to some of these follies. There were still times when I'd miss a jump and die or fall off a platform I was working on, but these seemed to happen far less than they did in the games of the past. There's only one mandatory vehicle segment I can think of, and it wasn't hard to handle. Meanwhile, the AI seems smarter than ever. Nearly every time I'd climb onto something that I needed lifted into the air, my partner would start waving his or her wand. There was a struggle here or there, but it was nothing like the "ugh" moments of the past.
When I had a friend pick up the second controller and hop into my game, I was thrilled to find that the split-screen co-op mode from LEGO Indy 2 had returned. In the majority of LEGO games, two players would inevitably end up running to different sides of the screen and enter into a tugging match for where the camera would go. Now, a line splits the screen when you and a friend head your different ways so that you can explore without a fight. Still, as great as that is, there's no online co-op for LEGO Harry Potter. This isn't an issue for me and when I asked the developer about it I was told people really didn't use it in previous games, but I know some of you out there would love it. Personally, I'd be happier to see a mid-level save system come around than online co-op.
Similarly, the level creator is back from LEGO Indy 2, but once again you can't upload or share your creations via the Internet. Quite frankly, I can't understand why you'd have this creation option and not figure out a way to make sending and receiving levels a breeze. If I was to put hours into a work of art, I'd want others to see it. As it stands, they can't unless they come to my house, and that's why I'll never use this option beyond tinkering.
Combat's never been a big selling point of the LEGO games, and it's still a bit "meh" here. However, LEGO Harry Potter gets around it by making fights rare. There are bosses for every movie (and sadly they're all beaten in pretty much the same way), but there isn't much fighting beyond that -- you're here to explore and learn, and it works. I didn't miss being cheaply killed. Instead, I ran through levels trying to assemble Hogwarts crests and had a blast.