LEGO simply goes with everything and this proves it.
LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4 continues the LEGO tradition with kid-oriented games. Players get to play through years 1-4 of the Harry Potter series in this Warner Brother Interactive Entertainment title. Much like every other LEGO title, you get a mix of innocent gameplay, a solid adventure and at the same time a game that stays true to the actual series it's based from.
The gameplay, which is mainly geared towards a younger audience (keep that in mind please), is simple to handle. The controls start out as just a punch/kick type gameplay. As you progress through the game you get a wand and with it you learn spells through a series of classes (hey, encouraging education in a game! Can you imagine?). You have to go to class to get the spells that progress you through the game. While obtaining the spells in the game might seem a bit tedious for us outsiders, you have to spend about 10 minutes in class performing certain tasks to gain a permanent spell to your arsenal, it's good practice for young gamers trying to get use to the game. You can carry different spells, which are accessible through an easy to use HUD. Again, this game was geared towards a younger audience, but the amount of spells you can carry through the years is pretty impressive.
Along the way you also get different objects to use to help you complete puzzles. For example, Ron's rat has to be used to go through LEGO piping to open doors, push buttons and do a variety of different tasks.
What makes this game particularly entertaining is that you can play co-op throughout it, anytime during the game. Harking back to the arcade games of old, you can have a second player join in the foray by simply pressing start on the second controller. If you are a loner, you don't have to play two players, as you'll control all the characters onscreen. You need only press the triangle button to switch back and forth. Which way is better? I'm always a team player when it comes to games, so I prefer having a second person join in the fun. I was raised on Toe Jam and Earl, so it's a natural fit to have help.
Shifting gears just slightly, the puzzles in the game aren't too terribly complicated. For me I think I breezed through most of the game without really hitting a challenging puzzle. This game wasn't built for my kind though, so with that in mind the puzzles will keep your kids occupied for some time. My daughter played alongside me for a good amount of time and never ran into a 'frustrating moment' during the game. She ran into moments where she had to stop and think; they were short bursts, but effective. She was motivated by the game to move forward (through a variety of goals, such as collecting LEGO coins and small side quests), which is invaluable when it comes to games and kids. That's gotta be a difficult part of game creation for a younger audience; getting that balance between frustration and encouragement. Anyway, she took to the puzzles and loved playing the game.
Again, this game wasn't necessarily built for a hardcore gamer like myself, but it's nearly a perfect fit for kids.
The only knock I can give about the game's puzzles is that sometimes it was a bit frustrating getting LEGO pieces right where they needed to go. The vicinity where the game actually helped out was a small area in some puzzles. Of course, this was facilitated in some areas by difficult camera views at times. There are a couple of puzzles where you are just needing to get that one particular angle to place blocks or move objects and you can't quite get it in place. For example, when you're getting the wingardium leviosa spell you have to put a knight statue back together for the final test. I placed the knight's head and armor back on, but I had a dickens of a time trying to get the knight's spear back into his hands. Took me about three minutes, only because I couldn't get the angle right, but finally did it. You'll run into moments like this during the game, but they're brief.
Moving on to presentation....
The one big draw for the older audience for the LEGO games is the presentation value. The LEGO series has always had lightly sprinkled comedy over a serious storyline. While Harry Potter certainly was a bit 'kid-like' in the first two films, the serious tone of the story starts to settle in around years three and four. LEGO takes all that seriousness and puts in some silent comedy that's led by some superbly planned physical comedy. For example, you'll have exaggerated moments like the troll in the dungeon scene. When Professor Quirinus Quirrell runs in to tell Dumbledore about the troll you see him play out the troll with a tiny club. It's funny stuff and things that will make a younger audience laugh.
Just because it's built for a younger audience doesn't mean that an older audience won't enjoy it. This game looks sharp as the environments from the film are faithfully recreated for the game. An older audience will appreciate the little details like the moving staircases, the 'alive' paintings and just overall depth of field for the environments. One of the biggest parts of the game that I really appreciated is the John Williams soundtrack. It changes throughout the years and it supports the lack of dialogue. Going back to the troll scene, the music changes when Quirrell is trying to explain to Dumbledore, through troll interpretation, that there is a troll in the dungeon. I was very impressed with the soundtrack and that was my favorite part of the presentation.
Finally, the actual character models are fun to watch and interact. If you have never played a LEGO game then you might want to start with this one. LEGOs are everywhere in this world. When things break they break into LEGO pieces. When you build things they are built from LEGO pieces. When characters use items in the game they would use them the same way if you had a LEGO set in front of you. For example, early on in the game, Hagrid puts together a street cleaning machine that Harry can use. When Harry sits on it his legs attach to the LEGO street cleaning machine like they would if you had that actual LEGO set. The game stays true to the toys, which makes it all the more fascinating. This also lends more comedic value in certain situations that I won't ruin for you all.
So with all this said, is the game fun?
The game is fun, but in two different ways. If you have kids or you're purchasing this for a relative's kid then they're going to have a blast. As I've mentioned before, the game is really built towards a younger audience. If they like playing games then they'll love this game. It's challenging and encouraging for a young gamer. The second way to look at the fun in the game is from the eyes of an adult. For me I enjoyed the light comedy mixed in with a wonderful presentation. Outside of that I didn't really find anything particularly challenging about the puzzles, but I did appreciate what WBIE was doing here. The preservation of the main story was a concern of mine, as it helped with the enjoyment, and WBIE didn't disappoint. LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4 is faithful to the movie storylines, but it doesn't go into the 'seriousness' of the storyline like what you would find in EA's games (or the actual movies). I'm happy they didn't ruin the story and I'm very happy they put some great effort into making the years seamless.
Would I pay $49.99 for this game? It all depends on if my kids will play it. I would probably wait for it used somewhere or wait for it to come down in price, but if I'm shopping for my kids then yes. It's one of the few games out there that kids can enjoy because of the balanced gameplay and the co-op opportunities. This is the type of game I grew up with and one that I would want my kids to play. It's got plenty of value for the younger gamers out there, but slightly less for adults.