Like a loveable, family-friendly Keyser Soze, the LEGO franchise is unstoppable. Having spent much of the past decade working with Lucasarts and Warner Bros to turn iconic films into charming videogame adventures, Traveller's Tales has now turned its attention to Disney. And what better franchise is there for the comedy-minifigure treatment than the already exuberant and over-the-top Pirates of the Caribbean?
Unveiled to the world last week at TT's Knutsford studio, LEGO Pirates of the Carribbean is the most ambitious LEGO game yet. It's being released at the same time as the next film in May this year, which is a first for the series, and covers all four Pirates films, from Curse of the Black Pearl through to the forthcoming On Stranger Tides. In keeping with tradition, it's cute, funny and admirably accessible – the adventuresome, piratey antics of Cap'n Jack and crew fit perfectly with the LEGO aesthetic and slapstick sense of humour.
We're shown the very first level as a taste of what's to come: Captain Jack Sparrow's arrival at Port Royale, where he meets Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann and, of course, Commodore Norrington and his distinctly anti-pirate navy. The wordless LEGO recreations of significant scenes are predictably funny and beguiling – take a peek at the teaser trailer for a quick example – but as always, it's the scenes you actually get to play through that provoke the biggest smiles.
We play through Will's first encounter with Jack in his uncle's smithy, engaging in a swordfight atop the beams after running around rebuilding the broken mechanisms to create a way up there. The combat isn't at all like it was in any of the other LEGO games – the clash of tiny plastic swords is actually pretty dramatic. Weaker enemies are easily overpowered, but one-on-one encounters can go on for ages as you chase an opponent down, making them really feel like swordfights.
The most important thing about Pirates of the Caribbean, though, as we're sure you'll agree, is Captain Jack Sparrow. Transforming him into a LEGO minifigure was a daunting task for Traveller's Tales, knowing that his look and mannerisms had to be just right. They've done a pretty good job - all that eyeliner looks a bit wrong on a Lego figure, but he's got the trademark swaying, flourishing walk and some excellently flamboyant sword-twirls.
Playing as Jack has a really distinct feel, something that the developer is hoping to achieve for all 70-plus characters in the game. There are loads of character-specific weapons – grappling-hooks, swords, guns et cetera – and as usual, there are plenty of unique puzzles built into the levels themselves. The cursed crew of the Black Pearl can walk on the bottom of the ocean, just like in the films, and if you walk them into patches of moonlight you'll be able to see their little LEGO skeletons.
There have been a few basic improvements to the rather floaty platforming. Some platforms are now sticky, making those dramatic swordfights across narrow boughs and walls and cross-masts possible without falling off every five seconds. This makes the levels more vertical – you can be up on the topmast, or down in the bowels of a ship's decks. That trademark diagonal split-screen, drop-in-drop-out co-op multiplayer remains intact, but there'll be no online co-op. LEGO games are best enjoyed as a "family experience" in the same room, reckons TT – online features are difficult to implement, and they just wouldn't be used enough to justify it.
The idea is that you can still enjoy the game for all its piratey swashbuckling even if you're not a huge fan of the films themselves – or if your kids are too young to have seen then. The setting allows for plenty of silliness and variety, from firing cannons and muskets to sabre duels in the crow's nest, and the LEGO sense of humour works brilliantly with the material. Watch out for more details in a couple of weeks' time.