Let's get the obvious out of the way early, shall we? LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean is, in fact, another LEGO game. Shocking I know, but there it is. How you react to this profound statement will serve as a fair prediction of how much you'll enjoy yourself. If, like me, you love these games; their intrinsic humor and surprisingly deep level design, then you'll be quite pleased that another deserving franchise has been given the LEGO makeover. On the other hand, if you've just rolled your eyes (and let's be fair, there are quite a few out there who would say enough is enough) then it's safe to say that you'll find LEGO Pirates more a chore than anything else. There isn't much new here is what I'm getting at, but if you're okay with more of the same, then it's certainly worth the price of admission... unlike the fourth movie in the franchise.
The formula is familiar: play through the 'Story' mode, solving puzzles and collecting studs (currency) to unlock as many characters as you can (all the while enjoying the adorable LEGO interpretations of iconic scenes from the movies) until you can go back with a team of alternate characters to unlock everything each individual level has to offer in 'Free Play' mode.
Once again you'll find you need to utilize the special skills of multiple party members to discover all the hidden secrets. I've always loved how these games cleverly offer each character different skills, making them indispensable when trying to find everything. Jack Sparrow has his magic compass that will point to hidden items (there are eight per level, not all are immediately accessible). Will Turner can throw axes to hit targets (which we saw him do once the entire series). Female characters like Elizabeth or Angelica can double jump... well, you get the idea. More generalized characters like blacksmiths are needed to repair objects, while certain others have super strength to open doors. Pirates who took the cursed Aztec treasure can walk on the bottom of the sea, as can the crew of Davy Jones. There are even some areas you can't access until you command the sword of Blackbeard himself!
While I don't have a problem with this per say, I find it a bit frustrating that to really be able to get absolutely everything in 'Free Play' you essentially need to finish the entire story mode first. For example, you won't be able to even unlock Blackbeard from the fourth movie until after you finish the final chapter. So there isn't much point in bothering to go back and play the 'Free Play' levels from the first movie where you need his magic sword to open certain areas if you haven't unlocked him yet. It's not that big a deal, but for those who wanted to wait to see the latest installment in theaters, this could be a mild annoyance.
While the argument can be made that since LEGO Pirates has the same core structure and mechanics as it's predecessors, it's really just the same game with a different coat of paint. Having said that, the paint has come a long way! The detailed backgrounds and vibrant environments are much more noticeable. Everything from the wood grain on the docks to the gentle motion of the water as it laps onshore stand in stark contrast to the LEGO people and blocks littering up the place. Even more subtle things like lighting and shadows are impressive when you take the time to look.
Your central hub is called 'The Port,' and while it's no Mos Eisley cantina, I liked that you could only unlock certain areas by having enough Gold Bricks (which are unlocked by completing levels in 'Story' and 'Free Play' modes, finding all the minikits, and becoming a 'True Pirate' by collecting a certain number of studs on each level). There are 85 total in the game, but to travel beyond the initial 'Dock' section of the Port you'll need at least ten.
What's odd, though, is that to unlock characters by purchasing them with your accumulated studs you first have to wait for them to appear in the port. They don't always seem to show up in any particular order; some are only available in certain parts, and others don't seem to want to be purchased. I spent a good five minutes chasing down one of Barbossa's crewmen because every time I tried to get him the “buy” prompt would disappear if he got more than three feet from me and then he'd run away. Why you couldn't just buy them from the menu like in previous titles I just don't know.
As good as LEGO Pirates is, I found there were some almost shoddy examples of poor design. If, in certain levels, you have a large party following you around, your teammates often get in your way, which makes platforming annoying. I'm still not a fan of the splitscreen function that they've utilized for a while now. When playing co-op it creates a weird optical illusion effect that makes it difficult to focus. It actually gave me a bit of a headache after extended play sections. Plus, that moving line makes platforming even more frustrating as sometimes the wonky camera doesn't show you where you're supposed to land mid-jump if your partner is moving around at the same time.
We also encountered a few major glitches in LEGO Pirates. One in particular during Isla de Muerta, the final level in the first movie, ended with us wasting a quarter of an hour and actually having to restart the level. It was an enemy spawning glitch, but we only figured that out after we had to restart from the bloody beginning... and then we ran into another one later on! This sort of stuff shouldn't find its way into the final build of a game.
Questionable design decisions and technical issues aside, I love the LEGO games and LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean is no different. These are still some of the best family friendly titles available. Having said that, I can't escape the feeling that this tried and true formula is beginning to get a little stale. But if, like me, you're okay with that, then LEGO Pirates is another swashbuckling romp along a familiar theme.