Harry Potter is back, and he's in Lego Form! Lego's adaptation of the last editions of JK Rowling's beloved series are now available to play, and not a moment too soon. The first Lego Harry Potter was arguably the best of the series to date, and set a benchmark for games to come. The game cleaned up the series' graphics, and with it, adapted a better control scheme, and an enhanced gameplay engine. This was best felt on the multi-player side, where the game would automatically split-screen players within levels that walked away from the edge of the screen, as opposed to the rubber banding technology that existed within the first few games. If you have not had the opportunity to play the first Harry Potter game, it is a must play.
After purchasing and playing through Lego Harry Potter Years 1-4 last year, I was hoping for much of the same. That game was easily the standout of the franchise thus far, incorporating many gameplay-easing aspects that were sorely needed. It boasted the cleaning graphic processing, fastest loading time and best Lego "humor" of the brand to date, and was probably the main reason Lego extended their contract with Traveler's Tales until 2017 earlier this year. That game was a Lego masterpiece, and set the bar for the franchise going forward. I was expecting basically the same game as last year, with a few graphic tweaks (character modelling, for example, was a bit choppy) and new features. There wasn't much else that needed to be done as long as they left it on the gameplay engine, and didn't take away anything that made the first game so good.
I will say that you should be ready to sit through a very lengthy intro process. As usual, you will have to sit through the entire movie cutscenes the first time you play them, and then off you go on your way to Hogwarts again. The game picks up immediately in a level, where you are re-introduced to numerous characters, including Mad-Eye and Arthur Weasley. Unlike the first game, where you played a small introductory sequence and then went into the game, you begin right away in Order of the Phoenix and begin your journey from there. You'll probably need a couple of hours to sit down from the beginning and just get going, as the game does not really pick up until you've learned the first couple of spells.
There is a new to this game that I don't recall from the first: the developers included a "repair" feature this time around, much like Jock in the Indiana Jones games. Arthur Weasley, for example, can repair broken machinery and they can be integrated into the level.
You may also notice that the game has a bit of a cheerier tone than the last game. Dark blues have been replaced by bright, sunny skies, and frowns replaced with smiles. This changes as the game progresses, however, and you see the darker side of the game creep up the closer you get to the final battle with Voldemort. You will definitely encounter feelings of Deja Vu - Bear in mind that this game IS a direct extension (I wouldn't call it a sequel as much as an extension) of the first, and Hogwarts looks and plays exactly the same, however, with cleaned up graphics.
The graphics have definitely had a slight tune-up from the first game. You basically cannot get any better than they output here (from a Lego game anyway). The pieces are just as good as staring at the real thing, and gone are the flat landscape backgrounds of old. Instead, you get poignant, lively backgrounds, like the buildings seen at the Floo Network fountains. This is yet another element of an improved gameplay experience that was sorely needed in these games and it's good to see these types of graphical improvements starting to occur.
There really isn't much else to add here that has not been said about previous games (or spelled out during our Harry Potter Years 1-4 review). Almost all of the main parts of this game are exactly the same. Many of the puzzles are the same, especially regarding gold brick challenges around Hogwarts, which has had some graphical touchups, but for the most part is the same laid out school. You are still helping those ridiculously dense students in peril, collecting studs to attain "True Wizard" level, and collecting crest pieces throughout. Don't be fooled by the gold brick count, which signalled game much toward completion in the past - You can collect 10 gold bricks in the first 20 minutes of playing, and still be sitting at about 3 percent completion. Let's jump to the way this game breaks down in the final ratings.
Graphics: 10/10. It goes without saying that the graphics for this game are top-notch again, and are probably the best you will see out of Lego games of this gaming generation. Everything from light shading, to color detail is projected in brilliant HD, and unlike previous Lego games, you don't get blocky awkwardness or frame jumping. You can see the amount of care that's been put into this game, with no stone unturned, and no color palette left unused.
Sound: 9/10. The sounds are just as polished as they were in Years 1-4. The trouble other franchises have are that when you have too many sounds playing on screen at once, it gets distorted and full of static. The Star Wars games have this problem in spades. Everything is fixed here, almost to a fault. The biggest complaint I have with the sound element of this game is possibly the worst sense of background repetition of any of the games. If you can't figure out certain puzzles and are stuck in a room with characters, be ready to hear the same voices and sounds over and over and over again. I found myself having to put the game on mute multiple times because of this.
Control: 7/10. Control has always been something lacking, but largely unfixable because of the amount of interaction available on screen at any given time. You will find yourself having to shift your characters in the smallest ways to accomplish hitting different objects, as your characters will always target the most convenient objects on screen for them (but not necessarily yourself). The keyboard also still does not work for cheats (though it's probably a way of discouraging gamers from entering secret code). Outside of that, everything is pretty straight forward. I continue to enjoy the element of the spell wheel and the fact that the game will automatically choose the right spell for kids if they don't know which one to go for.
Gameplay: 9/10. Without a doubt, this is the best series in the entire Lego franchise. Let's face it. You know exactly what you're getting with a Lego game nowadays. The basic formula of gameplay has not changed in 5 years. However, Harry Potter doesn't just do it a little better than the others - It does it a lot better. This Harry Potter build of all of the Lego games should be the standard engine going forward. Pirates of the Caribbean was based on it, while Star Wars: Episode III was not (it may have been because the game finished its dev cycle and was held onto while the first Potter was released, though). Everything about the Harry Potter engine fixes what was wrong in all the previous editions, and makes for a much more enjoyable gameplay experience.
Whereas you always feel like you're playing "just another Lego game" with the others, Lego Harry Potter Years 5-7 breaks that cycle of repetition and is just so much more fun than the others. I didn't even enjoy the Harry Potter franchise that much, yet I find myself always entertained by this game.
There were 3 Lego games released this year - Star Wars, Pirates and this game. At this time last year, I would have told you that Potter Years 1-4 was the game to look at getting your children this holiday season. Once again, the sequel is my recommendation to you of the 3. Pirates was a great game, however, the mini-games and overall storyline just didn't translate as well into the Lego franchise. This game brings the right amount of humor, and the right amount of interactivity to make it a winner, and probably the best game of the entire Lego franchise so far.