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Hands-On: 'LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean'

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Gaming Preview / Interview: LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean
Over the long history of LEGO, there are few places those intrepid little bricks have failed to colonise. From the Old American West to outer space, LEGO characters are seldom shy about embarking on an adventure, the more outlandish the better. So its somewhat surprising that it has taken this long for the LEGO Video Game series to take on Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney's hugely lucrative entertainment franchise. After Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Batman and others, the connection between pirates and LEGO just seems a match made in heaven. So it's unsurprising that we arrive at LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean, a brick-based odyssey covering all four films, including brand new movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. Digital Spy got some timber-shivering and swash-buckling hands-on time with the game to see if it's a pirate's life for us.

LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean encompasses key events in the first film, The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003), along with Dead Man's Chest (2006), At World's End (2007), and the soon-to-be released On Stranger Tides. Disney is staying understandably tight-lipped about events in the new film, which introduces Penelope Cruz, Stephen Graham and Ian McShane to the cast, but gamers can no doubt expect to see the usual, light-hearted pirate japery. All the characters from the series have once more been expertly transposed into LEGO form, including Orlando Bloom's Will Turner, Keira Knightley's Elizabeth Swan and, of course, star of the show, Captain Jack Sparrow; complete with Johnny Depp's sun-baked, rum-soaked craziness.

Gaming Preview / Interview: LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean
The core mechanics of the LEGO Video Game series are all pretty much present and correct in LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean. The game mixes basic platforming with frequent yet light combat and a range of environmental puzzles, often connected to the trademark build function. Once more, pressing a button triggers characters to rebuild a pile of designated bricks into some sort of item required to navigate to the levels. However, the game also introduces a range of new features, the biggest being an increased set of physical abilities for the characters, reflecting the fact that pirates can boldly go wherever they bloomin' well please.

Minifigs in LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean can climb, jump and dive their way into places LEGO characters have never been able before; staging sword fights high above ships and even using barrels beneath the waves as makeshift diving suits. Fighting styles have also been tweaked to reflect the fluid tussles of sword-based combat. Other new features tweak the technical aspects of the game, including a tag function for switching between characters that have been recruited to your cause. A central wheel flicks between the minifigs, including animal companions, and it's important to use your party wisely to master the puzzles.

We played the game from the start of The Curse of the Black Pearl, with Sparrow entering Port Royal, Jamaica, in typically dramatic fashion. Keen to avoid the authorities, the pirate hides in the blacksmith workshop of Will Turner. Taking charge of Turner and his father, we joined a Disney representative to play the opening sequences of the level. It was first necessary to get the workshop hearth working, which meant finding a carrot to feed the donkey, before getting the beast to drive the central turning wheel, thus triggering the bellows. However, lighting the fire merely sent old Jack tumbling down the chimney from his hiding place, ready to defend himself.

Gaming Preview / Interview: LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean
The fighting system has certainly been made more fluid than before, with chops, slashes and parries feeling quicker and more satisfying. Fighting Jack meant using every inch of the workshop, as the slippery devil clambered up ladders and danced across the beams. After beating him, the port soldiers stormed in and captured the famous pirate. The game then switched to a scene inside the port prison, as the tables were turned and Turner had to rescue Jack from incarceration. This meant recruiting the help of a nearby dog by giving it a bone, encouraging the mutt to tunnel through a hole in the wall, before nudging a bench off a ledge. This could then be used to break open the lock to Jack's cage.

The puzzles generally require players to study the environment and then check the skills of their party to find the solution. TT Games has clearly taken great effort to make the signposting of puzzles clearer and more coherent in the new game, but there seems to be a good balance between challenge and progression to please a wide range of younger players. One of the best new features in the game, though, comes in the co-operative play, which once again is available for the whole campaign via drop in-drop out. The feature introduces a diagonal split-screen when one player moves out of shot, meaning both players can explore freely without ever feeling confined.

After exiting the prison, we entered a courtyard area and had to fight off some port troops, hacking them into little piles of LEGO bits. (As usual, every action brings studs to collect to increase your score and unlock new items.) It was then necessary to jump on a barrel and roll into a designated hole to open up the courtyard door. Outside, we had to do the same trick with a barrel, but this time the ledge area was broken and required some kind of bridge to be built, which was where Captain Jack's famous compass came into play. Whipping out the device triggered a little whirlwind to guide the player to a point of interest. It's a neat little mechanic that is fun to do, but also fits well with the overall feel of the game and Jack's character.

After tracking down a pile of buried driftwood, we had to assume control of the dog to dig out the wood, before returning to Will Turner to build the planks to bridge the gap. Establishing a bridge enabled us to jump on a barrel and ride it all the way down to unlock another gate, although not without rolling over a few soldiers first. LEGO Pirates Of The Caribbean is a very linear game, understandably so due to its target audience, but there has also clearly been an effort to introduce a more 'adventure' focus. Later in the game, there are open areas, such as villages, in which the player is encouraged to explore and find a variety of collectables, such as hidden elements making up ships in a bottle.

Gaming Preview / Interview: LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean
As usual, the game is structured around a central hub area, providing a jump-off point to access the levels, along with a range of additional content. This time the hub is a port, replete with ships, buildings and scurrilous pirates. During the main campaign, gold and red LEGO bricks can be collected to unlock new areas of the port and access new content. TT Games has previously said that the hubs in LEGO Harry Potter and LEGO Indiana Jones games got too large and became confusing for some players. But efforts have clearly been taken to ensure that LEGO Pirates gets the balance just right, providing a coherent launch-pad to tackle the roughly 10-hour main campaign, but also offering extra distractions for more dedicated players, such as a mini-game controlling small ships.

Graphically, LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean is certainly on a par with the recent LEGO Star Wars III: The Clone Wars. The visuals are crisp, sharp and impressive, from the environments to the character models. Particular mention should go to the lighting, which is impressive and provides much-needed atmosphere. The game is being developed for all the main platforms, as well as the new Nintendo 3DS. Alongside 3D graphics, the 3DS version makes use of the handheld's StreetPass social function to enable users to activate sword fights with other 3DS owners. LEGO has long held a pirates range in its toy products, so the development of LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean is, for want of a better phrase, a no-brainer. The young target audience will no doubt relish the chance to fight battles high above pirate galleons, and will also instantly click with the outlandish silliness of Depp's Captain Jack in LEGO form.

> Interview: 'LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean'

LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean: The Video Game will be released on PC, PS3, Xbox 360, Wii, DS, 3DS and PSP on May 10.

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