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Review: Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4

Is this re-telling of the Harry Potter series the best Lego game to date? We take it apart brick-by-brick and find out...

If you’re unfamiliar with the magical adventures of Harry Potter, then frankly this game isn’t for you. Although this game re-tells the storyline of the first four movies, it does so in a liberal fashion with plenty of sight-gag references that will only be appreciated by those familiar with both the movies and books. If, however, you’ve been following the on-going story then you’re in for a real treat, as Lego Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is easily the best Lego game to date.
Anyone who has already played a Lego title will feel immediately at home. The basic gameplay remains the same, tasking players with blasting scenery and enemies apart to collect the studs that spew out. These studs can be later spent on new tricks and bonus  characters, unlocking new locations and levels to explore.
The way in which the story is told has seen a serious change in design, however, as Lego Harry Potter breaks the formula of previous titles by setting the storyline within one location: Hogwarts. The player is free to explore the grounds and castle at will, and can progress through the story by following Nearly Headless Nick to the next level. Even if Nick disappears it’s nearly impossible to get lost in the grounds, as a trail of transparent ghostly studs always lead to the next level. As the story progresses, Hogwarts changes in subtle ways. At Christmas everyone wears Santa hats and there’s a festive mood to the atmosphere. In Year 4 rival schools arrive to take part in the TriWizard Cup, and fresh faces appear in their respective uniforms to explore the castle. Locations also become available as the years progress and new spells are learned. This evolution of gameplay makes Hogwarts feel seamless and coherent, unlike the individual levels found in earlier Lego games. Players are not limited to the Hogwarts grounds however. By pressing the Escape key, the game’s menu can be accessed, giving players the ability to teleport to the Leaky Cauldron. From here, previously played levels can be accessed via a notice-board, cut-scenes can be re-watched from a room up a staircase, and an open doorway gives access to Diagon Alley. Studs can be spent at the various shops here, and you can enter cheat codes to access special abilities.

Aside from the charming locations found in the game, the ability to cast spells gives this title a serious advantage over earlier Lego games. Unlike Lego Star Wars, Batman and Indiana Jones – where ropes and blasters are used to interact with the environments – in Lego Harry Potter the player learns useful spells by visiting classes. Some spells, such as Expecto Patronum, can only be used by a particular character (in this case the titular Harry Potter). With certain spells limited to an individual character, swapping between them to cast spells becomes second nature, giving the game a real sense of camaraderie. The game also includes a co-op mode, enabling two players to use the same machine and play together. Unlike earlier Lego games that forced two players to share the same screen space, Lego Harry Potter splits the screen in two when players wander apart. It means there’s no longer a tug-of-war for control of the camera when both players reach the edge of the screen.

As the latest game from developer Traveller’s Tales, the graphics are a step-above previous Lego instalments. Hogwarts looks and feels like its movie iteration (with some barmy Lego touches), Diagon Alley is bustling and full of detail, and the characters have a charming plastic-toy feel. The game runs smoothly on most Intel Macs. Our test- machine, being a 2009 MacBook Pro, ran the game at full detail with no frame rate issues.

Controlling the game is done via the keyboard. Movement is mapped to W, A, S and D, with spells, environment interaction and jumping set to H, G and J. By holding down the J key players can access a spell wheel, which is handy for quickly selecting one of the multitude of available spells. Playing via the keyboard isn’t exactly the most elegant solution, however.; it’s easy to fall off ledges or mistime jumps, so if possible we’d recommend using a gamepad.
This is the most coherent and fun Lego tie-in to date, and if that’s not enough, it’s also the best-looking. If you enjoyed the earlier Lego titles then you’re in for a real treat.

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