Tech, Autos, & Gear in Layman's Terms Since 2006

August 20, 2010 • Gaming, Reviews

PC/PSP Game Review: LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4

I was a huge fan of LEGO Star Wars when it came out back in 2005, and also of the Original Trilogy follow-up. These games brought interesting gameplay and whimsical storytelling to life in a way that captured the essence of their source material and a humor and lightness that made them eminently family friendly.

That said, I have been decreasingly entertained as they rolled out the mediocre LEGO Batman and LEGO Indiana Jones and the dreadful LEGO Indiana Jones 2. Those games had a style and humor that felt forced and a gameplay that felt laborious. I love the Harry Potter and knew I simply HAD to play LEGO Harry Potter, but I was nervous about how I’d enjoy them. Does it work? Read on and find out!

The Hype:
Build the adventure from Privet Drive to the Triwizard Tournament and experience the magic of the first four Harry Potter stories – LEGO style! Explore Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learn spells, brew potions and relive the adventures like never before with tongue-in-cheek humor and creative customization that is unique to LEGO videogames!

* Explore iconic settings from Diagon Alley, the Forbidden Forrest, Hogsmead and, of course, Hogwarts castle. Hogwarts castle is a grand, immersive 3D environment and the largest, most detailed LEGO game location every built.
* Play as Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger as well as other favorite characters; over 100 playable characters.
* Attend lessons, cast spells, mix potions, fly on the broomsticks and complete tasks to earn house points

The Reality:
Before I delve into details, let me summarize: I have figured out the formula – for a LEGO game to work there needs to be some sort of Magic involved. I thought it might be the lightsabers in LEGO Star Wars, but after playing LEGO Harry Potter I’m sure it is magic – either Wizard magic or The Force. And since Harry Potter is full up with Magic, LEGO Harry Potter is an absolute blast!

I have always been a video game ‘completist’. I had played Knights of the Old Republic a half-dozen times and it STILL took me upwards of 60 hours per play-through! I love to search out quests and character interactions and hidden areas and generally make use of every bit of content that the developers put so much time into creating.

I also tend to be a replayer. There are at least a dozen non-trivial games that I have played more than 25 times, and several that I have completed more than 50 times. So you might say that I really try to get the most value for my gaming dollar.

That said, I don’t care at all about these more recent artificial metrics such as Achievements and Trophies. These are things that developers add to get people to keep coming back for more – they try to make it so you can do loads while playing the game but really have to work to get all possible achievements.

Why do I mention this? Because from the very beginning the LEGO games have offered a largely linear experience that is fun to play, but one that requires multiple passes to see and obtain all possible content. It is worth quoting from my original LEGO Star Wars review for a now defunct site:

The ultimate goal of LEGO Star Wars is not simply to get to the end of Chapter III, but rather to get there, then go back and get to ‘True Jedi Status’ on all levels to unlock the secret level and also to build all of the Chapter vehicles. You choose two characters before entering a door in Free Play and the game then auto-fills a bunch of other characters into your ‘inventory’. During the Chapter, you can toggle characters at will to take advantage of special abilities they may possess. Anyone who has played the demo would have noticed that there are mini kits your characters simply cannot get to because they don’t have the correct droid or special ability. For these you go back with the droid or other character you might need and then can get to the items that you missed before.

The game encompasses several types of play styles. Whether it’s straight action, vehicle control or platforming, you will need to use different game skills to get through each Chapter. If you lack skills in a certain area – I’m lousy with vehicles – you might find a Chapter difficult. Ultimately that can keep you from unlocking the Secret Chapter. This is another area where Free Play is valuable. Episode I Chapter I yields about 40,000 studs per play-through, and between replaying that and some other lucrative chapters, I was eventually able to save enough studs to buy ‘invincibility’. I could then go back to the vehicle Chapter of Episode I (care to guess what THAT is?) and get to True Jedi Status.

This is exactly what you’ll find in LEGO Harry Potter. When you first go to Diagon Alley you have few wizard skills at your disposal, and the same is true when you take your first flying lesson with Madam Hooch, so in order to get to all of the inaccessible areas and find the hidden objects you need to return when you have more characters and skills available.

The idea of telling the first four books in a single game might seem massive until you look back at the way the LEGO Star Wars games worked. Not every section lends itself to gameplay, so the developers chop it up nicely and wrap the game around the key bits and moments, with cutscenes for others.

Technically, both the PC and PSP versions of the game are well done. You get the classic music (there is no real voice acting in any of the LEGO games, just mumbly words), all of the characters and stories and scenes you remember, rendered lovingly in blocky LEGO detail! Of course, it isn’t all just blocks – everything is done in full 3D and looks great. Animations are fluid and the camera angles generally work quite well – sometimes you are obscured but the game provides added transparency in this situations.

The controls vary somewhat between the PC, PSP and console versions of the game. Whereas any actionable item glows and can be immediately acted upon in the PSP version, for the PC version you need to activate spell targeting and then move around using the movement (WASD) keys to target the specific item. Each has pros and cons, but in general they are well suited to their own platform.

Specific to the PSP game, I found it very linear and obvious – even for a LEGO game – with little to surprise me along the way. Again, not a bad thing, but since it is always obvious how to get past any challenge, and since you can easily hit 100% on EVERYTHING on a second pass through the game, it makes it a bit trivial. The only challenges for me were on the ‘chase’ sections, where my problems were more staying alive than finding stuff – because those ‘driving sections’ are the things in LEGO games I tend to do poorly. That doesn’t mean the game wasn’t a blast, just something to be aware of to help you assess the game based on your own tastes and skills.

The reason I mentioned the console version is related to my first criticism of the PC version: the developers did very little to make the game feel like a PC game. I mean, when you are constantly told what to do with the ‘right stick’ or ‘left stick’ and you are sitting in front of a keyboard & mouse … it is pretty obvious you weren’t a primary developer concern. The LEGO Star Wars games always felt developed for consoles, but at least they got the on-screen control descriptions right!

Another problem with the PC version is there are no checkpoints or save locations. You simply make it to the end of the level or restart again. The reasons I specify the PC on this are twofold: first off, on the PSP you tend to just put the system to sleep when you want a break. For the PC you tend to quit games. Perhaps more importantly the PC levels simply FEEL longer. I never timed anything, but there is more spell control, more fun to be had causing wanton destruction throughout Hogwarts, and the areas just seem larger.

A final complaint with the PC version – and this will probably sound petty – is that it takes about 10 clicks / keystrokes to actually QUIT THE GAME! You have to go to the menu, then choose to return to the Leaky Cauldron (losing your current level progress) and confirm you want to do this. Then you access the menu and choose to exit from the Leaky Cauldron … and again have to confirm this decision. This brings you to the main menu, where you need to choose to Exit to Windows, and then … you guessed it – make a final confirmation that you want to quit! It feels one stage longer than in previous LEGO games, which were too laborious to begin with!

So there are a few differences between the PC and PSP versions in terms of controls, actions, and my criticisms. But for the most part they both deliver the same experience – and that experience is a wonderfully fun, purely LEGO, full-on Harry Potter mix of magic and mayhem that brings me back to the wonderful LEGO Star Wars games I so enjoyed. These are not intended to be deep, dark & gritty, or difficult games – they are supposed to be easy and endearing and full of whimsy. And that is exactly the experience they deliver!

So which version do I prefer? That is actually a tough call … because I love the PSP version for giving me a great ‘gaming on the go’ experience, but it was the more limited game. The PC version was broader and deeper, but I found the artificial limits frustrating and also often found I would rather have been playing something like StarCraft 2 on the PC instead. Both games are a blast and loads of fun, and I’ve already shared them with my kids who are also greatly enjoying them!

Where to Buy:

(PC Version at Amazon is also $27.99, though I got mine from GamersGate)

Price: $27.99

What I Like:
+ Fun, fun, fun!
+ Excellent retelling of the stories
+ Built-in replayability

What Needs Improvement:
– PSP game is overly simplistic
– PC game could use fewer console-specific references
– PC game needs in-level saves!

Source: Personal copies of game.

One Response to " PC/PSP Game Review: LEGO Harry Potter Years 1-4 "

  1. Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life – I have used an electronic companion… #year

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