LEGO: Harry Potter Years 1 - 4 Hands On, Feet Up

On its surface, LEGO Harry Potter may look an awful lot like LEGO Batman, LEGO Indiana Jones and LEGO Star Wars, but dig down a little past those colourful those bricks and you’ll discover some major shifts in the way the game looks and behaves.

Players will for the first time have a chance to decide how to digitally snap together those playing pieces, they’ll also have access to a world both more and less linear than previous LEGO games based on popular franchises.

“In LEGO Harry Potter the idea from the start was that Hogwarts would become a massive immersive environment that is open and full of surprises and secrets you can discover over a long period of time,” said Jonathan Smith, head of production at Traveller’s Tales. “It is much bigger than any of the Indie (Indiana Jones) hubs, but it unfolds at a more measured pace.”

In previous LEGO games, the central jumping off point for the adventures, be it a space cantina, or university, batcave or warehouse, gave you access to a variety of different “story streams,” Smith pointed out, but in Harry Potter, players will have to progress through the game at a more measured, linear pace, following along as Potter makes his way from a first year student to a fourth.

“In LEGO Harry Potter the narrative unfolds as it does in the books and films, so you don’t jump around from year to year, stories trigger in sequence,” he said. “You discover triggers to story points in Hogwarts and learn new spells in Hogwarts which unlock new areas.”

The key to the game’s progress, Smith said, are these new spells. With them will be able to push the story forward and explore new areas.

“There will be things you can see but won’t be able to do anything with because you haven’t learned the spells to interact with it yet,” Smith said. “But you’re not going to get lost. As soon as you start learning spells you’re going to be able to get to areas you couldn’t get to before and then through the game, after a period of time, you are going to find it becomes a very big open environment, but hopefully at a pace that is right for you.”

In a showing of the game earlier this year, Smith pointed out how efficiently the world of Harry Potter meshed and came to life in the LEGO world, calling it a testament to the strength of Rowling’s original works.

“The characters are very strong in this world,” he said.

As with previous LEGO games, the characters of LEGO Harry Potter all have different abilities. Hagrid, for instance, carries with him an umbrella that he can use to zap things. There will be 140 characters in this game to collect and play with.

One of the many differences between LEGO Harry Potter and other LEGO titles is the way characters in the game grow and change.

“What Indiana Jones can do at the start of the game is the same as what he can do at the end,” Smith said. “Harry is going to go on a learning adventure over four years, transforming from a boy who can’t do much at all – he can wave, picked things up – to an incredibly powerful wizard.

“The way we represent that in gameplay is through the spell chooser system.”

This system shows eight circles around a small image of the character you are playing. Each of these circles can hold a different spell. The game has more than 20 spells in total.

“There will be more than the eight options that you see here,” Smith said. “That’s how you will get a sense that you are growing in power.”

Another major change is that for the first time in one of these games, player will be able to, in some areas, move around and build with individual LEGO bricks and elements to create their own designs, instead of just auto building pre-conceived creations.

The game can do this because of a new physics system built into Harry Potter, Smith said. The system allows you to better interact with bricks. For example, when Harry runs into a run and through a pile of shifting bricks he actually kicks them around.

“This gives the environments a real sense of realism,” Smith said.

And in some areas, when building you can decide how you want to place the bricks together. When available, the system will have players use the left stick to move bricks around on a fixed vertical plane and then sticking the bricks together however they want.

If some of these new gameplay developments sound familiar, it’s likely because you’ve been on top of the developments of LEGO’s other major gaming project: LEGO Universe.

LEGO Universe is a PC massively multiplayer online game being developed in Colorado by NetDevil and, Smith tells me, the two development studios spend a lot of time talking to each other.

“They are part of the LEGO company and so are we,” Smith said, after I asked him why two developers would be helping each other out on projects that have no official ties. “They are working on LEGO Universe, they have been for a long time. We are working on our LEGO games and have been for a long time. We are good friends, we respect the work they do. Everyone in the studio is playing the beta. And we love LEGOs.”

Traveller’s Tales is also working with author Rowling and several Harry Potter experts, not only to make sure they portray what she’s written accurately, but also to expand the world she created in a way that makes sense.

“Lucas Films has the responsibility for looking after a much-loved universe and characters,” Smith said. “It’s a similar relationship with Rowling.

“There are key individuals within Warner Bros and literary agents who are experts on Harry Potter, the Holocrom for Harry Potter is their brains.”

So, for instance, when the game developers decided that they needed to be able to show what the Slytherin common room looks like, something never described in the books or shown in the movie in detail, the ran it by these experts.

“We are extracting tiny phrases from the books and then blowing them up,” he said.

Other interesting things I noticed, while watching Smith play through a section of his game, included the much loved dynamic split-screen used in multiplayer in LEGO Indiana Jones 2: The Adventure Continues. And a much improved graphics engine which makes this LEGO title the best looking of the bunch.

Because LEGO Harry Potter introduces magic to these sorts of games, you’ll get some new ways to play like a mechanic used for mixing potions, where players have to find the elements floating above a cauldron and toss them into the pot. You can also try your hand at flying a broomstick around. I had a chance to try it for a few seconds and found it as fun as you’d expect it to be.

And there are plenty of funny little touches in the game, the sort of details that have always made this LEGO adventures so much fun to play through. The portraits of Hogwarts are filled with animated minifigs, the frightening Dementors literally suck little hearts out of your minifig when they attack and the dreaded Lord Voldemort is first shown hovering toward a Unicorn with a fork and knife in hand.

I make no bones about being a huge fan of this series of games. I’ve played through everyone of the LEGO titles with my son and we’ve loved every bit of each of them.

Despite my interest finally flagging for this latest LEGO title, my time spent watching and briefly playing LEGO Harry Potter Years 1 – 4 has me anticipating the games release later this year on just about every platform conceivable.