Version tested: Xbox 360
One of the unsung strengths of the Lego games is that their reductive approach to plotting allows them to skip or gloss over the weaker elements of their inspiration. In the case of Pirates of the Caribbean, that's several hours' worth of storytelling bloat - and at times, TT Games punctures it perfectly.
In particular, the ludicrous convolutions of third film At World's End are beautifully skewered in one single scene where the characters rapidly exchange places until half are on one side and half on the other. Who needs two hours of cross and double-cross when a single thirty-second sequence can cover similar ground without the audience looking at their watches - and offer a knowing chuckle into the bargain?
Just as the Star Wars prequels were shorn of midichlorians, younglings and dialogue about sand being rough, and transformed into lean, exciting, set-piece-driven action films, the Pirates movies suddenly become much more appealing in Lego form. Sure, there are perhaps too many stages where you're fighting aboard a ship at night and/or during a storm, but you can blame the apparently light-phobic helmsman Gore Verbinski for that.
The parodies, as ever, are on the money, and the naturally dark tone of the Pirates films was clearly more fun for the developer to subvert. Here, the dramatic climax of Dead Man's Chest sees Jack Sparrow happily embrace his imminent demise, stepping into the mouth of the Kraken not wielding a sword, but a toothbrush with a generous squirt of Aquafresh.
As with the films, Jack is the undoubted star. That walk - half stagger, half swagger - is even more of a hoot in miniature. He constantly looks on the verge of toppling over, leaning backwards then forwards as he capers along.
In fact, Lego Jack is an idealised version of the character - a little more akin to the dashing anti-hero Bruckheimer and co. imagined before Johnny Depp decided his portrayal needed a little more kohl, Kilo Kai and Keith Richards. He might not have the walk of a swashbuckler, but his swordfighting skills are much more impressive than in the films. Michael Bolton would surely approve.
Finishing flourishes see him revert to type, distracting his enemy by pointing one way before whacking them with an empty rum bottle, or stepping back and lobbing a banana skin under their feet. Best of all is when he picks up a guitar; while most characters will strum a gentle acoustic melody, Jack scratches out a scuzzy rock riff. Try to move while playing and - brilliantly - he adopts Chuck Berry's famous duckwalk.
When he's not clashing swords with guards or piratical foes, Jack's compass is his most important weapon, used to find secret items by following a twisting path highlighted in blue, with the added bonus of a breadcrumb trail of Lego studs. Most items can be located simply through thorough exploration, but it's much more satisfying to find them properly - where X marks the spot.
Not that you'll be able to find them all on your first play. Perhaps even more so than previous Lego games, the real meat of the game is found in the Free Play mode. To truly complete a stage, you'll need to have unlocked and purchased a wide range of characters - from the Flying Dutchman crew members able to slip through strange, slimy portals to the blunderbuss-wielding bit-parters whose weapons can blow a hole in silver objects.
Frequently, it's simply a case of switching to the right character in the right location, but rather than just being handed the ship-in-the-bottle minikit piece you were after, often whole new areas will open up, hiding multiple secrets and unique asides. One of the later levels sees a mermaid's singing reveal the den of a large Lego spider which you then ride into battle against other arachnids. The same stage also carries a miniature ship skirmish where you steer your craft across a small pool, blasting enemy galleons with cannon fire.
Otherwise, it's that familiar blend of enjoyable, simple-minded combat, rudimentary puzzles and Lego-stud kleptomania. I don't know whether it's down to the noticeably improved game engine, but even Lego veterans may be surprised at just how many tiny shinies the game seems determined to hurl at the player.
Perhaps surprisingly, such a cascade of Lego bits doesn't seem to cause any kind of technical hiccup. Indeed, the tearing and slowdown that have blighted previous Lego games are conspicuous by their absence. Graphically, this is the most impressive in the series to date, with some exceptional lighting complementing the sun-kissed island environments and making the storm-lashed, seaborne set-pieces more visually exciting.
If Pirates seems less ambitious than the last two Lego titles, lacking the cohesiveness of Potter's Hogwarts hub or the epic scale of Clone Wars', um, wars, then it makes up for it with an overall confidence borne from TT Games' experience with the licence. The highlight of Dead Man's Chest - that three-way swordfight atop, around and inside a giant water wheel - probably wouldn't have been attempted a couple of years ago, but it's replicated here in all its remarkable silliness. It's arguably one of the few moments where the game's reach exceeds the developer's grasp, the sole occasion where the platforming feels a little awkward, but it's so audacious that you can't help but admire the effort.
Otherwise, everything feels that bit more polished. There are sticky platforms that make it harder to lose your footing, and while AI characters still have their moments - at one point I was convinced blacksmith Mr. Briggs was trying to parody Jacob's Ladder, though his rapid shaking was merely because he was stuck on a piece of scenery - for the most part their behaviour is a vast improvement on previous games. The lone player certainly won't be pining after the comparative reliability of a human partner quite so often.
It still irks me slightly that a game based on a construction toy spends more time on destruction, even if the compulsion to smash everything and siphon up those lovely studs remains so strong. One day, I'd love to play a Lego game that allows me to build anything I want, like that giant starship I built from four different sets of space Lego as a kid.
Until then, we have formulaic but tremendously enjoyable games like this - not that you can blame TT Games for sticking to the template that has brought millions of young gamers such enjoyment over the past few years. It's true that those who've played the last two or three Lego titles might experience a little déjà vu, but the rest will likely find that a pirate's life is very much for them. Savvy?
8 / 10