LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 has the same basic construct as the other games in the series, but with far less focus on combat as you might expect. If you know the books/movies you know that's not the case later on, but in the beginning these kids aren't zapping everyone they come across. It's all about solving puzzles, collecting studs, and discovering all the hidden goodies that are all over the place. This time there are 200 Gold Bricks to unlock and find, a whole slew of "Students in Peril" who need rescuing, plus the usual assortment of random things to do. Unlocking other playable characters is still a major component as well, they are like Pokemon (can you collect them ALL?!?). You'll once again want to take notes as you play through the levels, mentally mapping all the areas you can't yet access and who you'll need to utilize when you play back through in "Free Play."
The "cuteness" factor still stands tall. The familiar and iconic scenes from the movies/books are fairly faithfully recreated in LEGO fashion. You can't do much with blocks from a graphical standpoint, but the backgrounds are nicely done. While it must be difficult to get the point across without dialogue, they still manage it well. The soundtrack we've all come to know so well plays in the back ground a little too consistently, and the sound effects are all there from the movies as well.
But while the basic set up and ideas in LEGO Harry Potter are standard just like the rest of the series, there a a few changes made by the developers as far as structure. Once you get to Hogwart's you'll be able to take Harry, Ron, and Hermione around the massive castle and plumb it's depths... or at least some of them. The grounds of the famous castle serve as a sort of pseudo-interlude between story missions. While I think it's a clever idea, I'm not sure how well it works in practice. The layout can be fairly confusing, and there is a ridiculous amount of backtracking. You'll spend way too much time running back and forth, pushing the increasing number of Hogwart's students you've unlocked out of the way.
Fortunately, there are the helpful Hogwart's ghosts who will lead you to your next class. It's during these classes that Harry and his friends will learn new spells. Using this magic will allow you to unlock new areas. There are a fairly extensive number of spells you can learn, which figure prominently into gameplay. For example, the spell "Lumos" which creates light, will cause plants and vines to move out of the way. As you begin to peer into every nook and cranny in the ancient castle, you'll soon realize just how much you have to learn. Sighs... I thought I was done with school a long time ago.
The other major change is the "hub" that is the Leaky Cauldron. It's funny, the dirty pub plays a subdued role in the Harry Potter movies (it's much more prominent in the books), and it extends all the way out the back door and down Diagon Alley. In the Leaky Cauldron you can continue the story missions or have a look at a board in the corner and go back and try your hand at "Free Play." You can search the shops on the main thoroughfare in Diagon Alley to unlock special bonus cheats, alternate costumes, and a host of spells just to name a few options. Head further down to Gringott's to access bonus levels etc, etc....
The problem is... well, Mos Eisley cantina this isn't. Again, as with Hogwart's castle, the layout is confusing. It would have been better if everything had been in one place. Plus, running back and forth just takes too long.
There are a lot more puzzles this time around as well. With less of a focus on combat, much of the game revolves around moving obstacles, and unlocking the next path. Most of these are pretty rudimentary, again, as you might expect from a "kid game." Having said that, some are surprising crafty, requiring you to think a bit about what to do next. Sadly, others are just annoying as you collect "x" number of the same item or search for potion ingredients for the umpteenth time. Still, considering the sheer number of puzzles, it hold up reasonably well.
Another seemingly random issue I have is the nature of the splitscreen when playing on the couch with a friend. It's weird, if you are on the same screen then everything is fine, but rather than being tethered together (which also sucks, I'm not complaining about that), the screen splits on a line. This would be fine if the bloody line stayed still. It's hard to describe: depending on the relationship between the characters the line moves at an angle or even vertically. For some reason this bizarre phenomenon really messes with me, giving me headaches. It's like vertigo or something. I get what they were trying to do, but please... leave it be.
But ultimately LEGO Harry Potter: Years 1-4 is really just more of the same, even if the formula has been slightly tweaked like a Half Blood Prince potion. What's more, that formula is starting to get old. While LEGO Harry Potter isn't really bad as such, it's still probably the worst of the ones I have played (although admittedly I never played LEGO Batman, or the LEGO Indiana Jones games). It's just not as fun in my opinion. Of course, that's really what it's all about, especially considering their target audience. Still, I know it'll stay on my shelf along with my other LEGO titles for those rare days when I feel like something a little different... slowly slaving away, spending countless hours towards that elusive 100% completion. Wow, what a contradictory sentence...
Score = 7.1 / 10