Undercover And Over-The-Top
The popular LEGO game series by Traveler’s Tales has always featured simple co-op fun, but failed to fully capture the spirit of LEGO. Featuring a strict level-based structure that focused on platforming and simple puzzles, they were never quite infused with the full spirit of “play” that fans think of when they imagine a LEGO game.
Enter LEGO City Undercover. Playing as Chase McCain, a disgraced undercover cop brought back to hunt down his nemesis, career criminal Rex Fury, gamers have an entire city as their playground. From the first steps into the city, things just feel right. For the first time, the LEGO and non-LEGO objects fit together aesthetically, and everything LEGO looks like actual plastic. The city itself is expansive and features excellent draw distances, giving the player the sense of wonder that you get when seeing a real city laid out before you for the first time. Most importantly, though, the city’s designers remembered that the original LEGO City sets were kids’ toys.
LEGO City is everything a ten-year-old might imagine a city should be. The bright, shiny buildings house everything from burger joints to arcades, you can smash or climb on anything with impunity, vending machines hand out mostly-harmless dynamite, and the criminal underworld is more funny than nasty. Chase has access to a plethora of costumes that are straight out of a kid’s play session: cop, robber, firefighter, jewel miner, etc. Each major costume opens up new abilities for Chase, such as a grapple gun, a pickaxe that busts rocks, and a color gun that is used for solving puzzles. There are also a bunch of cosmetic costumes to collect, allowing the player to customize the look of Chase’s main disguises.
Gamers have been describing this game as “LEGO GTA,” and that description holds true to a certain extent. The game starts a bit slowly, but after a few missions the basic tools needed to get around the city are unlocked. After that point, Chase has free rein of the city whenever the player hasn’t started up a storyline mission. He can stop and commandeer any vehicle, go anywhere that has been unlocked, (and most of the city is unlocked early on) and explore to his heart’s content. The city feels quite large, and there are a ton of hidden items, minigames, and challenges stashed everywhere, with more things unlocking after every mission.
Vehicular gameplay takes center stage in this game as well. Chase will drive an enormous variety of vehicles over the course of his adventure, and the game does a great job of making each one handle appropriately. Like the detectives in L.A. Noire, Chase can stop and commandeer any car he sees on the road. Jumping into a red hot-rod delivers a different driving experience than tooling around in a jeep, tanker truck, or motorcycle. There are lots of races and car chases throughout the game, which actually awards the player for creating vehicular mayhem by mowing down LEGO objects on the side of the road. It certainly feels like LEGO GTA when driving full speed down the highway, plowing down street lamps while being pursued by a criminal gang, watching LEGO pedestrians leap desperately out of the way as you veer onto the sidewalk.
This is still a LEGO game at heart, however. What the player can’t do is take on actual storyline missions in any order but the linear path spelled out by the main campaign. Don’t expect any branching story paths or dialogue choices, and don’t expect to be able to go into most of the LEGO buildings. Exploration is largely an outdoor affair, except in the cases of buildings that house actual missions. In true LEGO game tradition, missions can be replayed in Free Play mode after they’ve been completed, and you’ll never be able to grab all the goodies available in a mission the first time through. There’s still no way for players to custom-build anything in the game, although the large assortment of costumes and vehicles helps make up for the lack of free-building somewhat.
It should go without saying that there’s very little violence in LEGO City Undercover. Fighting is a cartoonish hand-to-hand affair that generally results in arrests rather than deaths, and there’s nary a gun to be seen. Chase spends more time exploring, racing, chasing, and solving puzzles than fighting, anyway. Criminal acts tend to involve things like comically botched kidnappings and property theft, making the game perfectly family-friendly. The game relies on clever homages to cop TV and movie history as well as wink-nod humor to appeal to the adults in the audience, and it mostly works. Sure, it’s often corny, but it’s knowingly so. Go into it with the expectation of goofy fun, and the ride is quite enjoyable.
The game is in good shape technically, with smooth gameplay and the elimination of the platforming frustrations that dogged previous LEGO titles. Instead of free-form jumping puzzles, most platforming is done with the assistance of blue-and-white “free run” LEGO structures, which make city parkour feel similar to the rhythmic acrobatics of 2008’s Prince of Persia reboot. Fights are simple but fairly fun once the player unlocks “advanced” combat (three buttons instead of one!), and as mentioned, the developers did a great job with the vehicle controls.
The one technical pitfall in LEGO City is the load times. There are no load times while running around the city, but players will see the dreaded spinning police badge loading screen for far too long when switching into and out of missions and cutscenes. This happens particularly often at the beginning of the game, which is likely to turn off new players. I played the physical version of the game and there’s word that the digital version has slightly better load times, but the digital version is too large to be tenable unless you’ve got an external drive hooked up to your Wii U.
For those with the patience for the load times, there’s plenty of payoff. It may share many elements with previous LEGO games, but LEGO City is simply more fun to play. The animation and sound design add the perfect finishing touches to the improved gaming experience begun by the game’s technical improvements and more freeform feel. From the regular sight gags to the judicious use of slow motion during various action scenes, the game inspires the player to grin regularly while playing.
The city’s ambient sounds are impressive and often amusing, from the random comments of passers-by to the fact that LEGO City’s residents seem to enjoy playing ’70’s-style detective movie funk music on their radios (I’m still hoping to find LEGO John Shaft somewhere). The voice actors are appropriately hammy, delivering perfect B-movie performances suited to the game’s theme. Chase’s voice actor in particular does a good job delivering his lines, staying hammy and self-aware, but generally managing not to cross the line into lameness.
In the final estimation, LEGO City Undercover is a strong step ahead of Traveler’s Tales’ previous work. It finally nails the spirit of LEGO, and does so with a great deal of panache. Players can’t expect anything vastly different from the norm—it’s still a family-friendly action game full of puzzles and collectable items, and most gamers are unlikely to be strongly challenged by anything the game throws their way. That’s all right, though, because it’s all about having fun in a giant LEGO playground unlike any we’ve seen a game so far. The Chase is on, and he’ll be taking you for a great ride.
RATING OUT OF 5 RATING DESCRIPTION 4.5 Graphics
Creative design, excellent draw distance, and smooth animation make this the best looking LEGO game to date. 3.9 Control
Much improved over previous games, there are only occasional platforming frustrations—and the diversity in vehicular control is well-done. 3.7 Music / Sound FX / Voice Acting
Great ambient sounds, appropriately B-movie level voice acting, and groovy music set the stage well. 4.0 Play Value
The city feels huge and there are tons of things to do, with only the lack of challenge hindering long-term value. 4.0 Overall Rating – Great
Not an average. See Rating legend below for a final score breakdown.
|Review Rating Legend
|0.1 – 1.9 = Avoid
|2.5 – 2.9 = Average
|3.5 – 3.9 = Good
|4.5 – 4.9 = Must Buy
|2.0 – 2.4 = Poor
|3.0 – 3.4 = Fair
|4.0 – 4.4 = Great
|5.0 = The Best