Who would have ever guessed that the best LEGO game yet would be the one with the most mundane setting imaginable? LEGO City Undercover‘s San Francisco-inspired city lacks the flash of a Middle-earth, Hogwarts, or a galaxy far, far away, but it makes up for that with one of the most involved – and evolved - gameplay experiences yet from this series. A lot of what’s here is status quo for LEGO games, but the new ideas that have been introduced coupled with some surprisingly sharp writing that toes the line between family-friendly and gamer-friendly, help to elevate LEGO City well beyond what longtime fans might expect.
A Surprisingly Colorful Vanilla World
LEGO City Undercover is basically the LEGO-fied treatment of a Grand Theft Auto that will never be, at least in terms of the scope of the gameplay. The titular urban center is a sprawling open world that breaks out across multiple islands, all of them filled with exactly the sort of environmental puzzles that are a hallmark of the series. The city is inspired by an amalgamation of LEGO City playsets. Much of what you see in the game – characters and locations alike – has a real world analog in LEGO-stocked toy stores, but the city lacks the memorable hook that so many other open worlds in gaming seek to deliver.
Fortunately, there’s a thoroughly entertaining story that pushes you to explore more and more of LEGO City‘s somewhat vanilla world. You play as Chase McCain, a disgraced cop who was run out of town some years earlier. He’s back now, and tasked with pursuing Rex Fury, a recently escaped master criminal whom he originally put behind bars. The story hits all of the necessary beats, but the moment-to-moment writing makes it shine.
TT Fusion’s writing team deserves big credit for creating something designed to hook players of all ages. Adult gamers will no doubt pick up on the unending string of corny-to-hilarious pop culture references, from the Morphues-inspired plumber who trains Chase in the art of kung fu to the brief appearance of two lovers who are standing on the bow of a crashing ship. One of them shouts “My heart will go on…!” as they are both knocked overboard. There’s even a Wilhelm scream in there. It’s delightful.
It’s occasionally grating too. The antics of characters such as the constantly fawning, over-eager cop Frank Honey grow old quickly, as does a goofy sub-plot involving his not-so-secret secret crush. The fully voiced cutscenes are lots of fun to watch, but they tend to pop up too frequently and run a bit longer than they should. It’s probably necessary for keeping kiddie players at attention – cartoony antics are a common sight – but adult gamers will often find themselves rolling their eyes and wishing the game would get on with itself already.
A LEGO Sandbox
The eyeball-rolling is also a good thing when you remember that the source of that exasperation is an actual desire to get back to playing the game. LEGO City Undercover doesn’t brim with life as much as other, similar sandbox games do, but puzzles, collectibles, and other attention-diverting hooks are scattered across the city. In any given location you’ll be able to follow a trail of LEGO crumbs to one bonus or another, whether it’s gold/red bricks, currency (which comes in both studs and new Super Bricks now), new characters to transform into, or any number of other things.
Studs are still used to buy things like cheats, but Super Bricks bring a whole new layer to LEGO games. This additional form of currency can be spent in specific locations, to build things like vehicle spawn locations, quick travel points, and story-specific structures. The new currency creates a platform from which to offer a whole new set of environmental puzzles. Finding a valuable Super Brick isn’t so different from finding a new character unlock, but this added form of loot to find creates that many more opportunities to ensure that players keep exploring and nosing around.
The Wii U exclusivity for LEGO City Undercover results in some neat gameplay elements that require the use of a Wii U GamePad. Chase is equipped with a tablet-like scanner that looks an awful lot like Nintendo’s inventive new controller. It is equal parts communications device, minimap, and loot scanner. You can use the touch interface to answer calls and set GPS destinations, but you can also activate one of several scanners (once unlocked) to peer around the environment and mark designated points of interest.
This involves activating the scanner and holding your GamePad up in front of the TV. You then scan around using the controller’s built-in motion sensors, with the view on the second screen shifting as you move the GamePad around in your physical space. It’s unfortunate that there’s no option for using either of the analog joysticks to further tweak your view; unless the target that you’re scanning for is more or less in front of you, some tricky real-world maneuvering is required to check out your surrounding area, especially if you’re in a tight living room.
This is a minor complaint for an undeniably nifty use of the Wii U GamePad, but LEGO City offers more than just gimmicks. Driving around in the sizable open world is a big part of the game, and the vehicles all handle surprisingly well. The brakes tend toward being overly sensitive, but not at the expense of fun. There’s also a cool hook to driving around: as you destroy bits of scenery, you fill up a counter. Each filled counter adds to your Super Brick multiplier, up to a maximum of 5x, but if you go too long without hitting something, the multiplier disappears. This quickly becomes an addictive feedback loop as you drive around like a maniac trying to boost your Super Brick supply.
The biggest issue with LEGO City Undercover seems to be more of a hardware problem than anything else. Perhaps TT Fusion couldn’t harness Nintendo’s new console well enough in these early post-release days, but the game’s performance falters significantly at times. Issues relating to draw distance and pop-in have largely been stamped out of open worlds in this day and age, but both are frequent occurrences. And while the LEGO characters themselves look great – particularly the reflections off of their plastic surfaces – shadows tend to flicker and just generally act a little wonky.
The biggest issue, by far, is the length of the load times. It’s halfway bearable when you’re stepping into a new mission or the police station hub – “only” 30 or 40 seconds, tops – but it is flat-out unacceptable when you’re venturing out into the open world. Wait times regularly climb past one full minute whenever the open city had to load. This simply shouldn’t be. Whether it’s a hardware issue or a software issue that will hopefully be patched at a later date, it’s a huge black mark against the game as it currently stands.
In spite of any shortcomings, LEGO City Undercover really is the finest overall effort yet from the entity that was once known as Traveler’s Tales. TT Fusion effectively steps out of the role of small-fry LEGO developer and presents its talent as a mainstream team. One can only hope that the TT Games parent recognizes this and falls into more of an alternating development role moving forward, as future LEGO games could greatly benefit from longer development cycles.
That’s besides the point though. LEGO City Undercover gives Wii U owners something to get excited about, and not merely because it’s the lone console-exclusive coming out for it in Q1 2013.
Score: 8 out of 10
(LEGO City Undercover was reviewed on the Wii U using a copy of the game that was provided by the publisher.)