In 2005, Traveler’s Tales struck gold by combining two forms of popular entertainment: LEGOs and video games. LEGO Star Wars proved itself to be an instant hit and took the developer down a long and fruitful road filled with adaptations of various LEGO properties including Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the DC Universe, Indiana Jones, Pirates of the Caribbean and even Harmonix’s Rock Band. With the exception of both LEGO Batman titles, games built around pre-existing films meant that Traveler’s Tales had to “stick to the script” and not wander off from the narrative. LEGO City Undercover doesn’t suffer the burden of being an adaptation of any particular film and the game ends up being the funniest and most creative LEGO game for it.
Loosely designed after San Francisco, Lego City is home to police officer Chase McCain who finds himself returning to the blocky burg (in a scene reminiscent of Grand Theft Auto IV) after being run out of town years before. McCain is called back to service in order to track down Rex Fury, a master criminal that swore revenge against McCain’s ex-girlfriend after testifying against him in court. Hunting him down won’t be easy and Chase must work undercover with various criminal organizations in order to bring Fury to justice.
Direct comparisons to Grand Theft Auto are apt considering how much of the game’s structure is designed after Rockstar’s popular crime series. Lego City itself is an isolated island mass comprised of three major traversable areas connected by bridges that are impassable until the story opens them up. McCain will work his way through the criminal underbelly by completing various tasks and errands set upon him by NPCs that range from stealing cars, infiltrating a prison and seeking assistance from kung fu masters (why not?). Navigating the city is accomplished by taking McCain’s car for a spin or commandeering a plethora of vehicles (LEGO Segway, anyone?) driven by the city’s hapless populace as they mill about doing whatever it is Minifigs do. Certain vehicles, like limousines, taxis, subways and trains can take away the stress of driving around town as they travel along set routes or directly to objective markers.
LEGO City Undercover brings back a number of different gameplay elements, mechanics and level structure from previous adventures. Although an open world, many story levels are set within isolated arenas comprised of linear paths, above average puzzles, hidden areas and numerous collectibles. Traveler’s Tales continues to do this very well and anyone who has played at least one LEGO video game within the last eight years will feel right at home. Completing a mission opens up a Free Play version of it, allowing Chase to access previously inaccessible areas so long as he has the proper disguise equipped. There are a few story beats set outside of these larger mission areas, usually some form of pursuit, but the bulk of the game is functions within these set pieces. Littering the streets of Lego City are the familiar multi-valued LEGO studs that can be used to purchase new characters, costumes, vehicles and other bonus items. LEGO City Undercover introduces the Super Brick which are required to build special structures (vehicle call-in points, for example) or fun monuments (say, a giant LEGO dragon). Individual Super Bricks appear after busting apart environmental objects (plow through them in rapid succession with a vehicle for a multiplier bonus) while larger versions are tucked away off the beaten path.
The Wii U controller plays a large role in LEGO City Undercover. Apart from displaying an interactive map containing information on area collectibles and objective markers, it doubles as a scanner and a directional microphone. Scanning locates hidden items, tracks down mission critical targets and marks special objects (like Super Bricks) as destinations. The directional microphone is mostly used to track down imminent criminal acts and advance the current story beat. Both the scanner and microphone feature require the player to lift up the gamepad at the television screen and move it about until the target has been found.
While the game itself is fun, it doesn’t break out of the time-tested formula. Making up for this apparent lack of major innovation is a creative and hilarious LEGO experience second to none. The LEGO City brand isn’t limited by any particular narrative and frees the developers to come up with all sorts of non sequitor sight gags, wacky situations and references to a catalog of popular films. Given the prominent vibe, the majority of LEGO City Undercover is a pastiche of the cop genre from the 1960s to the 1980s, presenting LEGO-themed homages from the likes of Dirty Harry to Miami Vice while branching out into other film properties such Goodfellas and Titanic. There’s a strong commitment to making a funny joke, a notion that is no more apparent than an entire level built around The Shawshank Redemption that ends with a beautifully funny payoff. It also features what has to be Alfonso Freeman, Robot Chicken alumni and brother to Morgan Freeman. Chase McCain himself is a caricature akin to The Naked Gun’s Frank Drebin, a cop who’s heart and soul is in the right place but at the same time wildly inept.
Lego City Undercover has a great many things going for it: an incredible sense of humor, great visuals, and tried and true gameplay. It’s heartbreaking, however, that the one element that absolutely sucks the fun out the whole thing are the atrocious load times. Since the Wii U’s launch, loading has always been an issue and its a shame to see it rear its ugly head. In most cases, load times tend to last over a minute, which is time better spent playing the game instead of listening to the same “wakka cha-wakka” 1970s style chase music over and over. Loading occurs at the start of a mission, moving in and out of the City police station/central game hub and at the start of every cutscene. The less than desirable battery length of the Wii U gamepad can also cut into game time. I was pretty upset that I had to cut my game sessions short when the low battery warning appeared and while I suppose its healthy to step away from the game for awhile, I certainly wasn’t ready to do so because of how easy it is to get drawn into the game.
The game’s technical problems notwithstanding, I found LEGO City Undercover to be an immensely enjoyable adventure that really made me laugh. It certainly has a lot going for it with a great story, funny script, creative originality and a design that makes no attempt to dumb anything down making it easily accessible for gamers young and old alike. LEGO City Undercover is also a lovely looking game that continues the trend of blending real world objects and geography with colorful and whimsical LEGO objects. For those still upset about the delay over Rayman Legends, I’m pleased to say there’s finally a game that makes Wii U worth owning. That is, until the game gets an inevitable(?) port.