The lights are on
Lego games all too often are only as good as the licensed brand they’re associated with. Lego City: Undercover changes that for the better. Whereas most Lego cash-ins either struggle to improve poor franchise formulas or reiterate popular ones at the price of their originality, Traveler’s Tale’s latest entry in the series proves to be a breath of fresh air. With a fantastic open-world, colorful characters, and a unique talent for storytelling all its own, Lego City adds up as one of the best Lego game in ages and one of the best Wii U games so far.
Fresh off a scenic and comical introduction, the game places you in the blocky shoes of legendary cop Chase McCain, an ex member of the Lego City PD bent on redeeming his tarnished name. Rejoining the force to catch archenemy Rex Fury and reunite with old flame Natalia Kowalski, Chase is tasked with going undercover to infiltrate Lego City’s most notorious gangs, uncover Rex’s plan, and bring the law back in town as studs fly and hilarity ensues.
In the footsteps of its predecessors of Lego Batman 2 and Lego Lord of the Rings, Lego City plants you in an open-world, but unlike any that Lego games have since presented. The city glistens in the Wii U’s HD and its sheer size impresses the most. The nearly 20 min. it takes to traverse its entirety on the road is evidenced by its gorgeous view from the air. Divided into sections reminiscent of San Francisco and New York, the city varies itself between a wide collection of terrain: from a lush national park to a bustling China Town to a glistening Lego Little Italy. The hum of citizenry and traffic and it’s completed with the shining image of Lego Lady Liberty Island in the backdrop.
The place that Lego City shines most, however, is in its story. Chase McCain’s witty one-liners and smart-aleck persona makes for a likable character that players will enjoy spending time with, but he’s nothing without the company he keeps. While police chief Dunby and Natalia Kowalski are equally engaging, it’s Chase’s sidekick of Frank Honey who’s the real star. His delightfully dopey attitude leads to all sorts of hilarious antics, from riding a horse backwards to his insistence on calling computers “compupers.” Rex Fury and his goons always provide chuckles, but it’s Frank that you’ll be looking for in every cutscene.
Despite its original story, Lego City is littered with its own share of franchise nods. The Matrix, The Shawshank Redemption, and GoodFellas all make their appearances in particularly clever ways and, as a Wii U game, Lego City displays more than a few Nintendo references to boot. I loved fishing up a Cheep Cheep by the docks or traveling down a warp-pipe and I laughed quite a bit throughout the Starksy and Hutch themed level.
Lego City’s gameplay is bound not to surprise any fan familiar with its predecessors by any means, but that hardly means that it’s fallen flat. Like all of Traveller’s Tales’s Lego games, you’ll find yourself bashing in objects to collect the standard currency of Lego studs with which you can buy new characters or vehicles. The change-up this time is the inclusion of Lego bricks. These are exchangeable for “Super Builds” available throughout the city to build new landmarks or vehicle call-in points. The urge to collect them all is strangely addictive and you’ll be hard-pressed to deny yourself from completing them.
Lego City’s gameplay is the most familiar to longtime fans and still feels engaging with its new tweaks. Though you’ll still be bashing in objects to collect studs, the game’s single-player experience is devoted to a kind of costume-based mechanic in the absence of other human players or annoying AI partners. Chase will collect a selection of “disguises” via his undercover work and each will be used for various tasks. From cracking safes as a burglar, to chopping down doors as a firefighter, to my personal favorite of the construction worker, each occupation feels unique and gives a valuable sense of progression as you collect them in the story.
Chase a few further moves under his belt outside of the clothes on his back. Rather than the normal goon-bashing of previous titles, Chase’s kung fu moves adds a deeper element of melee based combat. Countering and tossing enemies into each other in slo-mo scenes like a dumbed down Arkham Asylum never gets old and the game even throws in a few Prince of Persia-ish platforming sequences for kicks, though limited as they are.
Published by Nintendo, Lego City’s handles the Wii U’s functions perfectly. The game makes good use of the gamepad’s gyroscope and moving it back and forth in real-time to search for clues or record in-game conversations feels natural. The gamepad also allows for a display of the city map for easy access. It’s unfortunate that the uncompromising use of the gamepad locks out off-screen play, even more for the lost opportunity for co-op, but it’s probably forgivable given the sheer quality of your single-player experience.
The main-story will only take up a quarter of your time in-game, but the overwhelming amount of side-missions and exploration that awaits you afterwards post-game is astounding. Boats, helicopters, and loads of cars are all available for your hijacking pleasure like a kiddier GTA for both easier travel and time-trials for gold bricks. Random points in the city will further offer you disguise-specific side-quests. Idle flowers will need your farmer’s green thumb, Lego ATMs just ask for a burglar to break them, and randomized crimes will have you engaging in Need for Speed inspired car chases, whether as the cop or the robber. All of these are fun enough, but apart from completionism, there probably isn’t enough reason to pursue them all to finish them all.
Relatively few issues follow the game’s triumphs. Minor nitpicks could include long loading times in-between cutscenes and a couple frame-rate drops here and there, but perhaps they’re acceptable evils amidst the otherwise polished game you’re playing.
Finally, the Lego City provides an ample amount of post-game activities to keep you invested in its world long after the credits roll. The story alone takes up a good 15 chapters, and after clocking a good 15 to 20 hrs. into the main plot, it’s an overwhelming sight to see your progress standing at about 25-30%. I finished my first playthrough at only 33% and with the sheer amount of Super Builds, character tokens, and gold bricks left to go, I still have at least another good 30+ hrs. collecting loose ends.
While it may not quite revolutionize the Lego formula, Lego City perfects it in ways that are truly extraordinary for kid and adult audiences alike. Lego City: Undercover is easily one of the most underrated games of the year and it’s hard not to recommend it more for your Wii U game library. If you’re willing to enjoy a clean, joke-fueled adventure game experience in a sizable world than the Lego Police Department wants you.
Overall Score: 9.25