Lego City Undercover Review
One of Nintendo’s surprise announcements when it debuted the Wii U a few years back was an exclusive Nintendo-published Lego game. Its title, Lego City Stories, immediately made me think about Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto: Liberty City Stories. The name was later changed, but that early association proved to be more accurate than I would have guessed. Lego City Undercover delivers the majority of the same thrills and action that you’d expect to see in any open-world game.
When we begin, our hero Chase McCain returns to Lego City after a long leave. Officer McCain’s old rival, Rex Fury, has busted out of the clink, and it’s up to McCain to recapture the thug. His return is also an excuse for McCain to try and rekindle a romance with Natalia Kowalski, a former flame. The story is, of course, filled with twists and double-crosses, which ultimately provide players an excuse to explore the streets and outskirts of Lego City.
Lego City Undercover features an entirely new storyline and character roster, based on classic Lego themes such as town and space, and it’s great. Chase’s sidekick, Frank Honey, is a buffoon who mounts a horse backward (thinking the front is the back), and then comments on the horse not liking the apple he was trying to feed it. The chemistry between the characters is great, and I actually looked forward to watching every cutscene for a change.
The Wii U’s GamePad is used as a communicator between Chase and his friends at police HQ, and I completely fell for the gimmick. I love how easy it is to get around town, too; you scroll around the GamePad minimap and tap your destination, which is then plotted on the TV via a line of ghostly Lego studs. The 360-degree scanning portions aren’t quite as fun, even though using it to locate and listen in on reliably funny character conversations is worth it. Most impressive was the camera; it’s a one-off device in the campaign, and it highlights just how good the GamePad’s screen really is.
The gameplay is split between a hub world and more traditional level-based gameplay, but calling Lego City a hub world does it a disservice. It has plenty of variety, including rural zones, harbors, and a bustling downtown. I got a kick out of just hopping in the nearest car and going for a drive. The level of detail is impressive, right down to the way vehicle damage is shown; drive your monster truck into enough walls and other cars, and you see the tiny pistons pumping away in the engine.
Chase earns new suits as he progresses through the story, each with a set of corresponding abilities. Lego City Undercover is strictly a single-player game, so you can expect to do a lot of costume swapping. I liked seeing the cosmetic changes that came with each outfit, but the insistence on wardrobe changes is a pain. To give you a sense of what you’re up against, you might approach a boarded-up door that requires a fireman suit to open. Seconds later, you have to fix an electrical panel as a construction worker to clear a path for a criminal-suited Chase to pry open a safe with a stethoscope. These never offer any challenge or strategy, and the fact that you routinely have to chain several swaps one after another in seconds-long bursts makes it even more tedious.
TT Fusion has absolutely nailed the best parts of sandbox games, which is great news for parents. Exploration is a big part of heavy hitters like Grand Theft Auto and Saints Row, but most of the content is hardly appropriate for younger players. Lego City Undercover wisely poaches many of the destructive elements behind those adult games. Kids get to experience all sorts of mayhem, and they’re rewarded for it all. Since McCain is a police officer, the heat stays away from him (unless he’s deep undercover in a story mission). That means he can commandeer a car and then drive on sidewalks, smashing lightpoles and fire hydrants, and earn super bricks in the process.
Those new super bricks are a big part of Lego City. These collectable elements are scarcer than studs, and they’re used for what TT Fusion calls super builds. These large builds include relatively simple creations like helicopter pads, to more complicated structures such as bridges and space shuttles. They’re still built automatically – no piece-by-piece building here – but their scale made the Legomaniac inside me twitch.
Like some other developers in the genre, TT Fusion seems to have a problem figuring out what to do with this giant world. Additional missions appear as the story progresses, but I never felt motivated to try my hand at the latest driving challenge or hop around buildings in a parkour race. Citizens mill around, seemingly going about their Lego business, but I never found anyone who needed my assistance, aside from folks I met along the game’s critical path. Loads of hidden bricks and super builds are still scattered throughout the world, but I would have liked more variety.
It isn’t perfect, but I can’t think of another Wii U game that I’d recommend more than Lego City Undercover. It’s the most interesting and highly polished game in TT Games’ large repertoire, and it fills an important game gap. Now kids (and their parents) can tool around in a big town where people smile even as you almost run them over in an ice-cream truck.