I remember when the Wii U wasn’t even announced yet that there was some excitement surrounding Nintendo’s next console. One of the first games to be announced for the Wii U, LEGO City: Undercover was a game that I knew I would have absolutely no interest in. Having reviewed what felt like hundreds (but was less than ten) of LEGO games, I was beyond tired of the franchise. Despite this, upon seeing trailers and the like, it was very clear that Traveller’s Tales had taken a dramatically different direction for LEGO City: Undercover. It’s entirely original, first of all, and it seemed to pay homage to some of the greatest films in its dialogue too. Armed with this small amount of information, I embarked on a journey to LEGO City to see what it was all about. And I came back with…..mixed feelings.
LEGO City: Undercover takes place within its own universe, one that LEGO has visited previously. I admittedly am not familiar with this continuity, but it doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it anymore less. You are Chase McCain, a police officer working in LEGO City given the objective to find and arrest Rex Fury, a criminal suspected to be behind the latest increase crime rates all throughout the city. It sounds rather average for a story, but it does go to some unexpected places – catching myself off guard quite a bit as the story progressed. All in all, it’s nothing special nor is it ground-breaking but it is serviceable.
What is special about LEGO City: Undercover is the writing. It’s not anything near as deep as Citizen Kane, no that’s not what I mean at all. It is, however, quite a funny game. I was unexpectedly taken aback by just how much I was laughing at some of the jokes. They are over the top, they are cheesy, but they are intentionally this way and it’s why I think they work so well in this game. Additionally, there are so many pop culture references – expect to see some Titanic in the opening cutscene and a rather memorable Shawshank Redemption reference mid game too. Characters are clear caricatures of iconic film characters and actors which an adult may recognise, but a child will also find humourous because at its most basic level it’s funny. This is what really shines about LEGO City: Undercover – it’s written in a way that both adults and children can enjoy it. I could go on about the game’s writing with more examples but I want to keep some of these things sacred as they are best experienced while in the mood and/or atmosphere that the game builds up.
The Wii U GamePad is used to great effect here – maps are shown on screen, calls are answered from your police depot and the GamePad’s gyroscope is used to scan environments for treasure as well as suspects for arrest. This is cleverly weaved into the game’s narrative as Chase’s own PDA, which is updateable with new functions as you progress through the story. One thing worth noting with the GamePad, however, is that the map can be used to mark destinations on the GPS. While this is a good idea, its execution is quite cumbersome and there is often a quicker way to get to your destination which leads to a lot of quick glances at the GamePad to ensure that no crashes happen on the road. It is worth noting that LEGO City: Undercover does not feature off-screen play which is a little bit disappointing.
Much like any other LEGO game, LEGO City offers a world made entirely of LEGO and all of the implications that come with it. Items can be built from spare parts (or parts of the destroyed environment) in order to cross a gap or solve puzzles. Chase has access to several forms (much like you had access to different characters in earlier games) which all have unique abilities and are unlocked gradually throughout the story. The big difference here, however, is that LEGO City gives the player a gigantic open-world environment to explore – spanning urban locales, vast mountain ranges and dense forestry.
With an open world comes all kind of vehicles with which to explore with. Besides commandeering any vehicle with the flash of a badge and a whistle blow, “Super Builds” serve as pads with which Chase can spawn all kinds of vehicles and vehicle stations from. These are unlocked with a new currency (besides the now staple Studs) known as Bricks. You’ll need vehicles too – since there is no fast travel option in-game which does admittedly lead to a lot of extra (unnecessary) padding. Which brings up one of the biggest, most annoying missteps with LEGO City: Undercover – the driving controls are ridiculously loose and really unenjoyable which seems counterintuitive since you’ll be driving so much.
Unfortunately, that’s not the only issue with LEGO City: Undercover. Firstly, the combat is incredibly shallow. Chase can attack things with his grappling hook, or simply counter enemies after which a button press “arrests” them to finish them off. This is a very small issue overall compared to the game’s load times, which are absolutely atrocious. It’s not so much that they are too long – the game does a huge load upon booting the game up which I would normally not have issue with, but it’s the amount of times that players will have to wait. Loading a mission, completing it, and waiting for the open world to reload again compounds this somewhat bearable once-off load to this consistently endured inconvenience. The GamePad does provide a progress bar to give you an idea of how long you have to wait, but the regularity of their appearance is sometimes just too much.
To be entirely fair, LEGO City: Undercover does provide a large breadth of content for players to wade through, but like with most games in this genre, your mileage may vary on just how worthwhile your pursuit of them may be. The main story itself will take anywhere up to fifteen hours to complete, though it is anticipated that this would triple with all kinds of different activities including random robberies and hijackings to foil outside of the main story, Pokemon Snap-esque photography missions, street races and a few others. Compound this with roughly four hundred to five hundred collectibles and it becomes clear that LEGO City is not an anaemic package at all.
In terms of presentation, LEGO City: Undercover may be one of the best looking games in the franchise yet, though I question whether it really is pushing the Wii U to its limits as well as it could. While everything is very colourful and detailed (as you can get for LEGO, of course) the frame rate has been lowered to 30fps to accommodate. Most who play games this generation would be used to this change, however those who play other LEGO games will notice the change. Chase and his friends (and enemies) all animated very well, and their facial expressions help give personality to all of the characters. It’s always fun to see how the team have incorporated the obvious limitations of being a LEGO person into the animations and behaviours of the characters, and LEGO City: Undercover is no different in this regard.
Surprisingly, LEGO City: Undercover is also fully voiced with all of the actors giving their best efforts for the script. The dialogue is cheesy, but the cast brings the right amount of dairy to make it feel like the right amount of cheese – they know and are familiar with the tone of the script which is encouraging. The music fits the theme too, recalling sounds and tones from the old procedural police dramas of the sixties and seventies. There really isn’t anything wrong with the game’s offerings on the sound front.
All in all, LEGO City: Undercover is quite possibly the best LEGO game in the entire franchise, and one of the best games that Traveller’s Tales has put out. While it features some great writing, some interesting new additions to the (relatively stagnant) LEGO gameplay and a new way to experience the world of LEGO – we can’t help but notice just how many technical difficulties the game seems to fall victim to. Which makes us wonder – is it the developer or is it the console they’re working with? We can never truly know the answer to this question, at least not this early in the life of the Wii U, but regardless it’s important to stress one thing. LEGO City: Undercover is a lot of fun if you can look past its technical limitations, and a strong and much needed addition to the Wii U’s library. Perfect for anyone and everyone – a Grand Theft Auto style game palatable for kids but recognisable enough for adults, Traveller’s Tales have certainly got something special on their hands.