Once around the block
TT Games has enjoyed years of success turning licensed properties into LEGO adventures. In many ways, it seems like quite an easy gig -- simply take an existing license, be it Batman or Lord of the Rings, and give it a makeover with colorful bricks and slapstick humor. What could be simpler? What, indeed, could go wrong?
Considering it sits comfortably on a sweet gravy train, one has to respect TT for being bold enough to eschew an established license and try something more original with LEGO City Undercover. Based instead on one of LEGO's own toylines, TT has more creative freedom than once it did -- but with that freedom comes a greater accountability and less brand recognition, as well as a need to craft its own story, characters, and universe with which to succeed.
Fortunately for TT, the gamble paid off. Mostly.
LEGO City Undercover (Wii U)
LEGO City Undercover takes place in an original open-sandbox world, marking the first big departure from previous LEGO games (though the groundwork was laid in LEGO Batman 2). As maverick cop Chaise McCain, players have free run of the titular LEGO City, a sprawling world of color and distraction, littered with pedestrians to laugh at, cars to commandeer, and collectibles to nab. It's a reasonably large playground, bustling with plenty of life and no small amount of personality.
Taking some cues from the likes of Grand Theft Auto and L.A. Noire, McCain roams the city in his search for fugitive criminal Rex Fury, taking on missions and posing as a crook himself to infiltrate LEGO City's underworld and get closer to the target. Undercover's story is littered with silly humor, and even manages to crack a few jokes that made me laugh out loud. A supporting cast of lunatics and hammy villains, not to mention a variety of movie spoofs designed to fly right over the heads of younger players, make for a presentation guaranteed to at least raise a smirk or two.
Presentation is easily Undercover's strongest suite. Its got a great vocal cast, further confirming what a wise decision TT made when it stopped relying solely on visual gags, and an excellent soundtrack consisting of both licensed and original music. LEGO City itself is well designed, and littered with things to collect, building bricks to earn, and "Super Build" constructions upon which to spend them. The ten-hour campaign alone will unlock tons of vehicles and costumes, with hours and hours more on top of that to really keep one invested. The sandbox approach makes for a more dynamic and endearing environment, aided by the ability to jump from car to car, destroy scenery, and ride about on animals.
It is a bit of a shame, then, that much of LEGO City Undercover's freshness is to be found solely in this surface-level presentation. When it comes time to engage in the game's story mode and actually complete missions, things quickly fall back into the familiar format established in pretty much every other LEGO game. Early missions involve chases through the city and GamePad-infused detective work, but these unique additions largely give way to the same old structure of going from room to room to break things, build things, and complete rudimentary tasks masquerading as puzzles.
It's not as if the gameplay is bad, but it's a lot more familiar than first impressions promise, as L.A. Noire-style pursuits and Assassin's Creed-flavored rooftop acrobatics diminish in importance to make way for yet another walled playground of simplistic brick-based hurdles. After a while, LEGO City Undercover is less a sandbox LEGO adventure, and more of an old-fashioned LEGO adventure interrupted by sandbox elements. This is a disappointment, but fortunately the classic framework is still robust enough to make for a consistently entertaining time.
True to its name, Undercover is all about using disguises to get ahead. Over the course of the campaign, Chase will unlock a variety of costumes with their own unique skills. As a robber, he can use a crowbar to open doors, as a farmer he can water potted plants to create climbable surfaces, and as a fireman he can break down barricaded doors with an axe. Quickly switching between these costumes is key to getting through most levels, and naturally each one can be replayed later once players have a full wardrobe, should they wish to reach previously inaccessible areas. It's all clearly signposted, simplistic, child-friendly stuff -- though nonetheless as cathartic and satisfying as all LEGO games tend to be.
When it's not treading old ground, Undercover does genuinely please with its new ideas. Whether scaling buildings and performing free-running stunts using simple contextual button presses, tossing foes to the ground and slapping cuffs on them, or spying on unwitting criminals, players get to really have some fun out on the streets. The GamePad is used sparingly and wisely -- mostly to house the map, but occasionally called upon to scan the area for hidden items or secretive dialog. Performing these tasks is as easy as holding the controller up, moving it to the required position, and pressing a button to scan. Not exactly groundbreaking, but as pleasantly unobtrusive a mechanic as one can hope for.
The game is at its best when McCain is simply cruising the streets between missions, looking for pigs to fire out of cannons, stunt ramps to ride off, or previously blocked areas that new costumes can access. The controls for driving are stiff enough to give it that "LEGO" feel while remaining elegant enough to stay fun in spite of the mild chaos. Undercover's emphasis on destroying the environment to maintain a score multiplier and earn more building bricks helps balance out any excessive stiffness in the controls -- even if you're in a car that's skidding out of control, you're likely to still be rewarded for it.
Controls are a little less pleasing during missions at times, with a few random and dodgy animations sometimes having Chase fall off ledges or miss platforms through no fault of the player. These instances aren't regular enough to ruin the experience, but do provide occasional irritants throughout. As with any LEGO game, animations are exuberant and physics are over the top -- certainly delightful from a stylistic angle, not always the best choice from a practical one.
A few technical limitations also hold the experience back. Some of the loading times between exterior and interior environments can be agitating in their length, and framerate dips are a common occurrence while navigating the city streets. The slow movement of manual camera controls -- with no option to tweak the sensitivity -- is also a frequent pain. As with every other downside to this game, none of it's a dealbreaker, it's just a bit of a letdown in an otherwise charming package.
For all its faults, charming is absolutely the word best describing LEGO City Undercover. While more could have been done to exploit the sandbox scenario, and while it sticks a bit too nervously to formula than it could have, Undercover is nonetheless a frequently pleasurable, occasionally hilarious little romp in a new LEGO world full of potential. Should TT Games get another chance to revisit this idea, I hope for -- and expect -- a lot more of an expansion on the concept, and a lot more focus on the fresh elements that provide Undercover's highest points. As for this first try, we have a pretty damn good effort that I'd love to see more of.
It is, as they say, a noble start -- the first brick, if you will, in what could become a most piquant creation.
THE VERDICT - LEGO City Undercover
Reviewed by Jim Sterling