From a stuctured experience to an open world
The LEGO videogame series has been around for some time, with its most popular incarnations definitely being the most recent licensed titles. Much like an artist that has been making music for more than five years, a series has to change, in sometimes unexpected ways, to avoid irrelevance while retaining the heart of what makes it great.
Coming off of LEGO Batman 2, the series' first foray into an open world, LEGO City: Undercover definitely runs with the idea to good effect. How good? Well that remains to be seen come launch, but so far, damn good.
LEGO City: Undercover (Wii U)
Developer: TT Fusion
Release: March 18, 2013
A departure from the LEGO franchise in more ways than one, LEGO City: Undercover is a fully voiced, original story. As you can imagine this is quite the undertaking for a studio that has made its name on telling stories with only grunts and moans.
"Since this is an original story, it's really impossible to tell it with only grunts and people pointing at stuff," says executive producer Loz Doyle. "At least with something like Star Wars, most people already know the story, so it makes it easy for them to know what's going on." With this new direction, then, comes the challenge of getting a script in order. "When people pitched to get the job, it was important for us to make sure that it would be funny, which is quite difficult to tell in a simple pitch. So we didn't get anyone."
After going through an agency to try and find a writer, the team at TT Fusion instead tapped into some unknown resources. As it happens, one of their designers, Graham Goring, does stand-up comedy in his spare time. "It's actually quite unusual," says Doyle, "as you would normally have a whole team writing a game this size, but Graham jumped at the opportunity."
The important bit is that is seems to be paying off. LEGO City's writing carries a Saturday morning cartoon vibe to it, both light and accessible as well as entertaining. Anyone that knows me can tell you that my tastes in comedy tend to lean on the more fowl end, and even I found myself chuckling throughout my playthrough. There's really no denying that LEGO City's script carries real charm.
However, the biggest series change has to be the open world. As you can imagine, it is quite the undertaking for a team accustomed to building more structured experiences. Starting with the technical challenges -- "there's just so many," says Doyle -- "The geography, finding out how they all interact together, as well as building a road map on top of that to link all the different city and forest environments together."
Though the structure of the world has changed, the core of the LEGO franchise looks to have handled the adjustment. During my roughly two hours with the game, the bulk of my time was still spent solving puzzles, platforming, breaking and building tools, all while using different outfits and their abilities to assist.
The latter especially can lead to some Metroidvania-type moments. During Act 3, which takes place in part on a farm, I gained access to the farmer's outfit. allowing me to grow scalable vines wherever there was a plant pot. Once back in town, the farmer outfit becomes a great boon to exploring previously out-of-reach areas.
Of course, LEGO City would be remiss to not use its outfits in the side activities. For the fireman, there's about 25 barbeque fires to put out as well as kittens to save. For the robber, there's missions where you break into ATM machines and try to get away, as well as cars to steal that have you outrunning cops to get the car back in one piece.
These actives are further supplemented by your standard-issue collectibles such as red bricks, which act as cheat codes, and build sites where you can construct ramps and jumps. LEGO City is a pretty big place, and there's a lot to do.
Since this is a Wii U title, you can expect the GamePad to come into play, though not in any spectacular way. It's essentially the same GamePad-as-a-pause-menu interface we have seen from many games before. That said, it is quite handy to be able to set waypoints by simply taping on the mini-map display.
These gripes aside, there's good reasons to be excited for LEGO City: Undercover. Whether you're a fan or just looking for something else to play on you Wii U, you really should look to see how this one turns out.