With childhood comes plenty of playtime, during which young ones are given opportunities to learn about their inhabited world while having fun. Many companies have attempted to capitalize on this market, but few have been as successful as the iconic building blocks bearing the LEGO brand. In fact, the toys are a household name by this point, and are known throughout the civilized world. It’s all a result of a great idea, partnered with quality design efforts and excellent advertising throughout the years.
Although the blocks and their related theme sets have sold like hot cakes since their retail debut decades ago, the suits who run the company haven’t stopped looking for ways to grow the brand. Video games have played a grand role in that effort over the last while, as the interactive market has been saturated with licensed titles bearing LEGO affiliation. Granted, while stand-alone titles do exist, they’re not the most popular, with the majority of the blocks’ video game-related success having resulted from partnerships with movie studios, authors and, most of all, developer Traveler’s Tales. Surely you’ve played, or at least watched footage from one of the many licensed LEGO titles that now dot store shelves, whether said gameplay came from LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Indiana Jones or LEGO Harry Potter. Then again, maybe you’ve played them all, as many surely have.
Thanks to its impressive roster of successful partnership releases, the aforementioned developer was given the green light to try something different with the block-based license. The result, a Wii U exclusive distributed by none other than the Big N itself, is known as LEGO City Undercover. An aptly titled sandbox action/undercover cop game, it’s arguably the fledgling console’s most talked-about title. That is, at this point in time.
In addition to the descriptors listed above, the best way to introduce LEGO City Undercover is to refer to it as a family friendly Grand Theft Auto-like experience that happens to be set within a destructible block world. In a nutshell, that’s exactly what those who pay its admission price will be privy to, and that’s certainly not a bad thing. Simply put, if you enjoyed any of the previous games, you’ll have a good time with this one.
The all-important narrative, which never had a celluloid or literary crutch to rely on, centres upon a member of the LEGO City police force named Chase McCain. Having left town after a court room debacle that followed his high profile arrest of the city’s most wanted criminal, the wisecracking crime fighter returns to a new mess. You see, Rex Fury, the aforementioned lawbreaker, has somehow found his way out of prison. That’s not the worst of it, though. Instead of hiding out and staying out of trouble like an intelligent escapee would do, he’s resumed to his life of crime.
From the start, the campaign’s goal is clear: One must attempt to find and stop Rex Fury. That happens to be easier said than done, however, because an intricate web of corruption has entangled LEGO City, forcing players to don their detective caps. The result is a fifteen hour-long storyline that twists and turns its way throughout a landscape that melds San Francisco and Miami together in digital space.
Like its predecessors, LEGO City Undercover relies on familiar gameplay tropes. As a result, those who’ve played any of the previous titles will be able to jump in without much of a learning curve. Then again, this is a title that children can pick up and play, meaning that even newcomers won’t have a problem getting used to how things work.
In order to progress through the narrative side of the experience, one must complete a set of fifteen chapters. That familiar literary term describes the game’s many interactive acts, all of which include at least one mission parameter. What’s great about the design is that it offers a wealth of content, and is lengthy instead of brief. Adding on to that, players are always earning new costumes and abilities, which allow them to get through previously locked areas or interact with new environmental items. Examples include a police uniform, complete with a grappling hook, as well as a farmer’s stinky overalls, which allow Chase to shoot eggs and glide using a friendly chicken. In-between those polar opposites are a space suit, a criminal’s disguise, civilian clothing, a firefighting outfit and construction overalls. Needless to say, one must change costumes more than a pop artist, as each unique clothing type is linked to its own interactive puzzle elements.
The general gameplay design that is utilized here sees Chase McCain venturing into a multitude of different environments, wherein he must use his unlocked abilities to accomplish listed tasks. While some levels have positive outcomes, quite a few focus on the main character’s need to complete criminal acts in order to become a trusted member of the city’s crime families. As such, there’s an interesting mixture of objectives, ranging from helping a farmer save his pigs to stealing an incredibly rare diamond from a museum. In-between, multiple infiltration attempts must be completed.
Generally speaking, the inherent set-up works quite well and, in all honesty, no part of the game is truly broken or bad. However, the gameplay found within LEGO City Undercover rarely felt unique, and never really evolved. Sure, there are different abilities to use, but they’re almost all used ad nauseum, and the combat left a lot to be desired. As a result, the campaign became repetitive and, at times, boring. I stuck with it and found some enjoyment, but I hoped for more from it. There are only so many blocks that can be broken before boredom sets in, and this game definitely exceeded my quota. Thankfully, some of the repetition was offset by LEGO City and its colourful inhabitants.
Although some may dislike the idea of completing criminal efforts in order to succeed, it all makes sense within what is a colourful, humorous and rather over-the-top storyline. The characters are unique, and there’s certainly no shortage of comedic movie homages, including references to Shawshank Redemption and The Matrix. Unsurprisingly, not all of the jokes were successful in making me laugh, but there were some memorable moments strewn throughout the campaign.
Switching in and out of different outfits is an enjoyable breeze, and is accomplished by the simple click of a button. Doing so while on the go is mandatory in a game that favours one costume-changing hero over a group of likeminded characters. Sure, many extra avatars can be found, but only completionists will care to bother finding them all. The same is true of the millions of monetary studs that dot the digital landscape, as well as all of the hidden bricks that can be found and unlocked through extra effort. In fact, the game’s focus on collectibles is one of its major downsides. There are simply too many things to find, not to mention an insane amount of challenges to complete, including time trials, and activities. This staggering amount of extra content will be welcomed by some, though I found it to be overwhelming and somewhat scatterbrained.
Adding on to the familiar red and gold bricks of past releases are regular and special blocks. Applying to the same necessary counter, and only differing in the denomination department, the two combine to create what are referred to as super builds. The idea is that, once players have accumulated enough, they can create something new within the world, with a lot of those items pertaining to campaign completion. It’s a sensible idea, but having to search for thousands upon thousands of blocks slows things down and hurts the experience. That is, even though there are some neat super builds, such as stunt ramps and vehicles. Unfortunately, the tradeoff just isn’t fair, especially since the aforementioned stunt ramps rely on cinematics instead of user-controlled inputs, sending cars hurtling from one ramp to another. Then again, the driving isn’t anything special. It’s OK, but is rather stiff and forgettable as a whole.
Despite the fact that part of this review was negative, LEGO City Undercover happens to be an above-average and relatively enjoyable game, though playing in short bursts is recommended. Quite a few interesting ideas made their way into the final product, but the developers didn’t capitalize on them all as well as they should have. With that being said, I honestly believe that there’s a great game to be found within all of these building blocks, though improvements need to be made before it’s truly realized. First, the repetition needs to be alleviated. Then, the combat needs to be made interesting. Lastly, they need to expand upon the ways that the Wii U GamePad is used by adding options other than scanning and map usage. If they do that, and maintain the quality of the game’s impressive voice acting and detailed visuals, they may have a classic on their hands. For now, though, their inaugural trip to LEGO City stands as the decent game that it is.
This review is based on a Wii U game, which we were provided with.