Imagine a Grand Theft Auto game, with driving missions and an open world, but made of Lego. Sounds awesome, right? Now imagine that game has been crafted by Travellers Tales’ b-team, has long loading times, slightly dull missions and a general lack of polish. Still awesome? Well…
It’s not that Lego City Undercover is a good idea ruined by its execution. It’s a great idea that slightly fails to live up to its (massive) potential – but has all the right pieces it needs to become brilliant, if rebuilt a little bit.
Lego Star Wars
Lego City feels a lot like the first Lego Star Wars: different, mostly ropey, but fun anyway, with a solid groundwork to build upon.
The game puts you in the shoes of Chase McCain, a cop with a point to prove returning to Lego City after two years out of the loop.
Now, his task is to track down and apprehend master criminal Rex Fury and make it up to love interest and blonde blockshell Natalia.
Unlike other Lego games, Undercover sees Chase explore one giant world – the titular city.
Missions take Chase all over this sprawl – verdant forests, bustling downtown, an historic castle and a laid back farm, to name a few.
The game’s story is spread over 15 chapters, each of which packs in two or three missions; a fair length which will take closer to 15 hours than 10 to beat (not including picking up all 450 gold bricks).
These missions mostly include driving, platforming, boshing goons and cracking puzzles – or some mix of all four.
One early objective sees Chase drive to a fighting dojo to learn martial arts (essentially a how-to-fight tutorial) before rushing to recover a stolen truck containing the police force’s most hapless recruit, Frank Honey, and driving it back to the station in one piece.
The Dark Knight Rises?
Another has Chase running after bad guys who’ve just robbed a bank, running them off the road in his police car and then apprehending the ‘Joker’ (hello, Dark Knight reference) on foot.
Indeed, there’s plenty of variety. From piloting helicopters to commandeering speedboats, robotic dinosaurs, tractors and remote-control cars, you’ll never be short of a mode of transport. One farm-based mission even sees Chase rounding up and then riding pigs (don’t worry, animal lovers – horses make the cut, too).
These missions are book-ended by the game’s strongest draw: its clipscenes. These are often genuinely funny and showcase a humour both goofy and dry that kids will lap up.
Without any film franchise to draw on, Lego City has to rely on an original storyline and a set of characters we know nothing about. The result is some of the strongest scriptwriting the series has produced – not just rehashing movie lines.
One funny section is at the dojo, which maintains a running home appliance theme while Chase deals with the enemies: “Your mind should be as clear as a well-serviced boiler” and “relax, relax… DID YOU LEAVE THE OVEN ON? Doesn’t matter, it’s electric…relax”.
Though it does rehash movie lines as well. In fact, it’s packed with reference after reference that’ll fly over younger heads.
One mission set in a construction yard sees Chase joined by ‘Studsky & Clutch’, a cop duo who make lots of old-school police show references while you jump over ledges and break through doors, while we spotted Columbo, Kojak, Sherlock Holmes, Titanic…the list is nigh-on endless.
Another key aspect of Undercover’s appeal is the set of disguises at your disposal. Each of Chase’s ten suits grants him a different power. For example, the robber can pry open doors with a crowbar, while the miner can handle TNT to blast destructable blockades and the farmer can jump large gaps by, er, whipping out a chicken and using to glide.
Puzzles In Disguise
Most areas will demand you switch between these disguises to clear puzzles – so you might need to use Chase’s standard police outfit to search for a clue, then swap to the robber to open a door and using the miner to grab the dynamite from that room and take it somewhere to progress.
These early outfits also have multiple abilities: the robber, for example, also gets a colour-changing gun. Many rooms will need you to find a colour-swapping machine, fill the gun with the correct paint colour, then hit a door trigger or a platform with the right colour to open it/paint it blue to climb on.
By the game’s end, mixing and matching each outfit to the situation is an enjoyable twist on the Lego formula, even if the game itself is very basic.
There’s no shortage of ideas here, then. But the issues with Lego City arise in their execution.
Platforming is a particular pain. Blue and white bricks represent climbable or grabbable objects like hand-holds, pipes, overhead rungs or wall-jumping sections. Often Chase will slip straight off any of these, refusing to grab the object in question.
Not an issue in other Lego games – you just die off the side and try again.
But Lego City’s open world is actually its downfall when it comes to platforming – because the whole world is connected, when you fall off a platform, you don’t die, just hurtle off the side of the building you were progressing through for the mission, hit the ground, and have to start the entire building’s platforming all over again – often several minutes’ work. When you then have to do this eight times in a row because the platform detection is so damn ropey, it becomes really frustrating.
The city itself is also a little bit of a let-down from a technical standpoint.
Though the variety of areas is welcome – and it’s packed with collectable bricks, disguises, cars and studs – the actual city doesn’t look wonderful. Driving a car results in absolutely loads of pop-in, while any object not within ten feet of the car is just a blurry background. Even buildings you can ‘see’ in the distance are a nondescript shape until you get close. The resolution is nowhere near 1080p (is it even HD? We’re not sure) and there’s screen tearing and some slow-down.
For a game built from the ground up exclusively for the Wii U, it’s disappointing to say the least.
This extends to the car handling: it’s almost as if TT Fusion has tried to make vehicles handle more realistically – more GTA4 than GTA3 – but the result is most cars have a terrible turning circle and oversteer and twitch almost constantly.
Another slight issue are the ‘super builds’. At various points throughout the story, you’re asked to construct something to make progress – a helicopter, or a dinosaur, or a swimming pool, for example.
But these builds take bricks, and you’ll need to collect them as you go through the game to avoid getting stuck.
Each small ‘super brick’ gives you 1,000 bricks, while large super bricks grant 10,000. Most builds need 20-50,000 to get made.
It means you’ll need to constantly sweep open areas between missions to make sure you’ve got enough. There were times we found ourselves inside a closed area (like the museum) struggling to hunt for enough brick pieces to make a build. Though there are usually some dotted around near any given build location, we often felt like we were scraping through and risked getting locked in one of these areas forever.
One thing Undercover has going for it is its Gamepad integration.
While the game certainly won’t convert anyone to the wonders of the Wii U controller, it does some nifty things.
Some missions will require you to hold the Gamepad up to the TV to scan for bad guys or hidden collectibles. Doing so puts a blueprint 3D map of the inside of any building it’s pointed at, allowing you to zoom in on enemies and pin down their exact location, or listen in on their conversations.
You can also take photos with the Gamepad at any time (after you unlock this) by holding R. These are then saved in an in-game album.
Other than that, the pad simply shows a map, helps you target objectives and acts as a communicator to other characters, who’ll often ring you for a video-call to progress the story.
One thing we would have liked is multiplayer. We get what TT Fusion was trying to achieve by making an open-world single-player experience with an original story – but often it felt a little lonely driving round this huge city by ourself, solving (very simple and easy) puzzles with no-one to share the joy. It would definitely have been improved if it had been reworked to include a second player or some online mode (preferably both).
Youngsters will find plenty to enjoy in what is here, and it’s by no means a bad game.
In fact, a sequel which improves the graphical issues, the platforming problems and adds a second player would help Lego City reach the potential the franchise so clearly has.
Lego City: Undercover is a good idea – it just hasn’t been built in quite the right way.
6.0 / 10
6.0 / 10
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7.0 / 10
Lego's first solo outing has plenty of good ideas, but is let down by some technical issues that block it from reaching its true potential.