Review: LEGO City: Undercover

LegoCityUndercover

As Traveller’s Tales has blazed its way through game after game based on the licensed Lego franchises—Batman, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, etc.–the same thought keeps creeping in, growing a little louder each time: This is the one where the formula finally jumps the Lego brick. And while that hasn’t yet proven to be the case, the margin of error has gotten thinner with each release.

It turns out that being freed of the shackles of telling somebody else’s already-told story and the attendant bells and whistles of a new gaming platform are a pretty nice fix. Unleashed in a truly open–world environment, Lego City: Undercover isn’t just a welcome jolt to the still-anemic Wii U library; it’s one of the better (and funnier) Lego games to hit in recent years.

Sending up big-budget action flicks is tops on the Undercover agenda. As dashing Lego action hero Chase McCain, you’ll make your way around Lego City’s vibrant and sprawling plastic-brick metropolis, trying to bring the Mohawk-coiffed Rex Fury to Lego justice. It’s easy to feel like you’ve walked into the anything-goes sandbox wonderland you once tried to create as a seven-year-old and a multiplex theater showing a triple-bill of Die Hard, The Matrix and Lethal Weapon. The designers have packed in nods to major cities like San Francisco and New York, and good-natured swipes to pop-culture touchstones modern and classic. The adults in the crowd will catch references to Titanic, Starsky and Hutch and Dirty Harry—and that’s just in the first half-hour. Every sight gag, whether it’s attached to a pop-culture property or not, comes with a wink broader than the Brooklyn Bridge, and that’s okay, too—nobody knows how to let us know they’re in on the joke better than Traveller’s Tales.

For the most part, those jokes, and the dialogue that sets them up, are stellar. Last year’s Lego Batman 2 marked the first time the Lego games embraced the wonders of voice-acting, and that’s on display to great effect here. Some of the jokes are a double-dip of gut-buster and some, like sidekick Frank Honey’s dopey tendency to call personal computers “com-pyupers” wear out their welcome faster than stepping on a sharp-edged Lego brick in bare feet. Maybe the third-grade set are amused.

Collecting Lego studs, the sometimes entertaining, sometimes tedious task that has formed the unlockable economy of every game in the series, isn’t arduous in Lego City. That’s because there are piles and piles of gold and silver studs everywhere you look, like the glittering remains of the greatest Mardi Gras parade ever. You don’t even have to go out of your way to collect them—although that’s an option, too—and since the stacks re-appear every time you revisit an area, you’re not likely to be hitting the Lego City bank up for a loan.

Instead, you’ll be saving up studs and hunting special bricks to pay for superbuilds–bridges, statues and vehicles you’ll create to open up new missions, advance the story or give access to key new abilities. (Kung fu, anyone?) If you think of the l’il building exercises from any of the other Lego games and imagine them on HGH, you’ll have the idea.

The task list feels like it’s also been frequenting the same labs as Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds—good god, there’s a lot to do here that goes above and beyond the basic storyline. Most of it’s dependent on Chase unlocking a long list of costumes/disguises. Once he does, he (and you) can look forward to unleashing his inner pizza boy, fire fighter and sumo wrestler, just to name three. And whether chasing aliens, extinguishing barbeques or making like the laziest construction worker in the world is your thing, you’ll be able to do it here.

Just be sure to pack your patience. Load times, the bane of so many open-world games, are a troubling issue in this burgh, too. Prepare to spend copious amounts of time staring at the Wii U gamepad as a white loading bar trudges across a gray screen. Sure, there’s a lot of data involved in evoking an open-world this big, but dull loading screens are the very definition of not fun, and a big stumbling Lego block.

There’s also a key brick of the Lego-games formula that’s glaringly absent in Undercover–the multiplayer element. Up ‘til now, every single game in the series was predicated on pairing up with a partner (or, barring that, the sometimes blockheaded AI) to solve puzzles using the different abilities of unlockable characters. For parents, the Lego games were a great way to teach the virtues of co-op play without having to break out the needlers in Halo 4. Here, they’ll have to settle for teaching the virtues of sharing a single Wii U gamepad.

Speaking of which, Lego City makes effective if not groundbreaking use of the console’s otherwise revolutionary controller—it functions as an interactive map that plots courses to your next mission objective, a scanner that reveals hidden mission clues, a communicator that allows dispatch to contact you on the fly and a camera to snap evidentiary pictures. The last one’s the most fun (and reminiscent of some of the mission objectives in Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time) but none of them feels particularly essential to the gameplay experience.

Some have dubbed Lego City: Undercover ”Grand Theft Lego,” and that’s an accurate but lazy comparison, given that the level of objectionable content within these plastic metropolitan confines never rises particularly high. Unless you consider smashing Lego ATMs, boosting cars from Lego garages and tooling a ginormous Lego T-Rex through the heart of downtown particularly objectionable, you (and your kids) are in for a fun (and funny) time. It’s not quite a system-seller for Nintendo’s newest toy, but if you already have one, you’re gonna want to brick up and get crime-busting.

BuyIt

Pros:
+ The interactive Lego universe you’ve always dreamed of visiting
+ Snappy writing and hilarious action-flick sendups
+ Tons of side missions and challenges to explore and conquer
+ Sensible use of gamepad features

Cons:
– Long and frequent load times
– What? No multiplayer?

Game Info:
Platform: Nintendo Wii U
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: TT Games
Release Date: 3/18/2013
Genre: Open-world Action/Adventure
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: 1
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

[nggallery id=2892]

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.