Every time I thought LEGO City Undercover had reached its peak of awesomeness, it managed to go one step further. As you immerse yourself in this colorful and zany world, there’s so much to see and do and experience, then HOLY COW I’M RIDING A GIANT T-REX SKELETON THROUGH THE STREETS!!!
And all is completely, absolutely right with the world as LEGO City Undercover stakes its claim to being the best game yet for the Wii U, and in my book, a front runner for GamerPops’ best game of 2013.
Here at GamerPops, we’ve always considered Traveler’s Tales’ series of LEGO games to be right at the top of the list for consistently fun and high-quality family experiences (see here, here, and here for example), while making great use of popular, mostly family-friendly licenses. LEGO City Undercover represents a very welcome departure from that standard, boasting an original story, new characters, and a look and feel that borrows liberally from a whole lot of sources.
The game would seem to be a spiritual successor to LEGO Batman 2: DC Superheroes, Traveler’s Tales’ first take on an open world LEGO game, wrapped around the familiar mission levels. However, if you look close enough, you’d be hard pressed not to see this as a riff on the equally huge, varied, and insanely fun Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. For all the Grand Theft LEGO jokes that we and other gamers have made, it’s absolutely true; developers TT Fusion have taken everything that makes the GTA games fantastic, and rebuilt it in LEGO.
LEGO City Undercover stars Chase McCain, a disgraced cop returning to town after years away. His former nemesis Max Fury has escaped from jail and unleashed a crime wave on the good people of LEGO City, and only Chase can stop him. Teaming up with the moronic Frank Honey and the much more useful Ellie Phillips, Chase has to infiltrate the criminal underworld to unravel a dastardly plot with a few twists and more than enough great moments.
By making Chase an undercover cop, TT Fusion can have their cake and eat it too, since their main character is free to do all the things a bad guy does (breaking and entering, stealing, carjacking, etc.) without having to be a bad guy or an anti-hero.
To survive in LEGO City, Chase will need to learn new skills, and those come in the form of 8 different costumes he can cycle between (along with many, many, many other unlockable versions). Each costume has a couple of specific abilities that are required to solve puzzles and complete each mission and challenge, and as each is unlocked, it will open up replay opportunities in previously completed levels.
Similar to other LEGO titles, there is quite a bit of cartoonish violence in LEGO City Undercover, with Chase using kung fu to take down his enemies before slapping the cuffs on them. Other than a laser pistol that comes with the spaceman costume, guns are at a minimum, which is certainly a kid-friendly improvement over previous games.
Also sticking to tradition, Chase will be collecting LEGO studs generously scattered throughout the city, which he can use to purchase the new vehicles, costumes, and red blocks that he uncovers. New in LEGO City Undercover are collectable bricks, which can be used to unlock Super Builds in the city and missions. In the city, Super Builds might be ramps, loops, helipads, or sites to summon a road vehicle, while in levels they are always an objected related to beating that mission. It’s a dynamic that might need a little tweaking for next time to make it a little more integral, but it does succeed in adding yet another element to uncover and collect in LEGO City.
While LEGO City Undercover might not be based on a popular movie franchise, that doesn’t mean the sense of humour or pop culture riffing has disappeared. The game has nods to Starsky and Hutch, Miami Vice, The Matrix, Dirty Harry, Shawshank Redemption, and more that parents and older gamers will appreciate, but will fly right over the heads of children. Beyond that, the city is populated with plenty of supporting characters on both sides of the law, with most mixing over-the-top personalities and stereotypes, as well as ordinary citizens representing all kinds of appearances and professions.
You’ve probably noticed by now that I haven’t mentioned co-op play, one of the great hallmarks of the LEGO series. That’s because there isn’t any, for the first time in a LEGO console game, and that’s okay because the game simply couldn’t function as well as a multiplayer title. Unlike the previous games that have been designed purely as co-op experiences, this is an original story built around a single hero, and it’s to TT Fusion’s credit that they didn’t try to shoehorn in multiplayer, at the expense of a great single-player experience. But even if you can’t have two players sharing the screen, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ample opportunities for families to play together, taking turns exploring the city, completing the smaller challenges, or working together to find new hidden secrets.
And boy, is there plenty of exploring to be done. LEGO City isn’t one large land mass, instead it’s several islands linked together by bridges and tunnels, with each diverse section of the city inspired by a real world counterpart. As you explore, you’ll see the distinct visuals and personality of Miami’s South Beach, San Francisco, New York, Venice, and more recreated in LEGO style.
To make your way over, under, around, and through, Chase will have all types of vehicles at his disposal, including cars, trucks, motorcycles, construction vehicles, boats, aircraft, and for a brief, glorious moment, the aforementioned T-Rex. Similar to GTA, you can hop into any car you see on the road, including those being driven by other LEGO City citizens, but since you’re taking their car for police business, I guess that’s okay.
As a Wii U exclusive, LEGO City Undercover has also been designed to make use of the GamePad, and while the results won’t blow you away, they certainly don’t hurt the experience and do add a nice wrinkle or two. The GamePad serves as your police communicator, letting characters make video calls to you, showing the map, and performing a few other basic functions.
Where it shines though is when you get to use the Pad as an investigative tool with a first-person view of the city. At any point in the open world, you can use the GamePad as a camera to look for clues, suspects, and hidden objects (and take pictures to share online), or in certain situations you can use it to eavesdrop on the bad guy’s conversations. Because you are looking at the Pad through your characters eyes, you have to literally turn around to see what’s beside and behind you. None of that couldn’t have been done just as easily on your TV, but the GamePad does make it feel more interesting.
The Wii U hardware, however, is also responsible for the biggest obstacles to the game’s perfection. First and most important are the painfully long load times, which can run upwards of 90 seconds in some places, and all you have to look at is a progress pad on the GamePad screen and a spinning police badge on the main screen. Anything to look at would have been an improvement, even if it was just pictures of different LEGO City sets over the years.
LEGO City Undercover also seemed to mercilessly consume the batteries in my Wii U GamePad, faster than with any other Wii U game I’ve played. Granted that could be partly because once I got into the game, I didn’t want to turn it off, but the GamePad seemed to be quite adept at running out of juice at fairly inconvenient times.
And turning the game off shouldn’t be something you want to do, as there are dozens of hours of fun to be had. I completed the main storyline in around 15 hours, plus time spent exploring the city and uncovering it’s secrets. But as the plot wrapped up, I had not even completed 32% of the game, thanks to an incredibly robust system of collectibles, unlockables, side missions, and open world exploration. With 450 gold blocks to collect, representing all of the vehicles, characters, and extras, as well as 40 red bricks to find and purchase, the value of this game is immense, and that’s definitely something we as gaming parents like to see.
The GamerPops Recommendation
As a family game, or a fun experience for the core gamer, LEGO City Undercover manages to provide for both with a fun story, entertaining characters, and a wonderful, whimsical world.
Whether it’s for you, or for your kids, if you have a Wii U in your house, you absolutely must get LEGO City Undercover.
A review copy was provided to GamerPops.
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ESRB Rating Summary
Rating Category: E10+
Content Descriptors: Cartoon Violence, Crude Humor
Rating Summary: In this open-world adventure game, players assume the role of Lego-police officer Chase McCain as he goes undercover to capture a criminal. Players explore Lego City’s open-world environment, investigate crime scenes, and apprehend criminals to complete mission objectives. Players use an assortment of ‘cartoony’ firearms (over-sized lasers/blasters, and pistols) to stun enemies or douse them in color; players can also grab or throw enemies to the ground in hand-to-hand combat. In some driving sequences, players can slam into fleeing vehicles, causing them to break apart into Lego pieces. A handful of sequences depict slapstick-style and bathroom humor: characters emitting flatulence; bird droppings falling on a character’s head; a character getting kicked in the crotch.