To say that Nintendo’s Wii U console has had a rough year so far would be a gross understatement. After a fairly strong launch lineup featuring a new 2D Mario adventure and the survival-horror title ZombiU, most of the system’s biggest titles — games like Monster Hunter and Arkham City — are also available on several other systems. To make matters worse, many of the Wii U’s biggest releases are not going to arrive until well into the summer, giving both retailers and gamers a reason to complain. One of the most exciting Wii U games shown at last year’s E3 press conference was TT Fusion’s Lego City: Undercover, an attempt to bring an open-world Lego game to the system. However, unlike Traveller’s Tales other Lego titles like Lego Batman 2, this title would be in its own unique Lego universe with a cast of original characters. As one of the Wii U’s only big releases so far this year, Nintendo is lucky that the game lived up to its sky-high potential.
Lego City: Undercover places players in the role of cop (and Lego City hero) Chase McCain. After a sharp increase in crime throughout the city is blamed on local super-criminal Rex Fury, Chase is called back to his old stomping grounds to investigate the matter and bring order back to the city. Chase isn’t exactly the smoothest cop in the world, though, and almost immediately reveals the identity of his former girlfriend within the witness protection program.
Chase is one of the most likeable protagonists in recent gaming memory, as mixed in with his righteous attitude is a healthy level of cheese and nods to classic noir films and buddy cop movies. His ongoing dialogue helps to keep things entertaining when moving from one area of the city to the other, especially considering that the world isn’t as dense as a GTA or Saints Row. One particularly amusing section had Chase excited to speak in a monologue to himself about his ongoing investigation before being told by his superior that he wasn’t allowed to do so.
Although Lego City: Undercover is an open-world game, most of its emphasis is still on completing story-based missions. This could be seen as a fault, but the plot helps Chase to move across the entire city in a very organic fashion, making it almost unnecessary to do any exploring outside of these missions. Much of the player’s time will be spent switching between various disguises to get past certain areas, such as a burglar outfit, a plain-clothes civilian, or a mafia thug. Using these outfits helps to add a layer of depth to the exploration that makes most levels play out as puzzles, with the player figuring out which disguise’s ability should be used to open a door, stop a fan, or crack open a safe holding a prized game.
In addition to disguise-based puzzles, Chase has access to a Wii U gamepad-like device to help him find footprints, hear conversations, and even take pictures that can be saved to the player’s profile. These require actually turning around with the gamepad in hand to spot clues, and it’s one of the few areas of the game that would have been impossible on any other system. The gamepad can also be used to spot special bricks that can be spent to buy items like ramps and “call-in points”, which allow Chase to spawn special cars in designated areas. Dialogue from everyone but Chase is also played through the gamepad’s speakers, giving a unique sense of back-and-forth dialogue that’s surprisingly clever.
In fact, Lego City: Undercover’s humor is easily its best quality. Every character, from dumb sidekick Frank Honey to a perpetually loud mob boss, has lines of dialogue so funny and well-delivered that skipping any cutscene would be a sin. Almost every encounter is parodying something, usually for the entertainment of the parents. An early section saw a spot-on Morgan Freeman impersonator in a prison, while a later mission involved learning Kung Fu in a cinematic obviously parodying The Matrix. The mix of adult-focused humor with family-appropriate content is something to be admired, especially considering how well the writers managed to deliver on both fronts. It’s also a beautiful game, easily the most impressive on the system so far, with crisp animations and a very steady framerate. Draw distance is even fairly good, something that many open-world games often struggle to do properly.
Comparisons to the long-running Grand Theft Auto series have been made for as long as Lego City: Undercover has been in existence, and TT Fusion nailed what those games would feel like in the Lego universe extremely well. But as this game is for all age groups, its combat is one area where the transformation is a little awkward. Most enemies can be taken out with a quick throw and a slap of handcuffs, and even the tougher enemies usually require no more than some simple button mashing. To be fair, this was most likely done to make the game less frustrating to younger players, but this system could have been slightly deeper.
Like Grand Theft Auto, Lego City: Undercover also puts a fairly heavy focus on driving, and while this can make for some of the best “dumb fun” in the game, it also leads to some of the biggest difficulty spikes during missions. Many cars have very loose controls, so it can be difficult to not accidentally tip over and crash, forcing a checkpoint restart. As this is a large, open world that features tons of cinematics, the loading times are also fairly long. They aren’t quite as bad as some gamers have expressed, but giving players an opportunity to complete a non-game related task while it’s loading up the next mission is a bit of a pain. It’s a big plus that the game uses an awesome funky groove every time it goes to the loading screen.
It may have a lot riding on it due to the extremely small library available for the Wii U so far, but Lego City: Undercover is every bit as satisfying as players could have hoped. Hopefully the Wii U can pick up enough steam to justify a sequel, because this game proves that Lego titles don’t need superheroes or existing franchises to be entertaining.