We Built This City

As a child who grew up playing with LEGO, I came to love those themed sets that dealt with undersea exploration, deep-space mining, and pirates (not the stupid ones based off Pirates of the Caribbean, but actual pirates). Growing older, I also came to have an interest in Traveller’s Tales’ LEGO games, ever since the 2005 release of LEGO Star Wars (again, the Pirates of the Caribbean one was an exception). But much like how the models I created as a kid started to gather dust as I moved past that childhood phase, the licensed-movie LEGO games lost their luster—and my interest in the series became fleeting at best.

Then came LEGO Batman in 2008, which offered something substantially different: an original story not based on a movie. Of course, it wasn’t the deepest plot for a Batman-related property, considering the general audience of the LEGO games, but it rekindled a spark of interest in the series for me.

After LEGO Batman, though, Traveller’s Tales went back to their tried-and-true method of replicating movies. But, for me, it was too late. They’d opened Pandora’s Box. I’d seen that these games could actually take licensed properties and create original adventures—much like I did as a child with my toys. And it seems that, finally, Traveller’s Tales has realized this is the way to reach the largest possible audience.

Once they repeated their success with Batman in LEGO Batman 2: DC Superheroes, Traveller’s Tales turned their attention to LEGO City, the longest continuously running theme in the building blocks’ history (if you include the “Trains” series under LEGO City, which I do). Here was the biggest challenge yet—unlike Batman, no source material existed beyond the actual building kits themselves. And much like I did as a child, the developers used their imaginations to mold easily the most entertaining LEGO game to date.

The story revolves around one Chase McCain, a disgraced cop who gets a second chance when the criminal mastermind he once helped take down, Rex Fury, escapes from prison and sets off on the largest crime wave in LEGO City history. McCain’s greatest strength lies in the fact that he’s a master of disguise; he can don eight unique outfits to solve puzzles and work his way through LEGO City’s surprisingly seedy underbelly to get another shot at Fury. Rex can also commandeer most vehicles due to his police status, and he puts his police training to use to jump, climb, or free-run around any obstacles in his path.

In other words, a lot of the more “mature” mechanics we see in games like Grand Theft Auto or Assassin’s Creed are incorporated into a kids’ game here. Would this make LEGO City Undercover a “gateway game,” then, for younger players? I don’t know the answer to that one, but it allowed me to thoroughly immerse myself in an experience that I initially thought might have trouble appealing to a grown-up audience.

Stellar gameplay isn’t the only thing that transcends demographics, however. LEGO City Undercover makes constant references to classic TV shows and movies like The Shawshank Redemption, Starsky and Hutch, and every single Arnold Schwarzenegger flick without losing its primary target audience. I laughed at the Austrian-accented construction worker who makes references to avoiding “collateral damage” on the dig site and hates that the electric fence “jingles all the way” as it opens, while my 10-year-old cousin laughed because the character sounds funny. I laughed at the man in the prison yard who helps me break into Rex Fury’s cell because he’s doing a spot-on Morgan Freeman impersonation; my 10-year-old cousin laughed because the character sounds funny.

Mind you, these characters are also integral to moving forward a plot that takes you all over a massive LEGO metropolis that compares in scope to most any other open-world title—and should take most gamers 12 to 15 hours to complete. That timeframe’s only in terms of the story, though; LEGO City Undercover may also be a completionist’s worst nightmare, with dozens of different activities that include time-trial races, photo missions, foiling random robberies, and even catching aliens on the way to hoarding more than 500 collectibles. This could bloat the time needed to 100-percent the game to double—if not triple—what it takes to beat the story.

As good as all this sounds, though, LEGO City Undercover inherits a few issues from its predecessors—mostly on the technical side. The driving controls feel loose, and considering how large the world is, driving’s a necessary action to get from Point A to Point B—especially since there isn’t a fast-travel system to speak of if you don’t build it first. The idea of needing to collect bricks to build up the world around you to open up train stations, ports for boats, or car garages fits in well with the theme, but it’s counterintuitive for an open-world game and needlessly lengthens some trips between missions. It’s rare that you’ll have enough bricks to open up a point on your first visit there.

Speaking of needlessly lengthening the experience, the game’s load times are abysmal. I know these are a necessary evil, but LEGO City Undercover features easily some of the longest waits I’ve experienced in years; the game just seems to taunt you with a progress bar on the Wii U GamePad that ever-so-slowly fills up. Anytime I entered a building or started a new mission, I was met with yet another progress bar—and another clump of hair I’d pulled from my head in frustration.

While on the subject of the GamePad, not only is it used to communicate with the police station, but it also serves as an audio listening tool, and as a camera during surveillance missions. It’s an ingenious little plot device, but it was a mistake to also place the city map on the GamePad’s screen. I’d crash far too often while driving when I looked down for more efficient paths to my objective, since the ones given via the AI—represented by a path of green studs on my TV screen—were some of the most roundabout ways to get to a destination I’ve ever seen.

LEGO City Undercover is also one of the few Wii U titles that doesn’t allow you to play entirely on the GamePad because of these mechanics, which meant that I had to choose between watching hockey and playing this game—instead of doing both at the same time like with most other Wii U games.

Another returning LEGO problem here is the ever-broken camera. It’s understandably fixed in many instances in order to hide certain collectibles, but not being able to move the camera during a lot of the free-run sequences had me missing platforms, climbing in the wrong direction, or just not being able to see where I needed to go next.

These technical shortcomings aside, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a good time playing LEGO City Undercover. The plot’s definitely the best in a LEGO title yet, and it makes me hope that Traveller’s Tales continues down the path of original games based on licensed products—not straight-up movie rip-offs. The music does a great job of added to the lighthearted tone, and the voice acting’s superb all around. Children of all ages (even this 27-year-old one!) can laugh at different points about different things without the quality of the experience diminished.

If you’re one of the few people who actually owns a Wii U, LEGO City Undercover will serve as a nice break from the gaming drought you’ve been suffering as of late. If nothing else, the bevy of collectibles here should keep you busy just long enough until Nintendo releases another worthwhile title for the system—several more months down the road.

Developer: TT Fusion • Publisher: Nintendo • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 03.18.2013
8.0 Great gameplay and a humorous, well-written plot are more than enough to help LEGO City Undercover overcome some of the franchise’s lingering technical flaws, making it one of the few worthwhile experiences on the Wii U.
The Good Well written; incorporates all the best mechanics from previous LEGO games.
The Bad Also incorporates all the worst mechanics from previous LEGO games.
The Ugly So many collectibles that completionists won’t sleep for weeks.
LEGO City Undercover is a Wii U exclusive.