Get used to that. The single biggest take-home after finishing up with Lego City Undercover is the loading screens’ (sic) prominence in my eye’s view when closed, thanks to them being indelibly burnt onto the back of my retinas due to their omnipotence throughout Chase McCain’s adventures. With that in mind, there’s a lot to like about our new hero’s sprawling Lego Theft Auto here, as long as you’re aware of the significant constraints imposed by Traveller’s Tales’ Lego games before the journey begins.
Lego City Undercover is one of 2013’s first WiiU exclusives and the latest in a long line of gaming heritage given Star Wars and Indiana Jones amongst others have been given an interactive Lego makeover. This though is the most challenging title yet produced for a few reasons: its size, its open world/sandbox format and the very fact that it’s a new franchise based on a Lego product as opposed to a makeover of something pre-existing in the entertainment industry and invariably loved.
Taking a look at that final reason first shows that what we have here is a great success. From the opening scenes you can tell that Chase McCain, the central character as played by you, the gamer, is pretty much your hero-type in blue (yes, he’s a cop although he gets to try on different outfits depending on what job he needs to do and what skills he needs to do it), similar to the overly talented, incredibly lucky and truly cocky cops of various American shows, kind of like a cross between any David Hasselhoff character, Magnum P.I and at least one randomly chosen lead from Starsky & Hutch, Hawaii Five-0 or Miami Vice. You can’t fail to be charmed by him from start to end and despite his demeanour he’s someone you’re unlikely to tire of no matter how long you spend with him. The whole main cast are of equally high quality in terms of how they’re written but whether you’ll like them or not is entirely subjective. There’s a number of caricatures and stereotypes hidden within the game but enough of the unusual to keep you entertained (it’s an old one but a colleague you meet early on is named Frank Honey, and similar to Blackadder and Captain Darling much merriment ensues) - think of this Lego adventure as played by the Naked Gun cast and you’ll be most of the way there.
The game is littered with references to various films and TV shows of all kinds of periods making sure that if the actual gaming is in a lull, or only entertaining the youngsters in the house there’ll be something else for the more mature gaming exponents. The narrative here though is a little bit crazy and kooky as befitting a Lego game aimed primarily at children and follows for the most part well-worn routes travelled by other open-world games of a similar nature, although they’re typically from the perspective of the criminals rather than the police as it is in this case.
The gameplay is very much what you’d expect if you’ve ever played a Lego game before. This time we do have a great big gameworld and lots to do outside of the main missions, with all kinds of collectibles to keep you occupied for months. The main game can be completed in around fifteen hours if you focus on that but doing so yields just around a twenty percent completion rate. The Lego gaming template is becoming very old now and it’s a surprise not to see a massive amount of change here. There are additions and builds - for example free running feels fresh and make certain missions feel very full on and action oriented - but they’re the exception rather than the rule. For the most part you’re running and jumping, breaking and building followed by some grappling ad infinitum. You can of course drive around in any vehicle you care to take but the driving physics are incredibly basic and the speed so low that even getting from A to B via the entertaining C is hard work. There might be lots of small new things in-game such as the ability to use bricks that you’ve collected to build various structures or units around the city but given it all requires the same button press and hold whatever is happening it’s just not much more game than before.
The above might seem a bit harsh given the fact the Lego games are generally aimed at more lowly-aged gaming folk. It’s fair to say that fans of the series of games will find this a true step-up given the choice of going off in a car to run over some Lego City citizens, or find the various super bricks dotted around the place (one super brick is equivalent to a very large number of non-super bricks) in addition to pushing the story onwards is a very good thing. But what’s here has been done in pretty much any open world game in the past six or seven years, be it a Grand Theft Auto or an Assassin’s Creed, and been done better in every case. This probably wouldn’t be an issue in most cases as those who’re familiar with the superior and somewhat similar alternatives would probably not play a Lego game as a matter of urgency and if they did would be eyes open all the way in. The problem though is when Mums and Dads buy the game for their kids so that they can play along with them. In this case they might get some joy from the references littered throughout (I know what you’re thinking - did he mention references three times or only twice?) but they can’t help by playing along at the same time because there’s no co-op! In a game where you can theoretically do anything why would you not retain this option so that you can do anything, together?
The use of the WiiU’s GamePad is well done on the whole. For the most part it acts purely as a map showing the local area, key points of interest and route guidance but it also allows you to communicate with your colleagues around town when separated from them. In fact the GamePad is presented as an upgraded communicator device early on inside the game (Chase gets a GamePad-like device himself), a super-sized smartphone basically. It also can be used as a scanner when held up and looked through plus a few other things. Whilst it’s not as if these things couldn’t happen on the main screen, it does enhance the feeling of immersion above the baseline a little, something which is not easy in a game populated solely with plastic people. The graphics don’t really jump out at you despite this being a WiiU title and in-fact may well suffer from being a launch window WiiU title. There’s none of the pop that comes with Mario and all of the slightly higher res but nothing else feel other games have suffered from.
In the end you’ll know whether you’re getting Lego City Undercover well before you look at anyone else’s opinion of it. Having said that what you have here is an outwardly different game which when you get going with it isn’t really that much different at all. The script, humour and characters created is a triumph but the narrative and gameplay they’re set within isn’t and finishing the game for anyone grown-up and without a younger person reeling them back in will find themselves lacking in the desire to finish it and definitely not partake in the opportunities outside of the main missions as well. The lack of co-op is a travesty really and whatever the reasoning behind the decision it’s one that’s hard to understand. The loading times and frequency that the game needs to load is immediately and consistently depressing too and for these reasons it all becomes hard to recommend. The thing is though does that really matter? Probably not because you know, it’s for kids.