Some games surprise you, providing you with something utterly different to what you expected, and some games are exactly what you expected. This is the latter. This game is regularly, somewhat dismissively, referred to as ‘Lego GTA’ which is…er, exactly what it is. What is surprising is just how fun and charming the end result is, with Lego City Undercover standing as one of the most out and out enjoyable gaming experiences which I’ve had in a while, and probably the best exclusive yet for the Wii U.
Lego City Undercover opens with the return of supercop Chase McCain to Lego City following the escape of master criminal Rex Fury from jail, who Chase had originally put behind bars a few years previously. Chase goes undercover in the Lego City criminal underworld to find where Rex is hiding and put an end to the crime wave that he has orchestrated.
Lego City is in places a somewhat generic setting, but there are certain interesting, and surprisingly beautiful areas. First of all, Lego City is suitably huge, providing a massive environment filled with things to do. Open world games can sometimes feel somewhat empty, as the developers fail to find enough stuff to fill the huge world they created, but this isn’t the case with Lego City Undercover. You’re never far from a side challenge to complete, a ‘Super Brick’ to build new structures in the city, a new vehicle or new Lego minifigure to play as. Lego City feels packed with content and things to do, although it’s all somewhat skin deep. To criticise a game like Lego City Undercover for not being immersive seems a bit silly, but this is a key aspect of open world games, that element which made Skyrim, Fallout 3 and GTA 4 so brilliant. Some environments really stand out though, such as the gorgeous national park and the glitzy Time Square parody, and exploration of Lego City never gets dull.
I can’t believe that I’m saying this, but the plot of Lego City Undercover is highly entertaining. If loving the humour of games like this makes me childish then I guess I’m childish, because this game regularly had me in stitches. Chase is an endearing protagonist, part Zapp Brannigan-esque swagger and part genuine badass, I enjoyed following his story and the amusing characters which he encounters. As with many elements of this game, there’s more effort put into it than it necessarily really needs, but it’s these funny moments which will stick in my mind more than the gameplay.
The actual gameplay of Lego City Undercover will be very familiar to anyone who’s played a Lego game before. There are lots of simple puzzles, basic combat, collecting and building, with the twist lying in the open world. The puzzles are built around Chase’s eight disguises, each equipped with different abilities, and can be swapped around in an instant. It’s always obvious where to go next to solve a puzzle, but it’s oddly compelling, if fairly mindless, stuff. This being a GTA style game, there’s lots of driving involved, and most vehicles actually handle fairly well. The exception lies in motorbikes and quadbikes, which are cursed by floaty and lacklustre handling, but by and large driving is fun. The biggest flaw in the central mechanics lies in the highly dull combat; combat has never been a strong point in the Lego games, but wailing on enemies with a Lego Lightsaber or zapping foes with a Lego wand was much more fun than this. The combat is based upon grappling and throwing enemies, with a simple countering system thrown in as well. It’s just so simple and dull that I wonder why it was included at all, the game doesn’t need it and it actually would have been rather bold to create a game like this with no combat, rather than tacking some on where it’s not needed. Still, Lego City Undercover is mostly a lot of fun to play, and Traveller’s Tales clearly have the mechanics of these games down to an art now. If there’s one element which holds this game back it’s the absolutely insane loading times. I’ve honestly never played anything else quite like it. I kept a book next to me so managed to avoid boredom during these, but the particularly impatient will hate this.
There’s a vast amount of content in Lego City Undercover, and a surprising amount of it is well designed and fun. Alongside missions taking place in the main Lego City sandbox, there are 15 ‘Special Assignments’ which follow a more tradition Lego game structure, basically big levels filled with puzzles and things to do. These are a lot of fun, and often involve some surprisingly epic set piece moments. In games packed with collectibles, as Lego City Undercover is, it’s important that these collectibles are hidden cleverly enough to be fun to find, and Lego City does this well. I don’t have nearly enough time to get even close to 100%, after completing the story and harvesting a decent amount of the collectibles I only reached 26%, but I suspect that doing so would be quite a fun and satisfying experience, and perfect for kids. This is the kind of game that I would have gone insane for as a kid (although I still have a huge amount of fun as an adult). There are plenty of side activities too, from the predictable such as bonus arrests to time trials and police chases to the amusingly bizarre such as finding pigs to launch from cannons and aliens to capture. Seriously, this is a game simply packed with content, even by the standards of a genre which doesn’t usually lack for stuff to do.
One of the most pleasant surprises of Lego City Undercover is the voice acting, which is charming and funny throughout. Fun turns from the likes of Peter Serafinowitz and Adam Buxton add to the proceedings, with the absolute star having to be the infectious energy of the bumbling cop Frank Honey. I’ll confess to being an absolute sucker for good naturedly stupid characters, and Frank had me chuckling at his adorable dumbness throughout. This being a Lego game there’s only so much you can do with character animations, but they manage to be surprisingly expressive. Super stylised games like this are often actually the best for conveying expressions; remember Wind Waker? Ok, this game isn’t visually amazing or anything, but it certainly looks nice, and certain set pieces are as stunning as any in major ‘adult’ gaming. Seriously, the final five minutes of Lego City Undercover is one of the most epic moments which I’ve ever seen in a game, all the more amazing for being so unexpected. Another wonderful surprise is the fantastic soundtrack; the licensed music, such as Katrina and the Wave’s Walking on Sunshine, is nice, but it’s the original score which truly stands out. There’s some truly epic orchestral stuff, as well as some cool 70s police show style funk. One tune in particular was one of the most uplifting and joyful pieces of game music which I’ve ever heard, instilling the kind of feeling in me which the Gusty Garden Galaxy theme is Super Mario Galaxy, the Great Sea theme in Wind Waker and Hyrule Field theme in Ocarina of Time gave me. This music played whenever you rode around on a pig, with the juxtaposition of the uplifting and the ridiculous encapsulating the charm of this game in a way which nothing else can. It feels bizarre writing this, but Lego City Undercover has my favourite video game soundtrack since Skyrim.
Lego City Undercover isn’t going to convert people who are already resistant to the Lego formula, but for those who are highly susceptible for charm and humour, Lego City Undercover will be an absolute treat. This is a game packed with content and effort, and is probably the best game released so far for the Wii U.