Over the years, developers Traveller's Tales have delivered some of the best casual gaming moments in videogame history. Their easily digestible LEGO titles have been humourous, fun, energetic, and - just like the plastic brick toy they’re inspired by - innovative.
However, LEGO City Undercover marks a daring first for the team. It’s their first LEGO game that isn’t tied to a massive blockbuster franchise. There's no Star Wars, Harry Potter, Batman, Indiana Jones, or Pirates here. Instead, it calls upon one of the toy’s oldest traditions - the humble LEGO city sets.
When LEGO moved on from wooden toys and started making plastic bricks, City (or Town as it was called back then) were amongst the first pre-packaged block sets available. Over the years, the series evolved to include the iconic police station, airport, fire station, railway, and more. It seems fitting that one of LEGO’s oldest staples (dating back 40+ years) would be transformed into an interactive digital world in this modern age.
The question is, does it work?
LEGO City for the Wii U could best be described as a kiddy-friendly version of Grand Theft Auto. It delivers a free-roaming world, filled with studded bricks, colourful characters, endless missions, and is crammed full of pop-culture references and clever in-jokes that older spectators will crack a smile at. In fact, the parodies are surprisingly disparate, including references to the likes of the Shawshank Redemption, James Bond, The Matrix, Starsky and Hutch, Goodfellas, and even Titanic.
The wry sense of humour that Traveller's Tales have exhibited in previous LEGO games is well intact here, and seems to have been boosted by the freedom of not being tied down to a movie franchise. Granted, a lot of the laughs revolve around slapstick humour and often childish antics, but they are executed with so much charm they’re enjoyable by all ages.
This accessible and fun modus operandi filters through into the controls too. LEGO City Undercover, like other LEGO games, implements the casual single-button combat, basic driving physics, and gentle platform jumping gameplay engine that the series is famous for. The game is also filled with easy-going puzzle-solving elements too, where players will need to build things or locate certain LEGO bricks and objects in order to open a door, or interact with the environment.
Impressively, the story mode clocks in at over 10 hours, and players will certainly be able to spend more time than that in their quest to discover additional items and side-missions. The story revolves around hero, Chase McCain, who has returned to the city after learning his arch-nemesis Rex Fury has escaped jail. The names alone are worth the admission and, as you’d expect, both characters are full of cheesy one-liners and more stereotypes than a ComicCon convention.
In your effort to track down Rex, you’ll be able to unlock new disguises - such as farmer, policeman, firefighter, thief, and many more - with each persona granting you unique abilities. For example, one might be able to shoot a gun, walk a tightrope, or access areas that others can’t. The cast is huge in LEGO City and with constant unlockables, you’ll never be bored roaming the streets. And when you’re not walking on them, you’ll be driving around or flying above them, thanks to a mind-boggling array of LEGO-built vehicles too.
The LEGO City world itself is a goulash of real-life American locales, such as San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, with recognisable sights; for example, there's a mammoth plastic brick recreation of the Golden Gate Bridge. In typical LEGO game style, players can spend hours attempting to uncover and amass the insane amount of collectibles scattered in every nook and cranny.
As a Wii U exclusive, players can expect unique Gamepad control features; but while LEGO City utilises the secondary touch-screen, it is hardly revolutionary. It comes in handy when navigating the city, thanks to a top-down map that can be easily glanced at mid-game, including the convenient option of tapping on-screen to add in waypoints. The ability to tap on items also makes customising cars and costumes a breeze. But probably the most innovative feature is the ability to hold up your Gamepad controller to gain an ‘x-ray view’ of what’s on your main screen, allowing players to scan for secrets or extra bonus items.
All of this would be a pleasant extra if this game didn’t sacrifice one of the biggest features you expect in a LEGO title. Believe it or not, LEGO City for the Wii U contains no multiplayer. Young families, or just mates hoping to kill a couple of hours together, won’t get any split-screen goodness here. Considering the success of previous titles in the franchise, and more importantly, considering the Wii U’s ideal dual-screen controller setup, this omission is bordering on blasphemy.
The only other downfall in LEGO City has to be in the relentless number of load screens that players will need to endure. While an attempt at a free-roaming GTA-esque game has been made, what should be seamless exploration is instead a marathon of watching white loading bars scroll across the screen. It kicks in whenever players enter a mission, but also when players travel from one ‘section’ of the map to another. The end result is frustrating and too lengthy to ignore.
LEGO City is a great game - but I do wonder just how many limitations the hardware had on the final product. Perhaps it has nothing to do with the Wii U, but for Traveller's Tales to omit multiplayer altogether? That seems an unlikely choice, considering their previous work. The enduring loading screens also raise an eyebrow, especially when considering the impressively sized maps of Gotham City in their earlier LEGO Batman release.
However, for Wii U owners, the wait between decent exclusives is a lengthy one, and LEGO City certainly fills that void. Especially now that the game has come down in price (it was released two months ago, but NZGamer.com only just received our review copy. We blame the carrier cyborg-pigeons who bring us games.)