The Lego franchise began a few years back as a neat video game novelty. It quickly grew into a series of games ranging from Star Wars to Indiana Jones that ultimately played similar. Even a Lego Rock Band was conceived (I’m still trying to figure out how that happened). So if you’re a skeptic of Lego City Undercover just because of the name “Lego” in the title, let me reassure you that this is a fresh take on this block-crazy universe.
Lego City is not based on any particular movie franchise. The story is completely original, which is a welcome change to the Lego franchise. Instead it tends to lampoon action movies in general with clichéd characters and plot devices. The main character, Chase McCain (inspired at least partially by Die Hard’s John McClane), is a cop who returns to Lego City after many years of hiatus. McCain’s estranged lover, Natalia, is forced into hiding after he accidentally reveals that she had testified against the main villain, Rex Fury.
It’s abundantly clear that Grand Theft Auto heavily influenced Lego City. The game’s story progresses in a linear fashion in an open city environment, which seems to be based on San Francisco. There are a number of ways to get around Lego City including by car, train, ship and of course walking. The main difference is that instead of acting as a criminal breaking the law you are playing as a cop trying to foil the plans of criminals. Not only does this make Lego City more kid-friendly, it also puts an interesting spin on open world games.
Unfortunately while Lego City Undercover has a fresh story and environment, the gameplay is only marginally different from past Lego games. The core gameplay mechanic is a cornucopia of object mashing, Lego piece collecting, and simple fights against bad guys. The simplicity makes it great for a younger audience but will leave older players frustrated by the lack of depth. A main attack and block/counter-attack are your main options. Eventually you will be able to grab and throw characters.
Similar to games like Lego Batman, Chase McCain can wear different costumes. These disguises can be unlocked throughout the game, giving your character new abilities. The robber can break into certain areas and open vaults; the police officer uniform gives you a grapple hook and gun; the miner can break rocks and lay dynamite. These abilities have to be used in different situations to solve puzzles and progress through a level. This was definitely a welcome way to mix up gameplay.
The Wii U GamePad is used as a map and has cellphone-like communication capabilities. Characters will call you, using the speakers on the GamePad instead of the TV to talk. It’s a neat little trick to simulate the GamePad being used as a police tablet. You can also use the screen on the GamePad as a data scan to highlight suspects and Lego bricks. The built-in gyroscope lets you move the screen around for a three-hundred and sixty degree view of the scene.
Graphically, Lego City Undercover stands out as a shiny HD world of Legos. It’s a wonderland of every child’s favorite building blocks. The characters are cute and the city is colorful. The expressions and costumes can be comical. The biggest problem is the frequent load times, which can run about forty seconds. The voice-acting is also professionally done. One-liners are dished out liberally. Some of them fall flat but it’s still a charming experience.
Which leads to my main complaint about Lego City. The main appeal does not come from the gameplay, which is only mildly entertaining and borderline boring. The clichéd story with its likable characters and dopey villains make it a moderately enjoyable romp in short bursts. At the very least, it won’t drive you nuts watching your kids play it, unlike past Lego games, making it a must-buy for parents. You may even get a chuckle or two. Just don’t expect its skin-deep combat to keep you interested for extended play sessions.