The Wii U is having some rough growing pains these days. While it got off to a strong start last holiday, its sales have been slipping. Most of the everyday consumers I talk to are still confused—is it a new console or just a fancy, expensive new controller for their old Wii? Meanwhile exclusive games are jumping ship left and right to go multiplatform. This is why I think Nintendo’s emerging strategy of directly publishing exclusive titles from notable third party developers is Wii U’s most promising direction.
By backing titles like Bayonetta 2, The Wonderful 101 and Lego City Undercover with their own publishing funds, Nintendo automatically locks those games down as exclusives, providing a healthy variety of content for diehard fans as they wait for Nintendo’s big first party releases. Not only that, but this collection of Nintendo-published third party games is an attractive incentive to buy the Wii U, for both casual and hardcore gamers on the fence. These are games that appeal to everyone--not just the Nintendo faithful waiting on Mario, Zelda and Smash Bros—and because Nintendo’s still publishing them, you can only get these third party exclusives on Wii U.
Lego City Undercover is, in my opinion, the first great example of these third party exclusives stepping up to bat for the struggling Wii U. While Ubisoft chickens out with Rayman Legends and anticipated games slip into the second and third quarter of 2013, Lego City Undercover is here to offer a deep gameplay experience that can appeal to a wide audience.
If you’ve played any of the previous Lego games from their stalwart developers—Traveler’s Tales and their in-house studio TT Fusion—you’ll have a basic idea of what to expect. You play as Lego minifigures inhabiting a world partially constructed from the habit-forming plastic bricks and doodads, much like Lego Star Wars, Harry Potter, Batman, Lord of the Rings and numerous other licensed series from the past few years. The difference is that Lego City Undercover isn’t linked to any one licensed franchise; it’s a wholly original setting, based on the best-selling, whimsical yet more utilitarian and down-to-earth Lego City kits the Danish toy company has been offering since before I was a kid.
You might be wondering how a Lego world populated by simple citizens and everyday buildings and vehicles could compare to one packed with X Wing starfighters and Darth Vader, or one set in Lego Gotham complete with adorable tiny plastic versions of the Joker and Penguin. It is Undercover’s lack of a license holding it back, however, that really makes it stand out. With the freedom to tell their own story, and in an open-world sandbox metropolis made of Legos, TT Fusion constructs the most ambitious and engrossing Lego game yet. While I certainly appreciated the concept behind the previous licensed Lego games, the novelty wore off quickly for me and after a few missions I always ended up feeling numb. In Lego City, I can play for hours.
As you may have guessed by the title, Lego City Undercover is a crime thriller. You play as Chase McCain, a legendary cop who is just a little too dashing and heroic for his own good. He previously put away a notorious crime boss named Rex Fury, but in the process Chase’s loose-cannon-cop-on-the-edge methods pissed off his superiors and put his ex-girlfriend Natalia into witness protection. After being reassigned to cool his heels for a few years, Chase is called back to Lego City. Rex Fury has busted out of Albatross Island prison, and Chase is the only one who can track him down and haul him back in.
Like all of the TT Fusion Lego games, Undercover has a healthy, snarky sense of humor that provides plenty of snickers for both young and adult players. The difference this time is that the characters all talk, while in games like Lego Star Wars the humor all came from franchise in-jokes, slapstick and pantomime. Chase isn’t exactly dumb but his constant heroic attitude makes him a bit clueless at times, which leads to a lot of funny moments. He reminds me of a mix between the 60’s Adam West Batman and Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan.
The rest of the cast includes Chase’s perpetually inept sidekick, rookie Frank Honey, his dispatch support and southern-accented snarker Ellie Phillips, and Chief Dunby, who spends most of his time scarfing donuts, sleeping at his desk and stealing the credit for the successes of cops under his command. Chase’s interactions with his old flame Natalia are particularly funny; even though he inadvertently stuck her in witness protection and endangered her dad, Chase just doesn’t understand why she wants nothing to do with him. In addition to the ever-amusing banter between the main characters you can expect the trademark TT sight gags, pop culture references and witty dialogue from incidental Lego people. I was worried that Undercover would dumb down the humor, but it ends up being just corny and tongue-in-cheek enough to keep an older player like me laughing, while kids will still love the goofy slapstick.
Chase and his fellow plastic officers of the law inhabit a massive, sprawling Manhattan-esque urban center, consisting of multiple islands and constructed from almost every flavor of Lego City play set available since Lego launched the line in 1978. There’s a police station of course, but also the Albatross prison island, a Lego Chinatown, suburbs, forests, bridges, a space center populated by cute little plastic astronauts, and ferries and rail systems connecting it all together—just like the massive interconnected Lego town you poured countless meticulous hours constructing in your basement as a kid.
I know I built one of those, and I’m sure many, many gamers, now with kids of their own, remember their personal Lego city just as fondly. Lego City Undercover isn’t just a game, it’s a nostalgia trip 30 years in the making. As I played, I recognized weird little Lego parts I hadn’t seen in over a decade, marveled at how the cars, buildings and miscellaneous details were built just the way I remembered putting them together years and years ago. This game is a way for gamers to introduce their children to something they loved from their childhood. And best of all, the game even lets you build inside of it.
While prior Lego games let you collect minifigure pieces, or thousands upon thousands of tiny circular studs as in-game currency, Undercover takes it further with the addition of collectible bricks. Nearly every incidental element, car or small structure in the game can be smashed into its constituent bricks, and these bricks can then be leveraged against “super builds”: in-game kits, buildings and structures that usually have significant gameplay impact. The game even encourages and rewards you for breaking things with a combo meter that multiplies your brick total as you smash more stuff. You’ll often find yourself barreling down the street in a dump truck swerving to hit every light pole, fence, phone booth, and bus stop to suck up the shower of scattered bricks. Amusingly, the residents of Lego city don’t seem to mind all that much as they can just rebuild it all in a matter of minutes anyway.
Once you have enough bricks—and you’ll often need a lot—you can spend them on houses, bridges, statues and call-in points, where you can request any of the vehicles you’ve unlocked from the police station. Each super build is laid down layer by layer just like in the old commercials, and lovingly panned and zoomed by the game’s third person camera. It’s so useful and addictive to build these structures that you’ll want to hunt out all the “super bricks” you can find, huge glowing basic Lego bricks that add to your brick total in multiplies of thousands. The city itself doesn’t have any real sidequests, but there’s so much to collect, build and explore that it’s easy to forget the main questline for hours at a time—something only the best sandbox games are capable of. When you do drag yourself back to the story, you’ll find a familiar, if improved experience.
Undercover’s mission structure and plot beats are very reminiscent of the open-world series that started it all: Grand Theft Auto. Parents need not worry about GTA’s adult themes and content seeping into Lego City, as Undercover merely riffs on the organized crime motifs with some clever GTA references and jokes. While the plot and mission setup are reminiscent of Rockstar’s sandbox series, Lego City itself reminds me more of Stilwater or Steelport from the Saints Row franchise; it eschews the increasingly dour, maudlin, gray-brown tint bogging down GTA for the colorful mayhem and reckless abandon of Saints Row.
The missions themselves are more like the levels from past Lego titles, but with some enhancements. The hand to hand combat with criminals and thugs is reminiscent of the attack-counter system from the Batman Arkham games, although much more forgiving. Chase usually must dispatch goons in melee combat, in between solving puzzles and exploring enemy lairs, with at least one elaborate super build per mission. There’s always plenty to collect in each mission too, from rare golden bricks to the high score stud count from the Star Wars and other Lego games. However it’s the disguises, possibly Undercover’s biggest gameplay mechanic, that adds the most to the game’s missions and structure overall. While similar to the custom minifigures in Lego Star Wars, the disguises in Undercover are expanded far beyond anything in previous Lego games.
Like those older Lego games, Undercover is a slow burn at first. You’ll get a disguise or two to start with—a burglar or a coal miner. Chase can swap between multiple categories of disguise on the fly, which not only change his appearance but also grant him special abilities. The burglar class is the only disguise that can crowbar doors open or crack safes, whereas the coal miner can smash solid boulders and plant dynamite. These disguises might seem like throwaway novelties at first, simply for solving arbitrary environmental puzzles, but once you start to fill out your inventory with a full set the concept really makes sense.
It wasn’t until I was several chapters in, exploring the space center, that the disguise mechanic really dawned on me. After several missions of build-up, I was crushing rocks to access some TNT, planting it to destroy a statue and reveal a space crate, activating the crate to beam down the parts to build a teleporter so I could zap to the other side of the level, crowbar a door open to access a color-switcher so I could fill my paint-gun with silver paint to spraypaint a statue to reflect a laser onto a powered door to unlock my final goal in that level. Lego City Undercover is a game in the great Miyamoto tradition: slowly teaching you lesson by lesson until it gives you the final exam, and everything is so second nature by then that it all just clicks.
Even better, all of these disguise abilities can be used at will in the city once you’ve acquired them in missions. At the beginning of the game you’ll see a lot of locked areas and activities, teasing you with off-limit super bricks, minigames and yet more disguises. It’s a lot like a Zelda game—early on it is maddening to see all of this cool stuff you can’t have, but as you slowly build up your collection of disguises it’s very satisfying to go back to previously explored areas and unlock everything.
Along for the ride is of course the Wii U GamePad, duplicated in-game as Chase’s personal police gadget. TT Fusion has taken a kitchen-sink approach with the GamePad, but most of the features are context sensitive so the GamePad thankfully feels more like a useful tool than a gimmick. You’ll be snapping pictures of suspects, recording conversations, scanning for items and using the GamePad as your personal phone for receiving video calls from Ellie, Chief Dunby and various criminals after you’ve gone undercover. During normal gameplay the GamePad also displays a standard interactive map. While none of the GamePad features blew my mind, the game just wouldn’t be the same without it. TT Fusion has struck on a very handy, workmanlike implementation of the GamePad, and I’m interested to see how Nintendo might integrate the various scanning modes into any future Metroid games.
Undercover’s production values are a step up from the past few Lego games, impressive considering TT Fusion was rendering an entire open world this time. As you’d expect from a game made out of plastic there’s a lot of gloss-mapping and specular shading, but then again not everything in Lego City is Lego pieces—there’s plenty of traditional shading as well. It all animates well too—watching the little Lego people walk around the city is always amusing, and the physics engine effectively scatters bricks and topples buildings. Framerate hiccups are rarely encountered and the draw distance pretty far too, making for a routinely smooth and fast-paced experience. On the audio side of things, expect a lot of 70’s cop movie inspired music, and a cast of voice actors who go just cheesy enough to evoke that same genre exploitation flavor without getting too exaggerated or obnoxious.
If there’s one major complaint I have with Lego City Undercover, it’s the load times. Transitioning between interior spaces and the greater exterior sandbox can take up to thirty seconds every time, accompanied by a loading bar on the GamePad screen. Sometimes even transitions to and from cutscenes have a lengthy loading screen. I’ve noticed this is a serious problem with Wii U overall, particularly on the console’s home menu. Here’s hoping both Nintendo and TT Fusion release some patches with significant optimization in the coming weeks.
As far as complaints go, loading times are something I can deal with if the overall product is good. And Lego City Undercover isn’t just good—it’s great. TT Fusion has stepped up to the challenge and delivered an incredibly fun, deep and innovative sandbox adventure that uses the Wii U in smart, not gimmicky, ways. This game should stand as an example of what the Wii U can be for big immersive games, and whether you’re buying it for a kid or if you’re just a nostalgic adult, this game should also be in your collection. I wholeheartedly recommend it.