Lego City: Undercover ::: Review

I'll say it again: I think it's better than GTA IV.

Lego games have steadily been getting larger. A long time ago in a game far, far away we were once blessed with a tiny cantina that formed our mini-fig’s hub world. Ever since then Traveller’s Tales have slowly but surely been growing their ambition: Indiana Jones had his museum; Harry Potter ran around Hogwarts and its grounds; and more recently the Hobbits toiled through a scaled Middle Earth to a blocky Mount Doom. All were impressive in their time but what Undercover achieves sets a new Lego standard.

To call Lego City a hub world would be doing it a great injustice; it’s a world in its own right. Streets filled with traffic criss-cross the map, flanked by towering buildings and minifigs out for a midday stroll. Residential areas filled with gardens and driveways give way to industrial docks on one side and a forest covered mountain the other. All the time all manner of cars, boats and trains make their way about town as you stand grinning like a buffoon in the centre wondering just what you can break first.

Though Grand Theft Auto may have done something similar over a decade ago, the childlike glee I find in watching these Lego folks stroll about town is unrivalled. It may be because I’m so used to branded experiences that seeing a “normal” Lego game is a novelty, but the charm that exudes from a city made of Lego can be seen built into every corner. Be it the tiny shop window displays, the snippets of dialogue you catch as you walk past others, or the comedy posters pasted onto billboards, each has a huge amount of care and attention lavish upon them truly flesh out the world.

This is helped further by the inclusion of some very large personalities. Until now the humour has always come from parodies on specific films, often giving sombre or dramatic moments a flippant retelling. Here there’s nowhere to hide as they tell their own tale of how you, Chase McCain, track down master criminal Rex Fury, but even before the end of the opening titles you know it’s going to be ok. Pulling in references from countless movies and mixing it with their own comedic writing they had me chortling before I even took control of Chase.

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It’s a theme that continues throughout and takes full advantage of being unshackled from a specific IP. Undercover plunders the archives of cop shows and cult films for sneaky references and gags, liberally sprinkling them about whilst managing not to alienate anyone who isn’t old enough to have seen the likes of Dirty Harry or Starsky & Hutch. It walks that fine Pixar-esque line, throwing in as much for adults as it does for kids and rarely fails. Where it does falter however is when its patently trying too hard, as a very tired Arnie homage proves later in the game.

Away from the cutscenes, it’s traditional Lego platforming fare, though split between the open world and the tighter, more controlled levels synonymous with the series. The latter unfold as you progress through the main story charting Chase’s pursuit of Rex, and it’s not long before circumstances have you swapping your police badge for miner’s overalls, fireman’s helmets, and an astronaut space suit as Traveller’s Tales take full advantage of all the Lego sets they can find. Whilst they fall into the usual Lego trope of each offering a unique talent, such as using dynamite or hacking down doors with a fire axe, the greatest relief is they’ve finally moved away from sending small children through hatchways.

However, although polished and up to their usual high standard, these self-contained levels do little to excite me as their formula is exceedingly well rehearsed. To a certain extent I feel I know exactly what’s coming and am going through the motions. Instead, where Undercover begins to sing is when you’re out in the open.

The city isn’t just well built but also chocked full of secrets. Stroll down any street and you’ll see ladders or disguise-specific actions trying to tempt you off of your current course. Some may be as simple as donning your thief outfit to break into a garage to steal a car, triggering a race back to the hideout before the police get you. Others may see you chain through most of Chase’s alter egos, taking you high above the streets collecting extra disguises, unlockable vehicles or mega-bricks. These rooftop detours are probably the most interesting as they lead you up and away from the city streets and allow you take in just how large and well laid out the city is. They’re a lovely piece of design too as one unlockable might lead onto the path of another, and another, and before you know it you’re a mile away from where you started.

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Embracing this unrestricted sense of platforming, free running is introduced to the series for the first time. Indicated by a smattering of blue and white blocks, they regularly appear on walls and fences across the land and encourage you to see where they might lead. Though effectively a rooftop time-trial, they show off some very slick animations, and if timed right you’ll be forgiven to thinking it’s Lego Mirror’s Edge as you fly around the city, bouncing off walls and sliding down zip wires.

With such a plethora of options – each disguise has a number of unique collectibles or activities on top of the car chases and foot races – it would be easy to miss things, but here the Wii U’s gamepad comes to the fore. Lego City’s police force are also issued a pad and holding it up in scanner mode will see Chase scan the area for secrets, marking them on the map for further investigation. Though not crucial to proceedings, it’s a nice added extra alongside the traditional map view that makes Undercover feel at home on Nintendo’s dual screen platform.

With so much going in its favour it’s a shame that I still have one large complaint. The Lego games are famous for their consistently well-executed co-op experience but here I’m left wanting. The technical pressures of rendering a full metropolis is far too much to have another viewport lobbed into the mix, and so whilst understandable it is a comparatively lonely experience.

Nevertheless, that shouldn’t detract from what has been achieved. For a long time, though amused by their takes on pop-culture, the formula was getting too stale for my liking. What Lego City does is blow that wide open. For the purists there are still the core missions, but away from those there’s whole world to explore. Take a sports car for a drive down to the harbour, run over rooftops in search of treasure, or just walk the streets and admire the mini-architecture on show.

There was a risk that such a venture would be style over substance but this is no lazy façade. The only thing lacking when compared to Grand Theft Auto are the guns. Yet what it has in spades over its more mature counterpart is so much charm that you’d wish Liberty City was made out of studs.

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About James Thomas

I make my living as a programmer at a British games developer. In my spare time I try and spread myself between writing, gaming, drumming, goalkeeping, rolling dice and keeping my hair blue. Somewhere around that my wife fits in. Disclaimer: the views expressed are my own and do not neccessarily reflect those of my employer.