The Wii U didn’t have the smoothest launch, nor does it have a great wealth of games worth mentioning. Thankfully, however, Tt Games has taken the reigns and developed perhaps the best reason to own a Wii U to date, and it’s called LEGO City: Undercover.
The game is a very Grand Theft Auto-style title in its overarching design, but eschews the violence, drugs, and prostitution for a much cleaner, kid-friendly aesthetic. And it works.
You begin in LEGO City: Undercover as a cop, Chase McCain, who has just come back to the city, brought in to catch a nefarious criminal who’s escaped from the prison on Albatross Island. If that island sounds familiar, that’s because it is almost a direct reference to Alcatraz, off the coast of San Francisco.
In fact, the game is rife with pop culture references. While it isn’t overbearing to the extent of Retro City Rampage, there are more than a few hilarious throws to the actual world we live in. In Albatross, there’s a character named Blue (an obvious throw to Morgan Freeman’s character Red in The Shawshank Redemption), a Clint Eastwood character reference, as well as (yet another) Dark Knight-inspired bank robbery featuring clowns as the thieves.
There’s also something here that you might not expect: incredibly funny writing. LEGO City: Undercover has some of the best dialog and wittiest humour we’ve heard in any game, ever. It literally made us laugh out loud, an accomplishment not a lot of other games can say they’ve done. It’s also a very nice change from what you get in an otherwise very serious Grand Theft Auto game.
While you only command Chase McCain in Undercover, you take on a bunch of other personas by way of costumes. Much like previous LEGO titles tied to franchises like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, you can change character abilities by switching into these other personas. For example, only the robber can break into houses, and only the miner can plant dynamite. There are eight of these costumes in total, and they don’t vary in motion or character control, but their unique abilities are welcome.
LEGO City: Undercover begins with a very open-world feel. A cinematic which really makes you feel like the city is massive and alive is the first thing that greets you (after the loading screen, but we’ll get to that in a bit). You’re shown a pier, airport, mountainside, vehicles galore, citizens out and about on the streets, and a huge world to discover.
As you arrive on the dock (perhaps a throw to GTA IV‘s opening?) at the beginning of the game, there’s a artistic choice the developers made early on. Anything that is LEGO can be interacted with, while anything that looks a bit too real such as a cliffside or biologically-accurate trees are not going to break down into pieces of the building system. This works wonders as you never have to guess what kinds of things you can interact with. Nothing that isn’t a LEGO brick or made up of them can be used or broken down.
Breaking down these bricks is a massive part of the game. At first, you’ll want to smash everything in sight, and perhaps that is one of the best measures of success of the game; it never gets boring to break away from the story and just do what you want, much like in Grand Theft Auto. As you progress, you’ll realize that it’s much easier to break down items in the game with vehicles than it is by hand. You use the pieces you collect here for what are called Super Builds.
Super Builds are mission-critical most of the time, and they involve spending a large amount of collected bricks to build something that will help you progress through the game. Super Builds can be as small as vehicle drop-in points or as necessary as massive bridges or boats that help you traverse the city. Accepting the build triggers a beautiful animation that layers in all the bricks as they would be placed if you were building the set for real, and it’s a wonder how well the feeling of building comes across in the game.
The graphics in LEGO City: Undercover are not going to blow you away. While the game is certainly beautiful, don’t expect stunning particle physics or a dynamic shader engine. This is a LEGO game after all, though it does look as good as it probably could. There are some framerate issues that plague the game at times, but nothing worse than the horrendous load times. Not only do load times take a minute and longer in some cases, they’re rather frequent in the game and loop a very short piece of audio that makes us want to rip our ear drums from our head. Yes, it’s that bad.
Thankfully, the rest of the audio in the game is quite superb. While you won’t find anything like the original tunes from LEGO Island on the PC, both the background music and the voice acting in Undercover is excellent. Dialog is crisp and clear, and while voice acting isn’t something you might expect to be of such high quality in a LEGO game, it really is wonderful in Undercover.
Perhaps our favourite part about LEGO City is that it features some pretty iconic LEGO sets that we’ve actually built. As we passed the shop in the game, we looked across to our shelf and saw the exact same one sitting there, a set we had built well over a year ago. It’s a nice touch and shows that the developer didn’t forget exactly what kind of game it was crafting.
They did forget, however, about the Wii U controls almost entirely. While you use the GamePad for a few sequences, it is largely just a touch-screen menu throughout the game. The back of the box for the game reads “Go undercover as officer Chase McCain using the Wii U GamePad controller, your ultimate detective tool.” Honestly, if the GamePad is the ultimate detective tool in the game, it’s no wonder that Rex Fury managed to escape. The GamePad is functional when the gameplay mechanics are there, but there just aren’t enough of them.
The gripes we have are all quite minor, really. Overall, LEGO City: Undercover is a fantastic game. It’s a game that we could easily sink 40 hours into (and we’re getting there, actually) and still have a craving for more. You really get the sense that there’s so much of a world to explore that you’ve never quite seen it all as it is easily the longest of any LEGO game we’ve played.
With that noted, we can’t help but feel like a few more months in the oven might have worked out a few kinks, but even those kinks are not game-breakers. LEGO City: Undercover is a hell of a lot of fun, and at the end of the day, that’s what we’re looking for from these things.
We’ll stand by our statement that Undercover is probably the best reason to own a Wii U and if you’ve got one of Nintendo’s new consoles, you need to have this game alongside it.