New games have been slowly trickling in since the launch of the Wii U. It's been port after port of games that arrived at least a month after appearing on other consoles. To add to the disappointment, Wii U owners saw the formerly exclusive Rayman Legends get delayed so it can be a multiplatform release. Wii U owners are hoping that things will turn around for the new platform, and while more ports are coming, the real hope for exclusive fare comes in the form of LEGO City Undercover, a completely original title for the Wii U that happens is published by Nintendo.
In the absence of a movie series, the plot relies on some pretty conventional fare. You play as Chase McCain, a veteran cop of LEGO City who helped capture notorious criminal Rex Fury but had his credit taken away by an overzealous deputy. He went on a sabbatical while Fury rotted in jail. After Fury escapes from the maximum security prison, the mayor asks Chase to return and bring Fury to justice — and busting anyone else along the way.
Despite the lack of a license, the game is still based on a very well-worn genre: the old cop show. All of the expected tropes are there, from the humble hero who saves the day to the incompetent police chief who tries to take credit for everything. The starstruck rookie idolizes the hero, and the flirty dispatcher is the potential love interest. Even the chases, whether on foot or in vehicles, closely mimic old cop shows. It'll be familiar to older players, but for the younger set, it'll feel new since it's been a long time since there's been a police show similar to "Starsky & Hutch" or "Miami Vice," where action has a greater emphasis than drama.
As is the case with almost all LEGO games, the humor is what makes players stick with the series. The lack of a license means that the team can throw in cameos or re-creations of famous scenes from other movies, with an additional humorous twist. Before you go on your first police mission, you'll see references to "Titanic" creep up along with minifigs that loosely represent "Columbo," "Dirty Harry," "The Mod Squad" and "Sherlock Holmes," just to name a few. There's also a "Shawshank Redemption" reference complete with a Morgan Freeman sound-alike. There are a few more parody references throughout the game, ranging from "The Matrix" to "The Shining" in addition to some Nintendo references that guarantee a chuckle.
Speaking of lines, just about everyone has something funny to say, whether it's your fellow cops, citizens minding their own business, or other characters in the mission level. They say the same things often, so their lines become less humorous each time, but it's a long way from the endless pantomiming of previous LEGO titles. The more important characters spout funny lines and make silly situations seem more serious.
For only the second time since the series was helmed by Travellers' Tales, the game is a completely open-world adventure. As in Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row, most of your time is spent in LEGO City traversing the streets and rooftops to reach your destination. Unlike those titles, however, you play as a cop instead of a criminal, thus limiting you on what you can do. For example, you can't beat up innocent bystanders or run them over since they'll just fall down or tumble away, but you can commandeer all types of vehicles, from convertibles to buggies and helicopters. There's also a multitude of things to collect and discover as you travel from one area to another, and there are also a few minigames. This is exactly what you'd expect from a modern open-world game.
Once you get to the story missions, the game switches gears to a more traditional LEGO adventure. With the exception of some missions that take place in the open world, most missions have you in structures that are composed of smaller areas that contain a few puzzle elements. The puzzles are simple enough, usually asking you to free or obtain a certain number of things or open up something blocking your path. Some puzzles ask you to change your costume to use their unique abilities, such as your cop uniform accessing secure areas, the fireman's outfit accessing an ax and a hose, or the robber's outfit that lets you open locked doors and break into safes. You're given lots of objects to break and studs to collect. If you collect enough LEGO studs in a level, you'll get the treasured gold brick as a bonus.
Despite the switching off between traditional closed levels and the overall open world, the basics of LEGO gameplay remain the same. The costume changes become a very important mechanic, as there are several areas that are inaccessible without the right costume, so you're tempted to return to areas and missions once you obtain the required outfit. Studs are still the currency to unlock new costumes for aesthetic purposes, red bricks for cheats, and other mods. You'll still have to find them in the environment before you can buy them.
Both missions and the open world contain objectives that can be completed for precious gold bricks, and even though the player has an energy meter, losing all of his energy or falling to his doom simply means losing a few studs instead of restarting the level. Unlike the other LEGO games, which featured minifig dismemberment, blades and guns, all of the fighting is done with fisticuffs and bodies always intact. Chase tends to go for throws and counterattacks instead of punches, and he relies on arresting his foes instead of pummeling them, so the game is even more family friendly.
There is one small addition to the formula: collectible brick pieces. Brick pieces fall out of every object you hit, and the different colors correspond to different values, just like the studs. To add to the collecting hook, there are multicolored Super Bricks scattered throughout mission levels and the open world. Unlike the regular bricks, their size determines their worth, and with the minimum value being 1,000 bricks, you'll be tempted to find all of them, especially since they don't appear as often as regular bricks and studs. You'll also be tempted to tap into your destructive side by using vehicles to break consecutive objects, and driving around rewards you with more bricks and an increasing multiplier.
The development team went wild when it came to giving players something to do with collectible brick pieces. Though most of the mission-based Super Builds have you spending your bricks to create items for mission advancement, most of the Super Builds are located in LEGO City. One of the more common builds you'll find is the vehicle drop-off spot, where you can summon any vehicle you want once the platform is built. The other is the stunt ramp, which, like the name implies, lets you pull off crazy jumps to reach higher areas and gain lots of studs. The rest of the Super Builds either let you build objects to reach new missions, like a ferry to a prison or a bridge to an ancient dojo, or are there for decorative purposes, like an ornate fountain in the park, so you have plenty of reasons to collect as many bricks as possible.
All of this would still be fun even if LEGO City were poorly designed, but luckily, the layout is quite varied. Much of the city represents other real-life cities. You'll see standard beachfront areas set up near industrial docks, but you'll also see a LEGO version of New York's Statue of Liberty along with parts of San Francisco that include a reasonable facsimile of the Golden Gate bridge, houses on hills, Chinatown, and the ever-crooked Lombard street.
What really impresses is how the city's layout ensures you'll always have something to do. Every block contains at least one secret area that's accessible via costume or has a Super Brick that's just a little out of reach. Super Build areas are numerous, as are structures that need to be built, like costume-changing booths. Plenty of areas contain a minigame designed to earn more studs or a quick objective, like building gumball machines or destroying silver statues that yield more Super Bricks. Then there are the studs, which not only litter every inch of the city but also respawn after you travel away from the area or leave a mission or building. There is rarely a dull moment, so the city feels even more alive.
The game does a good job of utilizing the Wii U's system features, specifically the Game Pad. The screen becomes your interactive map, so you can see the layout of LEGO City and each mission area, so you can map your route to specific buildings or objectives. The screen also becomes a multipurpose tool, as you'll see video communications, use it as a camera, and use it as an augmented viewfinder for hidden objects and locating criminals in disguise. The Game Pad also becomes your storefront window when buying new costumes and vehicles, and it's your selection screen when calling up a vehicle on demand. The only function that doesn't work so well is shaking the Game Pad to get a vehicle to jump. The ability is responsive enough, but it isn't an instinctive move for vehicles, and since you can't remap this to a button, you might not use this function beyond the mandatory tutorial chase. Due to the way the Game Pad is used, don't expect any off-TV play from this title.
There are a few spots where the game stumbles. Unlike most LEGO games, this is a completely solo affair, so those expecting an open-world co-op adventure are out of luck. For the most part, the platforming elements are fine, but it can get tricky when navigating narrow platforms, something LEGO fans have gotten used to after so many games. Sometimes, the camera gets stuck when zoomed in too closely, mostly in narrow spaces, though it doesn't happen very often. Though respawning studs are nice, some of the special spots that require the abilities of certain costumes always respawn whenever you leave the area, leading to a few cases of wasted time for a small amount of studs since you're unsure about whether or not you've solved this particular puzzle.
By far, the biggest flaw in this game is the load times. On average, the shortest load time is around 45 seconds while the longest is roughly 90 seconds. An average one- minute load time might not seem like much to some people, but it feels longer because you only see an image of a badge and background with animated elements. The Game Pad screen shows something similar but with a loading bar instead. There's no helpful or humorous text on any of the screens, and there isn't anything in the way of funny animations, either. You'll encounter this screen often because cut scenes load when you transition in and out of them, and the same thing occurs when you enter a building or start a mission. If the game were released a few years ago, when companies were getting a grip on effective open-world titles, this may have been forgivable, but at this moment, it's disappointing. Keep in mind that the game was reviewed on a retail disc and not the downloadable version on the Nintendo eShop. It is unknown if that version sports better load times than the disc, but if the other installed LEGO games on the Xbox 360 are any indication, the load times shouldn't differ at all.
None of the LEGO games are noted for pushing the graphical boundaries of any system, and this one is no different. The game looks just as good here as the other titles did on the PS3 and Xbox 360, and the open-world setting makes this more impressive. The character models animate as brilliantly as before, and the distinct LEGO look, from the modeling to the texture work, is well represented. The environments are a good mix of traditionally realistic aesthetics and LEGO-specific objects, making it clear most of the time what can and can't be smashed to bits. The frame rate mostly holds steady, but it dips below 30 once you make sharp turns while speeding in a vehicle. Also, there's quite a bit of fade-in that occurs, and while it isn't seen while on foot, you'll notice it when you're driving. You'll see it happen to groups of studs in the environment. Finally, the game has no anti-aliasing, so expect to see plenty of jaggies at every turn.
As expected, the sound is very well done. The music is varied but within the range of the cop show vibe. You get hard-hitting '70s- and '80s-style themes complete with signature sounds of the disco era. A licensed song or two is thrown in to help set the mood. The effects have been recycled from previous LEGO games, so the sounds of menu selection, breaking bricks, and collection of studs should be instantly familiar. Although this is the third game in the series to use actual dialogue, the performances sound great. The only problem some people may have is that the loading screen only has one track, and when you consider how often you'll see the load screen, you'll quickly get sick of that track or tune it out entirely.
LEGO City Undercover marks what is hopefully the start of some good, exclusive games for Nintendo's latest system. It takes the traits of what made the Travellers' Tales LEGO games so well loved in the first place, such as the good-natured humor, and it does so without a license as a crutch. The story is good, but it is the multitude of activities that really makes this title shine and gives you plenty of reasons to explore every nook and cranny after Rex Fury is behind bars once again. Though the technical flaws hurt it a little, the game remains fun for all gamers, making it another brilliant game that Wii U owners should have.
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