LEGO City Undercover, which is exclusive to Nintendo’s Wii U, was one of the driving forces behind our purchase of the console and it has been a long and much anticipated wait since first seeing its demo at a preview event late last year. Continuing the open world gameplay design first introduced in LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, this LEGO title presents players an opportunity to explore the world of the popular LEGO City vehicle and play sets. LEGO City Undercover follows Officer Chase McCain as he attempts to capture Rex Fury after his illustrious escape from Albatross Prison. Within the first few minutes of the storyline, which is a mixture of mystery, suspense and witty humour, I was hooked and eager to find out what more this title had in store.
The story is surrounded with some cliché characters right from the beginning such as the bumbling police officer Frank Honey, Ellie your go to girl who knows everything and how to find everything, and Chief Dunby, the overbearing and underachieving police officer you wonder how he ended up in charge. There is also the love interest, bombshell Natalia, who Chase McCain pines over as he investigates Rex Fury and puts the clues together to apprehend him, once again. There are also the tributes to classic crime films across generations with characters resembling Starsky & Hutch, Dirty Harry, Holmes & Watson and “Blue”, who happens to be the equivalent of Red from Shawshank Redemption, but be careful according to Blue, “Free Man’s” lawyers could be watching.
Pulling together an original story based on a LEGO set is much different than taking a storied franchise like Star Wars, Batman, Indiana Jones or Harry Potter where the canon is already ingrained and the direction where you can go with the story is unfortunately scripted. With LEGO City Undercover the LEGO blocks are unleashed and the story is much richer than previous games and you’ll find quite a few different story arcs happening along with the main quest of Chase McCain putting Rex behind bars. What I especially liked about the story is that I could be laughing at something for a reference to a movie while my son would be laughing at something completely different. For that reason we’re not going to delve into the story for the sole purpose of keeping it spoiler free so that you can enjoy the title for yourself or for the younger gamers in your home.
The core gameplay mechanics have not changed a whole lot from the very first LEGO game where you explore each level collecting LEGO studs, finding Red Bricks and collectibles, all while working through the level be it building objects or battling to progress the story forward. On top of that, after completing the level you can go back again in Free Play to continue unlocking even more items to get those Red Bricks, Gold Bricks and in the case of LEGO City Undercover, Badge Pieces.
New to the LEGO franchise on the Wii U is the Wii U Gamepad which is a huge game changer in itself, bringing a whole new accessory to the game as it acts as your map to LEGO City, provides Satellite Navigation, Video Calls with NPC’s throughout the game, and a multitude of scanning features. The scanner is a neat device that translates to an actual device within the game that Chase will be seen using on the big screen when he is using any of its functions. The scanner will allow you to scan for objects like Superbricks (which we will touch on later), Criminals Locations, Audio Scanning, and it also sports a camera for surveillance. The actual scanning takes place on the GamePad where you stand up in your room and you can make a complete 360 viewing of the area in game to find these objects displayed in an x-ray type view.
The GamePad is not the only addition to LEGO City Undercover; this title introduces a new way of building objects through the collection of bricks that are used towards Super Builds. Super Builds result in huge LEGO constructions like the Ferry to Albatross Island, Bridges, or a Snow Plow with a Rocket on the back of it. Super Builds are accessed throughout the city at Call In Points. These Call in Points are used to call in vehicles that you can use on your quest to take down Rex Fury or to just go for a joy ride, your choice! This was a great move on the developer’s part to separate LEGO Studs and LEGO Bricks where the studs are used to purchase all the collectibles throughout the game and the bricks are used to construct Super Builds. Bricks can be gathered in two ways: by breaking LEGO objects throughout the game or by discovering Super Bricks. As previously mentioned, a great way to find Super Bricks is by scanning for them with your GamePad and they vary in value. I have found those that measure 1000 bricks up to 10,000 at various times in the game.
One significant change that players will notice is how combat has been overhauled. Chase can use a variety of fighting moves to tackle, overtake or launch a thug in the air. Instead of exploding into LEGO pieces right away, Chase temporarily knocks them down and a little timer appears above the fallen foe allowing Chase time to run up to them and arrest them before that timer runs down. As you progress through the game you learn some advanced combat skills that provide you a little bit more flexibility with how you take down criminals and offers new ways to take down tougher ones. For example, you can now grab on to criminals and throw them into other criminals to quickly take down a group. On the other hand when you’re taking on an enemy that is pure muscle and regular attacks don’t work you can use your own muscle to overpower him by repeatedly hitting the A button. The final advanced combat technique is the ability to counter attacks, which makes quick work when you’re surrounded and can’t go on the offensive. A lot of these advanced combat skills will create some great animations too.
Along with the advanced combat are a couple new modes called Free Run and Time Trials, which for the most part are exactly the same except Free Run is on foot while Time Trials is in a vehicle. Basically, you have to run/drive a course in a specific time, complete it and you will earn a reward like unlocking a character or vehicle to purchase in Police HQ. Another neat gameplay addition takes advantage of the GamePad’s gyroscope where you have to move a marble through a tilt maze to drop it in the exit hole to push a button.
At one point in the game you unlock Disguise Booths. While not quite a new element, by allowing Chase to put on a different outfit they basically provide new abilities for Chase to complete tasks and access new areas. For example, you eventually get a grappling hook gun that can only be used by Police Officer Chase, or you may need to go undercover as a robber that opens up a crowbar used to force open doors or use his trusty stethoscope to crack safes. Others costumes include a miner, fireman or astronaut to name a few. As you unlock characters you are able to use the Disguise Booths to assign characters for you to use in Free Play which will help you get all the collectibles throughout the game.
LEGO games have always had a lot of collectibles and this LEGO game is no different. There are 450 Gold Bricks, 40 Red Bricks, 110 Vehicles, 290 Characters and a whole lot other things like finding aliens, Super Build sites, Rex Fury statues and a whole lot more. In turn these collectibles open items at the Police HQ. Not only do you have quite a few vehicles ranging from Air Craft, Emergency, Compact, Bikes and Boats to purchase you can also purchase Red Bricks to unlock Extra’s as well as purchase unlocked characters. Everything that you unlock in levels or throughout LEGO City can eventually be purchased with LEGO Studs that you collect throughout your gameplay.
Something I was surprised with is the extensive loading times right before levels. Thinking I might be overreacting I actually timed a few loading sessions and the average time is around one minute. That being said, I had instances of almost 90 seconds. How much of this laid on the game itself or the hardware is anyone’s guess, but based on an earlier joke in the game where the in-game GamePad takes quite a bit of time to load up the software I take it the developers were aware of it and did their best to keep the times down.
The city landscape lends well to the visual design common to LEGO games. It is a complex compilation of building architecture, scenery, citizens, and of course vehicles. There are so many details that are added to create the rich and vibrant city one might easily spend countless amounts of time taking everything in. The city itself seems to have been modeled after San Francisco, from the trademark Golden Gate Bridge, iconic home architecture and steep streets, to the Albatross Prison that is much like Alcatraz as it is also located on an island off from the city. The city also includes what appears to be some other notable U.S. landmarks including the New York Statue of Liberty and the Seattle Space Needle. The picturesque scenery in the game is composed of a combination of LEGO and natural elements. This can be seen predominantly on the outskirts of town where you will notice LEGO trees and shrubs combined with artistic renditions of trees, cliffs, grass, sand etc.
As LEGO City Undercover does not take its inspiration from a common character franchise this presents an opportunity to introduce and include a multitude of mini-figures to occupy LEGO City. It is always fun to see all of the character designs from their hair, facial features, clothing and accessories. There are so many possible combinations; you might also be surprised by some of the cameo appearances that show up during game play such as Rose and Jack from the Titanic and Morpheous from the Matrix.
The animation work is also top notch. During gameplay the characters actions and vehicle interactions move smoothly and the transition between characters is a fluid. Some special effects (e.g. slow motion, Matrix bullet-time like) have been included when Chase performs specific moves and this adds another dimension to the action. The game also includes a series of video sequences that play on the Wii U GamePad as well as a series of cut scenes that play out important parts of the story line between actual gameplay.
It could possibly be argued that the graphics of this title are still not up to par with those you might find on the Xbox 360 or PS3; however, you can definitely see an improvement from the LEGO series titles for the Wii. The graphics make full use of the Wii U capabilities and with all of the included elements and gameplay graphics the title is visually surprising and much better than anticipated.
LEGO City Undercover utilizes a variety of sounds and soundtracks to set the stage for each environment, level, or event in the game. The music varies throughout the game from the funky soul load screen music reminiscent of Chaka Khan, up-lifting classical music in the national park, bluesy notes when in the prison, to the classic private eye/sleuth inspired music when Chase looks for hidden items with his communicator/scanner. The music is artfully selected and definitely sets the appropriate mood for the portion of the game in which it appears. As to be expected the game also includes a wide range of sound effects including car sirens, Chase’s police issued whistle, punches and kicks, the recognizable clinking as you collect LEGO studs or bricks, the clanking sound as you destroy LEGO cars, buildings and objects, the stacking sounds of construction as you build objects and tools out of uncovered LEGO blocks, to the everyday city street sounds from vehicles, citizens and nature. The sounds get the job done.
The voice work is the shining star in the audio component of the title though. The characters all have unique voices such as Ellie with her southern drawl reminding me of a young Dolly Parton to Chase, who has combination of characteristics similar of Troy Mcclure from the Simpsons or Will Ferrell’s portrayal of Anchor Man. You can tell real talent played a part in the voice acting. Rounding out the voice work is the incredibly comedic script for the game which truly made this title entertaining and brought the sound component to the forefront in my mind when usually it falls off to the wayside.
LEGO City Undercover was definitely worth the wait even with the extensive load times that are the only disappointing feature of this game. Everything from the tried and true LEGO gameplay sprinkled with some great new additions, a comedic script, and an entertaining storyline provides a gaming experience suitable for all ages which, in my eyes, makes LEGO City Undercover a must buy for fans of the LEGO franchise and Wii U owners alike.