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Solo Gamer Review: LEGO City Undercover

LEGO City Undercover
LEGO CITY UNDERCOVER
Release Date: 3/18/2013
Platform: Wii U
Developer: TT Games
Publisher: Nintendo
Sites: Official | IGN | Gametrailers

The success of LEGO video games may seem baffling to the uninitiated, but its roots can be found in 1997's LEGO Island. An open-world sandbox-style game that came out the same month as the very first Grand Theft Auto, LEGO Island is extremely dated--borderline unplayable--by today's standards, but it was such a wild success that it eventually gave birth to one of the most prolific and lucrative family-friendly game franchises to date. When TT Games took over the LEGO brand and started combining it with borrowed licenses including Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter, and Batman, magic happened, and now it seems not a year goes by without at least two or three new LEGO games coming out.

This year, TT Games released the Wii-U-exclusive LEGO City Undercover, a game that harkens back to the original LEGO Island by being an open-world sandbox-style game. It wouldn't be unfair to call this LEGO's answer to Grand Theft Auto, but one must remember that LEGO games have been around just as long, and they had a 3-D sandbox well before Grand Theft Auto III defined the genre. Still, it seems like an unusual choice, a mold-breaking endeavor that forgoes the popular licensed characters in favor of a mix of family-friendly fare and the notoriously unwholesome trappings of Grand Theft Auto. Does LEGO City stand firmly on its own merits, or does it crumble to the floor like so many toy bricks and studs?



STORY

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He's the hero LEGO City deserves...
LEGO City Undercover follows the exploits of Chase McCain, a brilliant police detective who left the city years ago in a cloud of mystery. He returns to track down Rex Fury, a criminal he helped put away, while juggling the constant praise of a dimwitted collegue, a spurned love interest, and an attention-hogging, credit-stealing, donut-gorging boss. McCain does this by going undercover through the various criminal gangs of LEGO City, collecting new disguises and skill sets along the way.

The plot is goofy and predictable, but a fun recontextualization of familiar Grand Theft Auto clichés and cop movie tropes. Jokes are frequent, light, and totally safe for kids, and they often involve pop culture references both obvious and obscure that only adults will fully appreciate. My personal favorite jokes involve "Shaky Harry," a grisly-looking detective who has had one too many shots of espresso ("I know what you're thinking: did he have six shots or only five?"), and a construction foreman with a distinctly recognizable Austrian accent who has to include the title of an 80's action flick in every other line of dialogue. Not all the jokes mesh, and the first twenty minutes or so of getting used to the style of the humor is a bit rough, but the task of creating so many funny, inoffensive jokes is an unenviable one.

[Story: 9 - It's not exactly ground-breaking, but it succeeds in delivering plenty of family-friendly entertainment and amusing parody.]



GAMEPLAY

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Driving cars is fun and all, but have you ever driven a T-Rex?
People who have played previous LEGO games by TT Games pretty much know what to expect. Riffing off of the familiar formula, LEGO City Undercover is digested through a series of "special assignment" missions, episodic levels that need to be played multiple times in order to fully explore and separated by a hub world, which is in this case an extremely large open world filled to the brim with collectables, hidden objectives, and super-tiny mini-games. As an undercover police officer, Chase is capable of donning various outfits, most of which come with special abilities that have to be unlocked. This gets around the requirement of previous LEGO games to play as multiple characters to achieve certain tasks, as Chase is, essentially, up to eight different people at any given time.

Fans of simple platforming, exploration, and a staggering amount of collectables will love spending time in LEGO City, though there is no real punishment for people who just want to race through the story by going level to level. However, people expecting something a little more akin to the GTA formula will be disappointed by the story's linear focus and complete lack of branching missions. One thing LEGO City Undercover shares with GTA, though, is the variety of cars (and other vehicles including bicycles, helicopters, and segways), which all handle and drive differently. Chase doesn't steal cars--as a police officer, he merely requisitions them--but the mechanics and end results are surprisingly similar.

The game also uses Wii U functionality with mixed results. It's cool to scan the area for clues using the GamePad, though there are many places throughout the city where the camera becomes inexplicably fixed, making it very awkward to try to scan things behind you. It's also nice having a map in your hands the whole time and to be able to cycle through cars and characters using the touchscreen, but it seems odd to not have an off-TV option available like many other Wii U games do.

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Finally, after hours of searching, I can now be a nameless soccer player!
I also take issue with the difficulty. I don't expect a LEGO game to be hard by any stretch, but even compared to other LEGO games, LEGO City Undercover is ludicrously forgiving. The combat system is pathetically simple, you will never once wish you had more studs (even without using the cheats), and your health bar is practically an afterthought. I understand this game was built mainly for kids, but come on, my four-year-old is already figuring out his first Mario games, which are frustratingly impossible by comparison.

The only other real negative is the game's lack of a license. One of the joys of playing through LEGO Star Wars is the hope that you can unlock one of your favorite Star Wars characters like Boba Fett or Chewbacca (or Jar Jar Binks, if you enjoy killing him over and over again), but you don't get the same thrill out of unlocking the hundreds of utterly random and anonymous characters of LEGO City. There's also one mechanic you unlock at the end of the game that can only be utilized by one very specific character, which forces you to reserve that particular slot for him instead of exploring the various other characters you could put there.

[Gameplay: 7 - It's easy enough to master, and OCD gamers like myself can squeeze hours and hours of joy out of the collectables, but the game is too forgiving and the collectables are too unfamiliar to be worth even the small effort required.]



PRESENTATION

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Be prepared to see this a lot
No LEGO game has ever had the production values of LEGO City Undercover. Though the art style is cartoonish and eye-strainingly colorful (the pun enthusiast in me is dying to call it "blocky" as well), the lego bricks and locations are rendered with impeccable detail and moderately long draw distances. It's not beautiful or anything, but it's certainly the most technically impressive visual presentation of any LEGO game to date.

Up until recently, LEGO games were known for their silent humor, which cleverly delivered jokes without needing a single line of dialogue. However, LEGO City Undercover, along with every other new LEGO game, includes voice acting, and it's done very well. Especially notable is the overly-enthusiastic and idiotic Frank Honey, voiced by Trevor White doing an uncanny Phillip J. Fry imitation. Though the Schwarzenneger impression is equally awesome, some others, such as the faux Morgan Freeman, are pretty poor, and the choice to give an obvious Morpheus analogue a Scotch Irish accent instead of making him sound like Lawrence Fishburne is totally perplexing.

The music is pretty good, too, taking its cues from late 70's crime flicks (which is surprisingly similar to music from late 70's porn flicks). However, the main theme will get old very quickly, as it plays during the long load time that comes every time you try to enter the main city (this includes every time you load up the game). While I appreciate the lack of load times or pauses while moving through the city, this one load time is so unbelievably long that it may well turn off some players. I clocked it once at over two minutes, and it makes me seriously wonder why the Wii U doesn't allow you to install games to the hard drive.

[Presentation: 8 - The music, sound, and graphics are pretty much the best you could expect from a LEGO game, and it all runs very smoothly. However, the long load time that accompanies entering the city is impossible to overlook.]



CONCLUSIONS

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Finally, a game where you can put a pig in a cannon!
Fans of TT Games' various LEGO outings should enjoy LEGO City Undercover, and it's a great game to play around younger audiences. It's amusing and filled with childish delight--much like LEGOs themselves--and it does its best to appeal to all audiences. It's not likely to bring in any new fans from the hardcore audience since it doesn't come with any geek licensing, but it still has the potential to briefly entertain GTA fans who are having trouble waiting for Grand Theft Auto V. It's perfectly matched with the Wii U, and I for one had a blast with it.





FINAL TALLY
STORY: 9
GAMEPLAY: 7
PRESENTATION: 8
SOLO GAME SCORE: 10

TOTAL SCORE: 8.5

LEGO City is a great tourist destination for children of all ages, but it's not the kind of place you'd want to live in forever



-e. magill 6/25/2013










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Copyright 2013 e. magill. All rights reserved.