Lego City Undercover review: building anew

By Steve Watts, Mar 19, 2013 12:00pm PDT

TT Games has built a substantial brand name around its Lego line, but that success has relied mostly on the games' proximity to popular existing brands. Watching Batman or Luke Skywalker mime their way through parodies of their own most famous moments has been fun, but they require a certain cultural awareness. Lego City Undercover feels like the developer set a dare for itself: make a game even funnier than the branded titles, with its own original characters, and set in a world that is exponentially more ambitious.

And shockingly, TT Games has pulled it off.

For the humor, we can thank the developer's recent decision to include dialogue in its games. While the vast majority of its catalog has been silent, both Lego Batman 2 and Lego Lord of the Rings featured full voice casts. It was a sensible choice for each game, but in Lego City, the voices are absolutely vital. The game largely leans on dialogue-driven gags that would be at home in a family-friendly cartoon, with plenty of winks and nods to cultural touchstones like Starsky and Hutch or The Shawshank Redemption.

The writing made me chuckle constantly, and it frequently crossed into the outright hilarious. The voice cast helps deliver on the promise of the script, by offering readings of their ridiculous dialogue with utter sincerity and absolutely bulls-eye comic timing. Incidental dialogue, background gags, and even subtle sound cues add to the rapid-fire jokes.

The centerpiece and straight-man of the proceedings is Chase McCain, a star cop forced out of town when he inadvertently revealed the identity of an anonymous witness in the trial of infamous crook Rex Fury. When Rex breaks out of prison, the Mayor personally requests Chase return to track him down--much to the dismay of Chase's former colleague, who now sits as Chief of Police. If this all sounds vaguely reminiscent of cop movie cliches, that's certainly intentional. Like other Lego games, the lifeblood here is parody, but it can rely on a broader palette than the games tied to a single franchise.

The structure itself is familiar to Lego veterans. Missions will have you solve simple puzzles, fight off a few thugs with simple commands, and navigate through the world using an array of special abilities. The combat here is slightly more refined than prior Lego games thanks to a counter system, and enemies seem to have more weight and can crash into each other. Some of the special animations can become over-familiar after a few too many times, but doing battle is fairly rare. Unlike many Lego games, though, it's single-player only, which is likely to disappoint parents used to playing through the games with their little ones.

The special abilities are granted through a variety of costumes, based on familiar types you'd see in the Lego City line of toys. The crook can break into safes, the firefighter can hose down a blaze, and so on. Even from the start of the lengthy campaign, stages have areas that can't be accessed until you obtain a new costume or ability, giving each one a reason to come plumb their depths after finishing the game proper.

More impressive is the titular city in which the missions take place. The sprawling San Francisco-inspired play space is massive, and boasts secret nooks and crannies around every corner. Even after perfecting every stage, the game has plenty left to explore and unlock throughout the city using the same abilities that serve as navigation through stages. It makes sense that the title showcases the city, because it's very much a standout feature.

That open world environment gives the game a feeling of "GTA Light," a safer area than Rockstar's playgrounds with many of the same mechanics. You can take cars from motorists, though with the explanation that you're on police business. The game is even sure to explain that the city will pay for any damages in the course of your investigation, so you don't feel too bad about crashing through street lamps and mailboxes.

Crashes are likely, as the car handling feels a bit like driving a brick with one wheel in the center. It takes some adjusting, and never feels as smooth and natural as games more devoted to the mechanics, but by the end I had learned how to compensate for its weaknesses well enough to get around town with relative ease.

The game is a Wii U exclusive, but the Wii U features are largely unnecessary. The GamePad screen is usually used as a map, but can also be used to scan the screen for items or listen in on criminals from a distance. While the feature has an initial gee-whiz factor, that wears off quickly and becomes an extraneous chore. The GamePad is also, for some reason, the only spot to keep an eye on the interminable load bar. While the game usually hides loads well enough in the course of missions, the wait times when a load screen does rear its head were longer than I've seen in a game in quite a while.

Granted, my frustration with the load times was usually borne out of impatience to get back to the game. While some of the combat or driving mechanics could use a little polish, I'm more excited for the prospect of a second Lego City game than I have been for any other Lego game in years. I want to spend more time with these characters in this world, so as TT Games' tentative toe in the waters of original creations, Lego City Undercover is a resounding success.


This Lego City Undercover review was based on a retail version of the game provided by the publisher.

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