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LEGO City: Undercover - Wii U Review

Game Info
LEGO City: Undercover

Wii U | TT Games / Nintendo | 1 Player | Out Now | Miiverse Support
Controller Compatibility: Wii U GamePad; Wii U Pro Controller
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14th March 2013; By KnucklesSonic8

Most would agree that up until this point, the LEGO games have followed a fairly strict template, using an existing franchise with a popular following as a basis and having this dictate much of the creativity. And so naturally, with the latest venture decidedly breaking away from this, there is indeed a lot riding on LEGO City: Undercover. It's a game that has long carried much promise, as not only is it the first time LEGO City has been given a videogame treatment, it also represents the first time TT Games has really made a concerted effort to pull away from their established formula. It's an approach that lends itself to new means by which to advance the series in ways that previously might have been too risky. Evidently, they've eagerly accepted this challenge, devising their own original storyline ideas while still paying tribute to the real-life playsets. Ultimately, this revision in creative control has given rise to instances of brilliance and genuine wit, glimmers of which can be spotted throughout. And it's because of this devotion that LEGO City: Undercover will be embraced by players of all age groups as a high-quality, long-lasting piece of entertainment that not once deviates from its active spirit.

    The game stars Chase McCain, an undercover cop bent on taking down Rex Fury, an escaped convict whose actions have caused an escalation in crime all over LEGO City. With the help of Frank Honey, his trusty sidekick (see: comic relief), Chase plans to bring him to justice by masquerading as a new worker bee for a notorious street gang, inching closer to the truth behind Rex's plans. For this mission, you'll need a competent supply of gadgets, all taken care of with your police communicator (i.e., the Wii U GamePad). Through it, video calls are received and a map of the surrounding area can be inspected. A logical and easy-to-follow legend is used to isolate key points of interest when discovered, while roads are highlighted in green to show the easiest path to follow when heading to a specific destination.

A series of handy tools are provided to help you in carrying out the investigation. The Criminal Scan allows you to trace hidden footsteps moving away from clearly-marked interaction points, lead to an item hidden away in a storage container or in the dirt. The Surveillance Camera widget has you holding the GamePad out in front of you, treating it as you would a normal camera to take photographic evidence. The Data and Audio Scan features take this a step further with an X-ray view of the world around you in relation to Chase's current position, allowing you to pinpoint the location of out-of-sight pick-ups and mark these on your map, or to listen in on conversations in the case of the latter. While you can expect to make use of the gyroscope-related features many times over the course of the game, the GamePad functionality never feels forced or gimmicky. Everything has a valid place and purpose in connection with the overall theme of the game, and it's very refreshing to see this.

    By definition, going undercover will involve some disguises, and players are handed a total of eight to choose from as the game progresses: Civilian, Police, Robber, Miner, Astronaut, Farmer, Fireman, and Construction. The Uniform Wheel can be pulled up by holding the X Button or using ZL and ZR to cycle through the list, and all of these outfits play into the design by having designated abilities not shared with one another. As a few examples, the Astronaut get-up enables use of teleportation devices, as well as Space Crates that require a quick game of Simon Says to open; the Farmer takes hold of a chicken for gliding across large gaps and shooting eggs at enemies, Banjo-Kazooie style; while safe-cracking and breaking into locked doors are techniques that belong to the Robber. What I especially appreciate about these uniforms, moving forward, is the lack of interference when the level design forces you to switch to another in order to advance. By this I mean that if you run over to grab some dynamite as the Miner but must switch to someone else before setting it down, you'll still have it on your person when you make the switch back.

While these abilities do make up a major part of the level design, there are other elements to take note of that both spill over and differ from other LEGO titles you may have played. Existing both inside levels and on rooftops in the city, the free-running mechanics will probably grab the most attention outside of the realm of collectibles. These involve using pipes and thin ledges to scooch across to an opposite end, wall-jumping to reach a height up above, leaping over or under metal bars, and using launch pads to either function as a springboard for wall-running or to trigger a slow-mo catapulting to an often far-away destination. These don't make up the only cases of acrobatics, as there are also round planks, tightwires and ziplines, as well as footholds and handholds fixed to inclines and walls for steady climbing. But all in all, whenever these motions are called for, they certainly add a charm that helps counteract any possible perception of the gameplay resting on a single plane.

    Interestingly, the puzzle component has been softened in LEGO City: Undercover, for when puzzles do surface, they appear on a more periodic, less interval-guided basis than what I'm used to. Even then, you can't outright tell that they are puzzles in disguise because they are integrated almost with a whisper, but that isn't a bad thing. The most common make use of Color Swapper machines that you'll be introduced to around the time you're given the Robber disguise, with doors and other contraptions having coloured lights that must be switched to a different colour. In some areas of the city, you'll find objects with a silver shine, signifying that the Color Gun can be used to change their appearance (e.g., applying red to circles along a boardwalk to turn them into life preservers) and reveal a prize of some kind. The most outspoken puzzle is found shortly before the end of the game, and I found it odd that they would choose this point to introduce one of less subtle make.

Barring a few exceptions, deep combat has never been a core pillar of the LEGO games, yet there is always an attempt to connect basic ideas and expand on these depending on the property. In LEGO City: Undercover, things are kept slightly above minimal level, generally speaking. The Y Button is your main attack button, the source of which can vary from punches to space guns. It also functions as your throw button for when you've grabbed an enemy with the A Button. When enemies are about to attack, an icon of the X Button will appear above their heads to signify that a window is open for a counter, and these will often result in Matrix-style moves that entertain when you're first exposed to them. Once cronies have been temporarily incapacitated, you can slap the cuffs on them before they jump back up to fight again. Again, combat is more subdued and not one of the principal reasons why the game excels, but even with it being on the tame side, it all connects back to the lighthearted fun of the series.

    Also as per series norm, collectible Studs have a rampant and unavoidable presence in all areas of LEGO City, with even more hiding inside destructible props. In select instances, it's not just a case of a stud bomb having gone off, instead being used to highlight which path to take. For the direction they add to the pacing, it's not surprising, then, that even when these are retrieved, returning to a locale or city district will generate the same pieces once again. Other optional collectibles worth noting are Red Studs that unlock bonuses in the Extras menu, as well as Police Shield Pieces (four in every level) that can be collected by dousing flames, opening safes, and engaging in other side-tasks like these during a level.

Serving a more mandatory place in the equation are Super Bricks that are used in connection with Super Builds, blank foundation pieces upon which transports and monuments can be constructed for a specified price. There are over 60 located in LEGO City, but some are also found mid-level and must be addressed before you can advance. The developers wisely thought ahead to eradicate the frustration of not having enough when these appear by surprise, placing Large Super Bricks (worth 10,000 each) within the general vicinity. They're not easy pickings though, as they still require disguises to gain access to them. In a similar fashion, there's also been a conscientious effort to keep younger players focused, as you'll often get video calls in the form of a reminder or hear NPCs asking that you come over to where they're standing. In these and other ways, it's rarely ever puzzling to work out what direction needs to be taken next, and the attainable standards and foreseeable routes show how beneficial this has proven to the overall experience.

    As you gallivant and make your way into the depths of the game's open-world system, there is a striking authenticity to its layout and wide-scale breadth. Squares, plazas, industrial warehouses, markets, museums, restaurants, harbors, and a center for astronomical study are just some of the structures and districts that make up LEGO City, offering plenty and leaving little to be underwhelmed by. They've struck a very good balance in not having streets be too cluttered or sparse, while also offering spacious areas to accommodate all types of travel and exploration methods. Some of the aforementioned landmarks have levels attached to them as part of the main storyline, and many of these have incorporated memorable segments into their level design, including a mine with an exciting free-fall down into a gaping pit. The missions that get you to and from destinations are not to be overlooked as well, for whether you are escorting or protecting an NPC, jumping across rooftops as part of a rescue mission, or engaging in on-foot chases, there's great fun to be had.

Travel is a highlight in itself, largely due to the variety of options and how easily you can leap from one vehicle to the next. Aside from the conventional police cruisers, there are also rail cars that can be commandeered, sports cars equipped with nitrous tanks, taxis and limos that take you to your next destination, copters that can be accessed through helipads, pool chairs and boats, farm animals, even a mountable floor cleaner (though this is limited to a particular level). While seated, initiating a demolition frenzy by driving through bus shelters and the like will earn you Bricks, with the more wreckage done within a set window multiplying your earnings.

    At certain points in the game, RC vehicles are used to go around small tracks or to guide explosives, but I found these weren't the most responsive in the way of steering. Boats and certain types of machinery (e.g., crane) also exhibit jittery behaviours at time, so I wouldn't say the vehicular control is perfect. One thing I ought to emphasize with respect to all forms of travel is that the pace is often pedestrian-friendly, so if you're expecting high-speed pursuit missions, you'll have to curb any longing for a thrilling chase. What helps with this during missions involving longer routes are the exchanges that take place between Chase and an NPC, which divert your attention from what may be a more uneventful drive if you're not in the mood to go rampaging through the streets.

Speaking of conversation, LEGO City: Undercover's spunk is most evident in the ongoing dialogue. The story is delightfully comical in every respect, and the writing is easily one of the game's finer qualities for the way it engages the whole way through, doing so in ways that are laugh-out-loud hilarious. If you're a fan of puns and cheesy jokes, I guarantee you'll be more than amused. I found myself grinning beyond belief, so I'm perfectly confident kids are sure to laugh up a storm. The more open sense of creative control has afforded TT Games the ability to go free reign with cultural references, and LEGO City: Undercover is all the better for it. I have to bite my lip on this one because I really want to go into more detail, but it's far better if you experience these for yourself. They lose their power out of context because they're either out-of-the-blue or very well-timed, so don't let anyone spoil the game's many jokes and spoofs for you ahead of time.

    As far as the presentation is concerned, the first thing you'll want to be aware of is the long loading times. Just to get to the Main Menu takes around 20 seconds, and for the entire city to load it takes -- no word of a lie -- a little over a minute. There are also lengthy loading times seen when heading into assignments, albeit not as demanding of your patience as when you return to the city. On the plus side, it doesn't load gradually as you enter each new sector in the city, so there is reason to be thankful there. In my playthrough, I also encountered a few glitches. One caused a complete discolouration on the GamePad where the tonal levels were totally off, but this was corrected by pressing the Home Button. Other issues have to do with the response of vehicles in certain situations. There is a short jump move that can be executed with a quick shake of the controller, but I found that when I needed it the most -- when the car was overturned part-way, resting on one set of wheels -- it wouldn't co-operate. There was also a time when I thought I was trapped in a body of water after accidentally sinking my cruiser -- and evidently so did the game, since it recommended I hold the A Button to return to land. But after repeated tries and remaining in the same place, I had to figure out another way of resuming what eventually became a failed mission.

Looking at things in an overall sense, LEGO City: Undercover's visuals are regularly bright and easy on the eyes, but without being so cheery that onlookers wouldn't take the game seriously. The atmosphere of the city is very appropriate, too, adopting a breezy vibe in some places, while others have a welcome sense of bustle both in the area and off into the distance as you hear police sirens going off. Yet, no audio or visual elements choke out the easygoing appeal that dominates above all else.

    Character models glisten as though it were a permanent skin condition and seem to have a strong coat of varnish applied to them, to the point that if you look closely at their faces during cutscenes, you can vaguely make out reflections of nearby objects. Mouth movements are also very accurate and match the tenacious voice work without any major hitches, and it's great to see that level of dedication. There are, however, minor rifts in the framerate's consistency seen especially during the latter half of the game, and that's a disappointing drawback. While some stages re-use tracks from a small pool of standard tunes, most areas feature stage- or region-specific music that's quite fitting (e.g., a banjo-dominant theme for the farm area). I wouldn't go so far as to say a strong mystique has been harnessed through the audio, but there is some thoughtfulness that has resulted in some worthy deduction and spy-themed music.

    In no uncertain terms, LEGO City: Undercover is a massive game, with a motherload of 450 Gold Bricks to seek out. After completing the (amazing) final assignment, the 15 or so hours you initially spend completing the main quest just doesn't feel like it's enough to then call it quits. Far from it, it's a game you'll be seriously invested in over the long-term, feeling greatly motivated by the prospect of all the secrets that are in store and not discouraged by the times when these are easily discovered (e.g., by shooting some hoops). But you know, you don't have to wait till the end of the game to do some heavy-duty exploration. In fact, you'll be seriously hard-pressed to fight the urge not to! The sheer vastness can pull you away from the progression (in a good way), causing you to nibble on bread crumb trails. You may even wish to take photos of areas you wish to explore in greater detail later on, or share finds with friends by making Miiverse posts straight from your photo album. Either way, the game has some serious staying power and gives enough in return to keep you going for hours on end, even despite the omission of co-op.

Having a lighter affiliation turned out to be in TT Games' best interests, as LEGO City: Undercover is one of the most consistently heartwarming, family-friendly games in recent memory. What it has brought to the table impresses and innovates, not only covering but really embodying worthwhile implementation of the GamePad in ways that have paved the way for a compelling experience. And even though its design may not ooze creativity at all times, LEGO City: Undercover sure has some terrific moments, helped a great deal by its witty humour and all-ages comedy. The execution of the game's open-world concept is very well done and often on-point, lending to the creation of a vast and impeccably large content base that families in particular will be thoroughly engrossed by and have no trouble sinking loads of time into. There are some minor issues to speak of, but if you have even a passing interest in LEGO City: Undercover, it's begging to be welcomed into your gaming library.

26/30 - Very Good

Gameplay 9/10 - Refreshing GamePad use, finnicky controls, quirky abilities, active city involvement, logical and engaging design, well-translated ideas
Presentation 7/10 - Long loading times, shiny models, easygoing atmosphere, effective voice work and use of audio, comedic storyline and dialogue
Enjoyment 5/5 - Well-rounded, charming and compelling, hilarious at times, completely without dull moments, nothing forced or unwelcome
Extra Content 5/5 - Massive with loads of secrets, LEGO City is a well-laid-out and motivating venue for ongoing exploration, plenty of diversions

Equivalent to a score of 87% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating) - Our Rating System

Review by KnucklesSonic8

LEGO City: Undercover
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