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LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins - 3DS Review

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LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins

3DS | TT Games / Nintendo | 1 Player | Out Now | StreetPass Support
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20th April 2013; By KnucklesSonic8

In what is not at all common practice, TT Games has taken an intriguing stance in their development and release of LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins. Rather than allowing for time to pass before releasing a follow-up, they've positioned this handheld entry as a prequel to the existing Wii U counterpart, with only a one-month gap between the two release schedules. Bucking growth to the side in favour of a smooth transition, they've been able to retain the hunger for exploration, the draw of the comedic storyline and the familiarity of gameplay built on series fundamentals, all with the added promise of a developed back-story. But to quantify the experience that's to be had, some will find this entry to be no less than half as fun LEGO City: Undercover, which says to me that the magic here is either more fleeting or chunks of it have been lost.

    The Chase Begins...begins by introducing players to a less suave version of McCain than you will remember from the first game. Tracking his early career development as a budding detective, Chase is sent out to do jobs that, at first, relegate him to intern status. With other officers no doubt having their hands full and tending to more serious matters, Chase's role on the force isn't likely to earn him much respect anytime soon by retrieving doodads and performing what are more or less good deeds. Deputy Dunby doesn't seem to mind, though, exploiting his bottom-rank position and shunning him away from the serious cases when Chief Gleeson isn't looking!

    Understanding the relationship the two had in Undercover, it's reasonable to expect some sort of explanation behind Dunby's overruling attitude, but you'll see that even in the prequel, Dunby really has little reason to behave the way he does around Chase. The only, erm, "rational" explanation I can think of is that he sees him as a threat to his perk-gone-obsession. At any rate, it is with your help that Chase will make a name for himself through matters of...regional importance, and it's not until that he starts to investigate and tackle more connected events that players experience first-hand how he's earned the reputation by the time Undercover kicks off -- appropriate since the game concludes just about where Undercover begins.

    LEGO City is more or less identical here in the prequel, with seven major hubs and the same environments and districts now re-adapted for this handheld entry. Key landmarks return, as do elements tied to the Free Run system (poles, spring-loaded pads, and horizontal bars), Helipads for quick travel to and from central locations, and environment-enhancing Super Builds (now triggering short movies prior to construction). And yes, the infamous loading times are back too, though not in full force and are easier to swallow this time around. There are some differences, though.

    Since Chase isn't "officially" Officer material (though he sure puts on a display in front of ne'er-do-wells), you can't whistle at moving vehicles and demand that passengers give them up in the name of police duties. So instead, you'll have to commandeer vehicles with some leg work on your part. I will point out that vehicular control isn't as steady and resilient, much more prone to acting up after a collision. Some actually handle poorly in certain situations, and unlike Undercover, this trait actually doesn't belong to the RC vehicles this time.

    Going from one large block of the city to the next now involves a transition process that didn't exist before, with more load times before the changes in scenery can take effect (lasting 40 seconds max). Also, there isn't as much bustle in the streets -- likely to preserve the framerate and condense the vast quantities of moving objects -- and they can even be a tad empty in areas, but roadway traffic is generally of the same flow, so it's not like it's a ghost town. Admittedly, some sections of the city are closed off or under construction (most notably, the train and monorail systems are out of commission) and make navigation a hassle, an issue that comes from having a segmented approach to the open-world system. That, and the fact that the time frame of the game's events fall two years prior to the plot of LEGO City: Undercover, resulting in the city not being fully developed.

Aside from abrupt drops tied to the jumping physics, the controls function as they should and don't require getting much getting used to thanks to the predictable configuration. Two things worth pointing out are that the +Control Pad is used as a shortcut for quickly swapping out disguises (an icon on the Touch Screen serves as an alternate method), while L and R allow you to manually control the camera -- bears mentioning as there are some minor bothers in this department.

    In the absence of the Wii U GamePad, the Touch Screen and the gyroscopic sensors are put to use as substitutes for your policing tools. Tracing hidden footsteps doesn't require anything but the Circle Pad, but scanning is done with you hold your 3DS out in front of you. In comparison to LEGO City: Undercover, the response of this particular action isn't as fluid and is more slow-moving than the GamePad. Wiretaps are more meddlesome, having you lie the system flat and, rather than tilting, hold it straight as you move left and right in the space around you, trying to line up two sound waves. This may come across as forced execution for the main reason that it's not very intuitive, but all things considered, the translation of these tools and actions is done to fair execution.

    Then you have your quaint wardrobe of unlockable disguises, which bring their own abilities for interacting with the environment or scaling platforming segments. Your primary tool is the Grapple Gun you have on-hand when donning your police uniform. That's nothing new. Some of the other actions are, though, in terms of performance. Cracking safes with the Robber disguise is done exactly how I had envisioned it, with a roulette on the Touch Screen -- minus the finicky response, that is. Chicken-glides made possible with the Farmer disguise follow a quicker pace. And the jetpack equipped to the Astronaut suit is no longer used on-demand and is now limited to marked circles, requiring that you hold the A Button to bring up a power meter and releasing it when the bar reaches the green area. With these exceptions (and the order in which they appear), the purpose of each disguise remains the same and they still play into the design, both in broad terms on the adventure field and when traversing platforming setups and obstacle courses.

On that subject, one statement I can make about the design is that confusion is a rare thing. If not through the scene itself, direction is made clear with map markers on the Touch Screen, blue beacons, and Studs triggered after events or reaching set heights (though Studs are generally found in less overwhelming supply here). The progression has you spending much of your time in one part of the city before moving onto the next, and that's something that really sets The Chase Begins apart from its relative. Wild chases, spur-of-the-moment finds and insatiable curiousity isn't as readily detected as a result of this choice in direction, and before long, you'll catch on to the game's strong push for a more checklist-oriented affair. Sad to say, it is a drawback to the experience because of how it influences your methodology and leads to an attitude of narrow preoccupation.

    That doesn't mean there aren't highlights. Reclaiming stolen property, jail escapes, tractor accidents, heroic rescues -- these are some of the more lively scenarios, just if I were to categorize. And while chaos never ensues, the individual trails associated with these happenings do have brief moments set up independent of the dialogue that'll make you grin. It's a tad disappointing, though, that the platforming doesn't do as much to maintain the subdued thrill that the varied encounters and events normally offer in the Wii U entry.

    One noteworthy aspect to the formula is the inclusion of dedicated boss battles, which are more in tune with the game's platforming pillar. One fight, for example, has you doing battle in a junkyard, where dynamite is constantly being lobbed to prevent you from reaching fuse boxes. Another consists of a chase to the top of a castle where a foe leaps across platforms that have organic bear traps underneath. With roots connected to small pots along the inside perimeter, these must be watered to trigger the snapping motion that will damage your foe. These fights are simplified, naturally. With the last example, the boss will wait in place for you to water the right pot before advancing. And as a general rule, you'll always have cronies (or the boss man himself) mixed in for some hand-to-hand combat. But even with this being the case, these are quite fun for what they are, and this is a theme that continues up until the game's concluding boss fights.

Outside these encounters, the combat system can take its toll after a while. All opponents must be roughed up before Chase can perfectly subdue them with a set of handcuffs, and to do that, you have three main moves at your disposal: Grabs, Throws and Counter Attacks. The A Button allows you to do up to three grab variations in preparation for a subsequent throw, while the Y Button can be used on its own to initiate a throw ("toss" might be a better word choice). Counter Attacks are made possible when the X Button appears above an enemy's head, allowing you to dodge or intercept. Control-wise, there isn't much discrepancy; it's the delivery that can leave you feeling empty. I don't expect to be able to pulverize criminals, but I found combat to be a tad weak on the whole, and it also became tedious just in the sense of how these spats often play out.

    LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins aims for the same goals as the game that came before it -- to have comedic writing and wit carry the adventure. But to say that it succeeds to the same capacity would be giving the game too much credit. Immediately the game has two obstacles in front of it. The first is that barring some sound effects and occasional cries, dialogue is largely unspoken, thus placing the onus on body language and gestures where voice acting would translate the most impact. And the second is that they no longer have Frank Honey to rely on. Of course, his absence isn't a mystery, but the fact that much of his lines, expressions and tones haven't been redistributed or taken on by this game's cast is telling as to how greatly he drives the comedy in UndercoverBoth aspects put the game at a disadvantage, and you can tell that while the game isn't bankrupt on humour, it does take a hit here. Some funny characters, rehashed jokes and cheesy mission titles notwithstanding, there are fewer funnies this time around, and I genuinely feel the writing here is really just leftovers from Undercover.

Speaking of taking hits, what is up with the game's engine? I'm very surprised to report that there is a slew of perplexing troubles present in terms of presentation and production values. But first: The visuals themselves are done well and have an appealing quality most of the time, although there are definitely spots where you can tell the game's scope has affected its ability to produce reliable results. Then there are groups of elements that are just really bland-looking. These attributes are to be expected, but when you actually see these up-close, they can be off-putting. As an example, there's a pool in the construction district that hardly looks like it's filled with water -- it looks like tarmac!

    The game also loves to add sparkle wherever it can through 3D, and this is seen when accomplishing objectives, traveling along ziplines, in the seat of a fire engine, using pig cannons, viewing menus, and in more subtle ways while exploring certain locations. But to the same token, the application of 3D in many other areas leads to some grainy feedback where finer details expand but affected elements don't register on-screen with the greatest standard.

    Worse yet is the inconsistent framerate, which has a tendency to take you out of the experience and actually make you feel uncomfortable about how things are portrayed. At least 50% of the time, it runs just fine and there aren't any disturbances. But as for the rest of time, it's anyone's guess as to how frequently the game will scramble to keep things together and in what zones this will be especially noticeable. It got so severe at one point for me that I was shocked how many frames the game was reduced to and the jagged movements that followed. These conditions are such a contrast to the menus, which are clean and responsive by comparison. For all these reasons, you may be better off disabling 3D almost entirely, as it often seems these troubles are amplified when it is in effect. But to round things out, there are also glitches relating to audio and object behaviours, occasional funks where the camera collides with walls or doesn't offer the best perspective, and the quality of the video cutscenes isn't the clearest.

You can see the game's story to its finish in about seven hours in game time (I did it in under six), but of course there's still the matter of inspecting every last inch of LEGO City for the usual band of collectibles, Red Brick bonuses and disguise-specific tasks. And because reaching 1,000,000 Studs isn't as easy to accomplish, you'll be at it for quite some time trying to own every article up for purchase at the Police Station. One new element is the presence of (free) coin-operated binoculars that uncover hidden postcards with the gyroscope. These along with other finds can be added to a custom gift package, another unique element, that can be shared with other players via StreetPass, giving the recipient complimentary unlocks. But the thrust of the game's replay value comes from discovery, and there's plenty of that to keep you entertained.

    Coming off the highs of an evidently stronger experience, I came away from The Chase Begins underwhelmed. To put it into perspective, it's like the younger child that looks up to and tries to emulate the ways of their older sibling. It performs admirably, but it can't match it. And with that said, The Chase Begins should not be taken as a substitute to LEGO City: Undercover in any respect. Taken as its own experience, there are still qualms to be had, and I have to say that it's because of these issues that responses towards the formula will be more lukewarm. In trying to balance their efficiency and vision across both releases, the development team hasn't been able to carry over in full all the signature variables that made the original entry so endearing. But if you delve in not expecting the same in the way of delivery, you're sure to have some fun along the way.

19/30 - Okay/Average

Gameplay 6/10 - Segmented open-world, similar formula, functionality not spot-on, simple yet fun bosses, weaker combat, progression less memorable
Presentation 5/10 - Good 3D use, visuals not always pleasing, glitches and recurring framerate issues, load times return, unspoken dialogue, less humorous
Enjoyment 3/5 - Writing takes a hit, bothersome technical issues, entertaining highlights, easy-to-follow design, experience not as strong as Undercover
Extra Content 5/5 - Average length, multiple provisions to extend the experience, StreetPass features, thrill of discovery affords much replay value

Equivalent to a score of 63% (percentage score is approximate and based solely on the previously stated rating) - Our Rating System

Review by KnucklesSonic8

LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins
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