So as some of you may know I was sick over the weekend; it gave me time to do two things, hack up my lungs and play a lot of LEGO City Undercover, and I can tell you that at the very least the latter is better than the former. I’ve really liked the LEGO games in the past and while I wasn’t stoked on the idea of having the LEGO people talk and I wasn’t really sure how they would do without a license to support the humor, I was curious to see how this larger LEGO adventure would play out. On the one hand the infinite expanse of possibilities that are LEGO could lead to some fun open world ideas but on the other a lot of the stuff I’ve liked about the LEGO games didn’t seem like it would translate over well. Now that I’ve played it I can tell you the game certainly isn’t irrevocably broken but I just don’t think it quite hits the notes a LEGO game needs to hit and that is unfortunately its ultimate downfall.
The premise here is that you are Chase McCain, a disgraced super cop brought back to LEGO City for a shot at redemption after his nemesis Rex Fury escapes from jail and starts a crime wave that’s drowning the city. From there it’s a winding road to catch Rex, find out who set him free, and bring the scum of the city to justice. Also you’ll be going undercover, like a lot, for everyone as everyone, because even hardened criminals in LEGO City are inherently trusting of anybody and everybody. In fact the undercover part of story plays a big role in the gameplay to seeing as how changing disguises is how you use your different abilities. For instance only in Chase’s miner disguise can you handle dynamite and use a pickaxe to destroy boulders. Chase has a total of 7 disguises (not counting his civilian disguise which has no special powers) all of which have their own uses and will gain abilities as time goes on. It’s an interesting enough mechanic and it takes the place of carting around extra characters to use as specialized keys like you’ve done in the past LEGO games, so it is certainly an efficient change. That said the fact you have switch disguises at all rather than just having access all these tools as a single character can be kind of annoying and feels like just an unnecessary extra button press to unlock things but then again so did dragging around characters and switching them around in the past games.
Other than the disguise thing, the biggest change to the core gameplay is the focus on driving in addition to the standard platforming and smashing. A large number of missions and side missions focus on chases, getaways, escorts, and other GTA like activities. Unfortunately there’s a major problem here, the driving in this game is flat-out terrible, it just does not feel good. I attribute this mainly to the fact that the Wii U gamepad has digital shoulder buttons rather than analog ones. To put that in layman’s terms it means rather than being able to control your acceleration like with the triggers on a 360 controller, you can either press the acceleration button (CAR GO FAST NOW) or not press the button (CAR NO GO). While in the most basic of terms this set up works, it certainly requires some getting used to and just doesn’t feel as good as proper analog acceleration would. There’s also the fact that the steering and braking feels a little off, being more biased towards drifting rather than proper turning. Again this works well enough for what they’re trying to do but if you’ve played a lot of open world driving games in the past then it will all just feel a little wrong. That is kind of the underpinning concept with the transportation in this game; uncomfortable constraint. Cars drive like they’re on a loose grid, helicopters fly low and can only land on specific spots so as to not let the player wander into any places they shouldn’t, and the ability to mantle and free run is constrained to just specific blue and white areas. It serves to make the game’s open world feel bigger than it actually is but it also eliminates a lot of the discovery and adventure of exploring outside the lines that makes open world games so fun.
Not to say there isn’t anything to do in this game besides the story missions; in true LEGO fashion there is a mountain of extra stuff to collect, puzzles to solve, side missions to complete, and random doodads to interact with. I spent twelve hours in LEGO City with a focus on just getting through the story and my final completion percentage was only something like 23%. Just like in past games there are tons of cheats to unlock as well which will make getting that completion percentage up a little easier but even those are hard sought collectibles. If you want to unlock every extra character, collect every gold brick, drive every vehicle, and complete every side mission then you’ll easily be able to spend an absolutely absurd amount of hours in this game that will make that $50 worth it. Of course that’s assuming you actually want to spend that time, I have to say that even just the twelve hours I put into LEGO City was a bit much for me.
The reason why getting through this game was a slog for me personally was the writing because just like a silent film star who couldn’t transition to the talkies, now that LEGO has a voice it never seems to say the right thing. The writing is overall very hit and miss though mainly miss with things being a mix of stating the obvious, bad references, and being random for the sake of being random. Even worse there’s a lot of it to listen to; Chase and his compatriots never shut the hell up, meaning you’ll always have a crappy quip to distract you during a mission. For an example of the writing here let’s use the prison level you explore early on. The whole level is a big take on the Shawshank Redemption (you know how 7 year-olds love Stephen King) and one of the key characters there is named Blue and spends the whole time doing a Morgan Freeman impression. After you finish talking to Blue, another prisoner comes up to him asks “Are you free, man?” to which Blue replies “I am not Freeman, and be quiet, his lawyers may be watching”. This turns what could have been a sly bit of humor for the adults in the audience into the game screaming the punchline of the joke at you through a megaphone. Compare that to the silent jokes of the past LEGO games where because they had less to work with the jokes were made more subtle and ultimately funnier which was more enjoyable for an all-ages audience. Also it’s worth saying that all the references just feel lazy, it’s as though they weren’t too sure what to do without a license to bounce ideas off of and just resorted yelling out the names of movies and TV shows that they like.
All that said they don’t really need to be as clever and accommodating to the adult audience this time around as this game also removes the multiplayer component of the past games, which honestly is a huge oversight in my mind. One of the greatest strengths of the past games was their ability to let a parent and child play together and both equally enjoy the experience. Now it’s one player at a time and that means what was a fun day of parent and child playing together is now the kid playing till they get stuck on one of the crappy driving missions and calling mommy or daddy over to do it for them.
For as much as this is certainly an evolution of the LEGO series it just doesn’t feel the like the step forward it needed as it cuts out a lot of what made the series as entertaining as it was. This no longer feels like the fun all-ages romp that I came to the love the series for being; now it’s the sort of just good enough pablum you’d sit your kid in front of on a Saturday morning to ensure that you got to over sleep rather than it being something that would have you jumping on the couch and joining in. It’s not outright bad but it has lost a lot of its charm and the driving makes the gameplay an inconsistent experience at the very least. If you’re buying this just for your kid then it’s still a fun enough experience to keep them happy but if you’re buying this either as parent expecting a fun weekend of family togetherness or as an old fan looking to continue the good times you’ve had with the LEGO series over the last decade, then you’ll probably be disappointed. For what is just not as fun an experience as what we’ve come to expect from the LEGO series, LEGO City Undercover gets a 2 out of 5 stars. It’s a high 2 stars mind you, if our rating system allowed it then I’d give it 2.5 stars, but it doesn’t and this game just doesn’t warrant a 3 from me.