And so, a mere four months after the system’s launch, a new major retail-release title has finally been delivered for the Wii U (no thanks to Ubisoft). Is Lego City: Undercover worth the interminable wait? Fortunately, yes.
For the most part, Lego City is like every other Tt Games Lego offering that never seem to stop being made. What this single-player sandbox adventure (the phrase “Lego GTA” has been used more than once in reference to this game) loses in the series’ otherwise trademark cooperative play it gains in originality, as this is the first console Lego game to not rely on a licensed property for its narrative or characters. This frees it to tell its own story, as well as take some amusing jabs at various cop shows and movies and the tropes contained therein. The voice acting is well-done and really helps to make the world feel whole, as this game would not be nearly as funny nor as complete with the simple pantomimes of pre-Lego Batman 2 titles.
The sacrifice of cooperative play is tied to the use of the GamePad. Besides the standard map and menu functionality that keeps the main screen cleared of most distractions, the GamePad is also used to scan for clues, eavesdrop on key conversations, take incriminating photographs for evidence, and even as a substitute video cell phone. For the completionists out there, it also keeps track of the various collectibles in each district of the sprawling city. And since there are 450 gold bricks to earn for various tasks, so that’s no mean feat.
Some of these tasks are “super builds”, which are new to the Lego series. Collecting studs is still a part of the game, with each special mission having the usual stud-meter (this time it’s for “Lego City Hero” status) and anything you “unlock” also having to be purchased before you can use it, they aren’t nearly as prevalent as in previous titles.
Busting up random objects is now much more likely to give you bricks, and to complete even the smallest of super build will require several thousand bricks. Fortunately, there are small and large super-bricks that are respectively worth one thousand and ten thousand bricks that can be found in various nooks and crannies; you can even use your GamePad scanner to find them. Any time a super build is required to progress you can be assured that an appropriate amount of super bricks will be located nearby.
The story of ace cop Chase McCain’s quest to (re-)take down the notorious villain Rex Fury by going undercover in various gangs to sniff out Rex’s trail unfolds over approximately fifteen chapters, with just about each one adding something new to Chase’s repertoire. Chase frequently needs to don various disguises in the line of duty, and each disguise (eventually) has two or three abilities that you will need to employ to get past various obstacles and puzzles. Changing from one disguise to the next is simply a matter of hitting the ZR or ZL button to cycle through them (or holding down X to call up the disguise wheel), which keeps the game play much more fluid than, say, backtracking to find the right outfit in the Lego Batman titles.
No matter which disguise Chase is currently using, he has some nifty free-running skills that he can bust out whenever he encounters some telltale blue-and-white bricks. Many stages will involve these to get past various obstacles, and there are several free-running courses scattered throughout the city as well. While largely fluid and intuitive, there will be times where the same awkward jumps or occasionally uncooperative camera that have always been a part of these games will cause frustration.
He also picks up some advanced combat techniques fairly early on that make disposing of hoodlums and interfering security more of a quick-time/mini-game experience than the usual mashfest, but more importantly they make the fighting fun. It should be noted that while Chase does have guns or other projectile weapons in some of his disguises (although his “cop” outfit only has a grapple gun), you cannot use them against your enemies, only structures and appropriate puzzles.
As I’ve mentioned, Lego City itself is a sprawling metropolis divided into about a dozen districts. Getting from one place to the next can be done on foot, by commandeering a vehicle (which optionally includes hailing a taxi/limo or catching a passing bus and having the driver do the work), or by unlocking metro stations/harbors and taking the train/ferry. Other than a slight load when using the fast-travel options, there are no interruptions when moving from location to location, which is amazing. That seamlessness comes at a cost, however, and that cost is the number one complaint against Lego City: excessive load times.
You see, instead of having smaller loads at junction points, Lego City somehow manages to load the entire city up-front every time you enter it (from the title screen, a cutscene, or exiting Police HQ). And really, no individual load is longer than a maybe 90 seconds so they aren’t that bad, but when two or three of them are strung together in particularly cutscene-heavy segments — and indeed the initial start-up of the game, which is the most egregious and obvious offender — it can feel a little ridiculous.
Other, minor complaints include not being able to disable the on-screen reminders of what ability you need to pass an obstacle, the repetitive nature of the GamePad reminders if you decide to ignore the story for a bit and just explore the city, some bizarre rare instances where the game wouldn’t provide me the option to do things that I needed to do (forcing me to actively re-load by returning to HQ and back), and the fact that the GamePad’s battery life really doesn’t do well in extended play sessions (which admittedly is less of a strike against Lego City and more at the Wii U in general).
But in the grand scheme of things, these are all flaws Lego fans have grown used by now, leaving the justified lack of cooperative play and somewhat-excessive load times as the sole detractions from an otherwise insane sandbox title with a great story and mostly smooth gameplay. Completing the story will only earn you 25-30% completion depending on how much side stuff you achieve incidentally along the way, so there is a ton of stuff to find and do here if you want to explore enough.
Which is good, because it could be a while before the next major Wii U release. (Sigh.)
Pros: Great sandbox gameplay filled with surprises; an engaging story and characters
Cons: Load times are hard to ignore; the usual LEGO platforming issues; no co-op play