Games are like dogs, and both share two main types. There are the serious, high maintenance, nearly chary sorts, ones that take their time revealing their secrets. You know, Doberman Pinschers and Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate.
LEGO City Undercover is the other type – a big, lovable, oafish sort. It’s a (plastic) Yellow Labrador, bred with a slightly daft mutt, and it wishes only to be loved. And daft as it may be, I love it to pieces.
If you have read any other reviews, you’ve probably heard that this game, with its Grand Theft Auto-ish open world, is a real departure from Traveller’s Tales usual bailiwick. Sadly, you’ve been misinformed. This isn’t their first open-world game. LEGO Lord of the Rings gave us Middle Earth as our sandbox this past holiday, and the folks at TT did an open-world city with last summer’s LEGO Batman 2. The only surprise is that development duties have been handed off to a subsidiary previously entrusted mainly with handheld games, TT Fusion. It’s a remarkable achievement for the folks at Fusion to deliver in such fine fashion with such a big new intellectual property, but it’s also true that their triumph comes with some noticeable flaws.
LEGO games have managed to thrive in the world of dudebro shooters and bloody action games through one main quality – charm. LCU is no exception, with a priceless cast of characters and hilarious dialog. Not being glued to any one license has freed the writers up, and they’ve delivered gut-busting puns, some bespoke (“If I make two more arrests this month, I get a WAFFLE iron!”), some yanked from a wide variety of pop-culture hallmarks. For a game that is supposed to be “kid friendly,” there’s a healthy chunk of humor that will only make sense for older geezers (like me).
The setup is simple enough: Chase McCain, a darned-good cop, is pulled back into LEGO City after the villainous Rex Fury escapes from prison.
To catch him, Chase must…well, just look at the game’s title. I will spoil no more of the story, but I must say that for a plot that easily could’ve been unable to breathe from having its tongue planted so far in its cheek, I found myself oddly hooked to the TV. It’s pure Velveeta, of course, but LCU mixes sly delivery with unpretentious earnestness in an intoxicating manner.
On the auditive tip, LCU is absolutely top shelf. The voice acting nails the sharply-written comedy, the 1970’s musical interludes bring the Gouda, and the sound effects are well implemented across the board (from squealing tires to the tell-tale clicking of assembling LEGO bricks).
I wish I could give the visuals the same high marks. Oh, there’s nothing eye gougingly egregious, mind you, but there are quite a few hiccups. A certain amount of pop-in is expected for this genre of game, but that doesn’t mean we can simply ignore it. It’s there, and you’ll notice it. You will also notice an occasionally shaky framerate, some ugly textures and some pretty darn long load times. First-world problems, I know, but they’re there.
However, there’s also a beautifully-realized world. LEGO City has been lovingly crafted, brick by brick. The attention to detail is simply staggering – blink and you’ll miss block-i-fied versions of famous landmarks scattered throughout the cityscape. I must have passed by Lombard Street half a dozen times before I noticed it, tucked just outside of the route I had been traversing to ring up more blocks.
And that brings us to the common LEGO game trait: collection. The magic Traveller’s Tales formula has been to leave studs (coins) and blocks in plain sight, and then daring you to collect as many as humanly possible. It’s an underlying side game to every activity in every LEGO title. I’m not quite sure how TT Fusion managed it, but upon booting up LCU, I couldn’t bring myself to leave the opening dock/beach area. I simply had a compulsion for collection, and 45 minutes later, I had 80,000 or so studs and 5,500 blocks. That’s without really even getting into exploring the city or the meat of the game at all. How on Earth do they not only bring out my inner OCD demon, but make me enjoy the manic search for all things plastic, Danish and blocky? The mania bleeds into an almost Zen-like calm once you lock in to this central hook.
Of course, your reverie will ultimately be short lived, because LEGO City is simply too darn fun to ever keep you from smiling or laughing for very long. I’m trying to remember the last time I played a game so single-minded in its focus to just bring a smile to my face, and I’m finding it difficult to remember. It all fits together as elegantly and precisely as the real-world blocks. The “break it all” action-collection hybrid fits right into an open-world, GTA-styled sandbox, and in doing so has removed one of the genre’s most glaring problems: barren, empty worlds. Pop in any iteration of GTA, and you’ll find areas in which there is little more to do than walk or drive. Not so in LEGO City. There’s always something to break and collect. Odds are, there’s also a brilliant little piece of hidden platforming, as well, deepening exploration even further.
Explore far enough, and you’re likely to hit a dead end in the form of a question mark. You won’t be able to open that last door until you unlock a particular disguise. It’s another LEGO hallmark, but again, it fits right into an open-world adventure.
Something that sadly doesn’t fit into this open world is co-op. I was very much looking forward to playing this with some of my local friends, but it is not to be. It’s a glaring omission, but perhaps an understandable one, as TT Fusion obviously had a good deal of trouble trying to keep the game’s framerate stable as-is.
The single-player only fun is thankfully not hampered by control issues. The GamePad acts as a sort of combination scanner/GPS/video-conference machine (but you should discover all of its abilities for yourself). Meanwhile, the LEGO gameplay style has been impressively honed after all these years. The platforming has been tightened up a bit (although the camera can still be problematic), and the rest of the diverse control needs – punching, fighting, arresting, switching cars, driving, utilizing equipment, switching disguises – are all done quite brilliantly via very simple button presses. Yes, the combat is a touch facile, the driving a touch loose, and your disguises probably could have been consolidated, but what it all lacks in complexity is made up for in unadulterated fun.
So, is this the greatest LEGO game ever? I’m not sure. Part of the charm of the prior licensed games was the wonder of seeing cherished fiction getting a new coat of paint. There are some people who may not have any use for Undercover, as it lacks any sort of cultural reference point for them.
Those people aren’t worth listening to, by the way. This game stands tall on its own merits.
- LEGO City Undercover is huge, hilarious, relatively good looking, and above all, stupendously fun. I haven't even really covered the insane number of collectibles, hidden jumps, collision-block multipliers, or how regular blocks begat Super Blocks, which are now married to the new Super Builds.
- Undercover is a good-natured mutt that begs to be loved, and you'd do well do give it a chance.
- Loading screens. You will get to know loading screens. Intimately (maybe even in the Biblical sense, depending on your household). You will see pop-in, leading in to frame drops, leading to blurry texture work. And then you'll have another loading screen.