Batman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones. Nope, you won't find any of those blocky heroes swinging, quidditching or tumbling their way through this particular LEGO land. But from the moment you pick up the Wii U game controller and take your first step in LEGO City Undercover it all feels very comfortable and familiar. Whether you've played through some of the past video games in the franchise lineup or just built a few real-life LEGO kits on the carpet, you can't help but feel like you've make-believed in this world of break-apart blocks and colored stud-gathering quests before.
Give Chase a Chance
The hero this time around is one Chase McCain—a devilishly handsome rogue with a glint in his painted-on eyes and a bend-the-rules bounce in every polypropylene step. He's also something of a misunderstood cop who was transferred out of his colorful plastic metropolis a few years back because of some allegedly unorthodox policing choices.
Of course, all the regular Joe cops on the beat see the true Chase. They've realized that he was the real hero who brought in the villainous Rex Fury back then. (It certainly wasn't that glory hound Danby, who took all the credit and got promoted to police chief.) So now that the dastardly villain Fury has broken out of the joint (which probably shouldn't be too much of a surprise since even the prison is made of easily smashed, interconnecting blocks), there's really only one guy to be called back home to set things straight.
Chase, with the help of bumbling sidekick Frank Honey, will set out to find Fury, work to keep the brave and oh-so-blocky-and-beautiful Natalia Kowalski safe, and rescue his city from all the criminal clowns who want to wreak havoc. And I mean that last bit quite literally. The criminal class is often made up of bad guys dressed in full clowny costume and capped with a fright-wig bouffant. (Talk about your baddies causing a media circus!)
Change Your Clothes, Change Your Skills
Now if that description—with its classic cop show-sounding cast, generic plotline and splashes of goofiness—sounds like it might fit the logline of an old-school Hollywood police spoof, then I've done my job. 'Cause that's exactly what this game feels like. It's a briskly paced, quip-filled, eye-rollingly predictable, movie-like parody that plops Chase down in just about every action scenario you might imagine—from catch-the-robbers car chases to rescue-the-girl and best-the-evil-genius-while-freefalling-through-the-stratosphere heroics.
But there's more than that. Beyond the collection of silly giggles and bombastic police gambits, there are plenty o' blocks and studs to collect, vehicles, outfits and characters to buy and unlock, and an almost endless array of fun puzzles to piece together in the, um, peaceful interludes.
As Chase progresses, for example, he regularly gets his plastic paws on a variety of disguises and tools that he can use to unlock hundreds of important areas throughout the game. Chase in full police uniform comes complete with a grapple gun, for instance, that can help him reach rooftops. Chase in burglar clothes has a door-jimmying crowbar. Chase in miner gear can use dynamite and a pickax. Chase in construction garb can repair electrical fuse boxes that could otherwise offer a shocking surprise. And the list of quick-switch possibilities goes on and on.
The game also makes the best use of the Wii U gamepad that I've seen so far. When our earnest hero checks back into the Metro police station at the start, he's issued a high-tech police communicator—which just happens to look exactly like the Wii U controller we're holding. So when Chase gets a call from home base, the chatty characters pop up on our controller and give us the lowdown we need. And when we hold the controller up toward the TV screen, Chase simultaneously holds his up to scan for hiding baddies, find the shortest route to a crime scene, eavesdrop on a whispered conversation, photograph evidence or even search out special powered-up bricks to help with building goals. It's an enjoyable game mechanic that cleverly adds to the fun on hand.
Grand Theft LEGO
Not quite as clever or enjoyable is a bit of name-calling that gets thrown around ("fool" and "nincompoop," for instance). We hear a frustrated "dagnabbit!" from one old-timer. And gamers can purchase "gas" and "belch" ringtones for their police communicator. More serious than that (but no less "colorful") is the beat-'em-up action inherent to this police story. Chase masters some pulpy punch-and-flip-the-bad-guy moves. But I'll note that nobody dies. At the end of a very brief battle, the cuffs go on, and the villains head off to a cell. You could say tying up a thug and feeding him too much delicious ice cream might constitute as torture ("Oh, so good. Yum. Brain freeze!"), but, hey, sometimes a cop's gotta do what a cop's gotta do.
Now, I won't be the first to note that LEGO City Undercover is an open sandbox title that can feel disconcertingly similar at time to a Grand Theft Auto game when it comes to its car grabs and demolishing access. And word of that aspect alone has given some potential players pause.
Here's how it shakes out: Gamers can hop into any car on the street, but instead of stealing it, they simple ask the owner to help them out with some pressing police business, which the citizens always cheerfully agree to. You can also smash your vehicle into other cars on the road or bash into light poles and sidewalk benches, crumbling them all into their cubey basics. And the authorities never come looking for you. Why? As Loz Doyle, an executive producer at TT Games and one of the creative minds behind the game, puts it, "The great thing is that since everything is made of LEGOs, it all just gets rebuilt again. … When you leave the area and come back, it's all been rebuilt. The citizens of LEGO City have put it all back together again, because, well, they don't mind."
So for all its GTA race-through-the-streets feel, this is a run-around game with a far cleaner, brighter and kid-friendly demeanor. In the end, it's undeniable that Chase is a good-guy detective with a heart of … well, gold-colored plastic.