In fact throughout its development, the Wii U open-world adventure Lego City Undercover carried the working title Lego City Stories, clearly cribbing from Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories, entries in the infamous Grand Theft Auto series by Rockstar Games.
When Lego City Undercover’s opening cinematic sequence ends and you’re set loose in Lego City, the words “Press X to get in the car” appear on screen (a la GTA). But you don’t have to just do as you’re told. Heck no.
You’re free to (as I did) spend twenty minutes roaming around in the surrounding area first, smashing things and picking up Lego pieces before getting in the car and driving across town to begin your first mission.
In other words, it’s evident that developer TT Fusion built Lego City Undercover not only as a celebration of all things Lego, but to be an open world game through and through.
Now don’t fret, moms and dads – Lego City Undercover and GTA are only alike mechanically. You’ll find GTA’s attention to detail, its living and breathing perpetual world that serves as staging area for the game’s lengthy story progression, and which conceals thousands of hidden collectibles. But there’s none of the violence and R-rated themes that put that series in the crosshairs of distraught watchdog groups.
That said, when I realized LCU was essentially a family-friendly GTA, I wondered if that was going to work. Was it going to feel like a wussed-out version of something I’ve already experienced?
Short answer: no. Lego City Undercover nails the best aspects of open world games in its own way, and with the inclusion of Lego building mechanics, it feels enough like its own thing rather than a sanitized version of an existing thing.
With its many familiar cop movie tropes (and a ’70s cop movie soundtrack), Lego City Undercover tells the story of uber-cop/Lego figurine Chase McCain, a department legend who once took down super-villain Rex Fury, while someone else took the credit. Now Rex is back, and Chase and his unorthodox methods have returned to clean up the mess.
There’s the grouchy police captain, the incredibly resourceful dispatcher who always has some new experimental tech, a bumbling sidekick, the old flame with whom Chase can’t keep his composure, rooftop chases... yup, it’s all in here. The story has charm and the occasional big chuckle and will likely captivate kids, but merely give seasoned gamers an acceptable context for the next set of mission activities.
There are hundreds of city blocks that make up Lego City’s open world, and a dizzying variety of backdrops – docks and wharfs, residential and rural areas, a downtown core – to visit and explore, most of it made out of Lego.
There are vehicles (more than 200 different models) which you can “commandeer” at any time (remember, this isn’t GTA and you’re on the side of law and order), and thousands of objects faithfully modelled after real-life Lego toys, down to the single stud and individual decal. For the first several hours, anyway, the game is as absorbing just to look at, as to play.
You’re free to walk, drive or fly anywhere, at any time. You can opt to hustle to your next mission (initiated by traveling to a specific location in the city, using the GPS/map hybrid on your Wii U gamepad as a guide), or search for loot hidden in the current area, or simply run around.
There aren’t many side missions to speak of (which is a bit of a bummer) and I imagine most players dividing their time roughly 70/30 between following the storyline and running amok, sandbox-style: driving on sidewalks, smashing everything in your path (stuff you hit breaks into pieces with a satisfying crunch) and collecting cast-off Lego pieces, the game’s primary collectible and currency.
It would be a horrible missed opportunity in a Lego game if building objects out of Lego and breaking them into pieces wasn’t a core mechanic. Whether wandering around or in a mission, there’s lots of block-based building to do.
In one sequence, you’ll rebuild a broken a gas station and its owner will reward you with a so-called superblock, rare pieces which you’ll use for especially helpful builds. You can build a platform on which to have a police car delivered to you in a remote location, a bridge enabling access to a previously locked area and a bunch of other cool things I don’t want to spoil.
While moving through the city in, say, a Hummer that you procured from a citizen, you can smash Lego objects (pylons, fire hydrants, plant boxes) and pick up the pieces for future builds and upgrades. A certain amount of gleeful random destruction is not only allowed, but encouraged.
Chase has a variety of outfits which become available as the game progresses, and specific suits have specific abilities. Police Officer Chase can enter police buildings and wield a police-issue grappling gun. Criminal Chase can go undercover, blend in with crooks and crack safes. Fireman Chase can break down boarded up doors.
Ultimately, Lego City Undercover presents a beautifully realized open world and a serviceable storyline to give you reason to explore it. The software performs well technically, but disc loading times are way too long, even by Wii U standards. This doesn’t present a big problem but might test your patience later in the game, where fast-traveling between areas is common.
Gameplay-wise there’s not much that takes dexterity or reflexes, and I would have liked to have seen aim-and-shoot and driving mechanics put to gamier use now and then. “Search, discover and collect” is what Lego City Undercover has going for it.
That said, there are few Wii U games I’d recommend more. Lego City Undercover is probably the most ambitious Lego game to date, and has more than enough environmental variety, loot and memorable sequences to make a solid sandbox game. Mainlining the story and just tooling around are equally fun.
And Lego City Undercover helps round out the Wii U’s library in the early going, given that there isn’t another sandbox game available for the platform yet. And even when there is, it’s unlikely it will allow you to build an impromptu Lego bridge between two skyscrapers.