“Ugh, progress bar!” exclaims hero Chase McCain. Were this a self-aware parody I’d laugh, but it’s not, and by the time you hear his little quip, barely ten minutes into the game, you’ve already sat through loading times (and the respective progress bars) the likes of which we’ve not experienced for some time. They’re long, tedious and appear to book-end far too much of the game. LEGO City: Undercover offers up a sprawling open world to explore, but playing through the pack of otherwise enjoyable enough single player missions is an punctuated, sometimes frustrating exercise in patience.
It’s odd, because the rest of the game seems so well produced. Once you’re into a mission or freely roaming the land, Undercover streams quite happily, but it appears that each pocket of gaming requires its own space in memory, and for that the Wii U’s Blu-ray drive needs to do all the work, sometimes for a good thirty or forty seconds, with the accompanying background screen seemingly designed to drive you mad with its silly rotating police badge and “funky” music.
That aside, though, this is thankfully business as usual for the series: Undercover might dress itself as an extensive Grand Theft Auto-like title but it’s one firmly routed in the usual LEGO rules and user interface. That’s a good thing, of course, the LEGO games have their own strong personalities and it’s a fairly flexible set of mechanics that can bend across platforming, adventuring and battling (and have done through Star Wars, Batman, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings with much success) but Undercover does open up the system a little with some lovely new ideas alongside the structure and familiarity we’re all used to in the series.
Take, for example, the sometimes deft use of the Wii U’s GamePad. Presented as a mobile device in the game, the controller acts as a GPS, communicator and scanner: it’s sometimes held aloft by the player as they spin around an augmented version of what Chase can see in the game, looking for blocks that will translate to money and to pick out bad guys highlighted against the buildings, but it’s sometimes held up by the player’s in-game avatar as they creep along the floor looking down at newly revealed markings on the ground, illustrated as glowing checkpoints on the way to furthering the plot whilst backed with cheesy detective-lite lift music.
The way it’s used as a map is perfect, and its use as a two-way chat device is clever, your colleagues able to spring up in the middle of a conversation and add considerable colour to the missions. After you’ve played Undercover it’s hard to imagine seeing NPCs appearing on the main television screen – TT Fusion have nailed this side of the game and provided yet another solid use of Nintendo’s new hardware as opposed to just echoing whatever’s happening on the main screen. Because of this, there’s no off-TV play, but like Ubisoft’s ZombiU it’s hard to imagine this on any other format due to the tight integration.
And whilst the game wouldn’t necessarily trouble a PlayStation 3 or an Xbox 360 for the most part, there’s a few subtleties with the graphics that point to Undercover tapping into just enough of the Wii U’s technological advances: really impressive motion blur creates a film-like aesthetic, the draw distance can be huge and the frame rate, whilst never perfect, is a good indication of what third parties can do in the system’s first wave of software. It’s a shame then that the load times point to a Blu-ray drive still too slow to fill all that RAM.
What the game does do brilliantly though is create a sense of progression throughout. Things start slowly but soon, once you’ve unlocked a few characters and disguises, Chase’s options open up massively and the game starts to get its hooks well and truly in. Previous LEGO games have focused on a number of seemingly arbitrary currences, but Undercover’s use of Super Bricks (you use them to build story-specific structures and in-situ garages, for example) mean that hunting them out is always rewarding and the fact that there’re 450 Gold Bricks to unlock should keep most players busy for weeks. There are vehicles to collect, too, so those after 100% will have their work cut out.
And whilst the links with wizards, superheroes and Hobbits have been the catalysts for in-game laughs in the past, Undercover’s license with just blocks of plastic means that the developers have been free to pick and choose their sources of inspiration and humour from much wider afield. This means you’ll see spoofs on pretty much everything from 80’s cop shows to big-name movies, and it works superbly and with often hilarious results. The game had me laughing out loud throughout – it really is funny – and it loses nothing by not being forced to ape a specific movie shot by shot.
Undercover’s clearly aimed at kids, though – there’s not enough challenge here to keep seasoned gamers troubled for long, and whilst that’s obviously not a negative in its own right it’s worth mentioning. Much like previous LEGO games, the challenge is in finding every last nugget and brick rather than the jumping about and combat (which here is limited to just throwing and cuffing, being Chase is a cop). It’s probably every young lad’s ideal adventure though, a generation far more likely to overlook any curios the game comes with.
So whilst Undercover is a LEGO title that looks and feels more like GTA than it has ever done, it’s still very much a LEGO game. It’s safe for kids, providing relatively easy gameplay and a genuine sense of exploration and progress, whilst connecting with adults via its movie references and off the beaten path side missions and minigames, of which there are plenty. Its gleeful approach to riffing off film icons is a constant delight (“Are you free, man?”) and the world itself (modeled fairly closely on San Francisco) might not be truly alive with rich AI and persistent happenings but it’s far from empty and well worth an explore in-between missions.
- Decent sized playing area
- Absolutely superb humour and voice acting
- Some nice use of the GamePad
- Platforming can be a little hit and miss
- Poor load times
- The grapple gun, unlocked early, is rather limited in its use
LEGO City: Undercover exudes a certain charm that makes its few gameplay issues relatively easy to ignore. Yes, the platforming feels too loose and progress needs a supply of Super Bricks to flow early on but there’s nothing too obnoxious here – instead, Undercover presents a smart enough adventure with a focus on younger gamers that’ll hopefully see players engaged throughout the story mode and then motivated enough to keep dipping in and out of everything else to see what’s next to get unlocked and to slowly fill up that percentage complete bar.