It has been a rough launch for the WiiU. Besides the various technical failures of the system, the biggest issue has been on the software side. Simply put, there hasn’t been anything to play for the WiiU since its launch. It’s been a drought that has stagnated the system’s sales, but finally there is some rain coming. Lego City Undercover is the first new title to come out for the system seemingly since launch, and it sets out to prove that Nintendo’s long white box can do some things.
In some ways, it succeeds. The promise of Lego City Undercover was always that it was a family-friendly game with a huge open world to explore and have fun in. On this level, it does exactly what it sets out to do. It is a true “E for Everyone” game, with colorful visuals and silly humor for the kids and some genuinely interesting exploration for the grownups.
Where Lego City fails, however, is that there really isn’t much to do in the game. Players take on the role of Chase McCain, a cop returning to Lego City after being called in to catch his nemesis, Rex Fury. Lego City Undercover attempts to stand with games like Sleeping Dogs and Grand Theft Auto, but whereas those games typically have strong missions interspersed with a fun world to explore, enjoyment of Lego City Undercover relies purely on whether or not a player connects with the game outside of the mission structure. It’s not that the missions are particularly bad, but they aren’t interesting. The missions never really clue you in as to the possibilities of the world, and they don’t include the world at large in any meaningful way. Many missions take place in small, sectioned off areas of the world, refusing to sprawl or interact with any other systems.
In fact, it is hard to really say what the systems of Lego City Undercover are. Whereas a game like Far Cry 3 had distinct elements of the world that interacted with each other outside of the player’s input, Lego City feels distinctly like a toybox, with little to no agency of its own. It’s not that the player affects the world, it’s that the player is the world.
Playing a police officer in Lego City Undercover is actually pretty boring. In order to keep it kid-friendly, there’s little to no actual combat, so most of the encounters boil down to chases or simplistic slap fights where one hit knocks your enemy down and makes him a willing participant in his own arrest.
The missions are designed to be completed with little-to-no resistance, as objectives are clearly laid out on the screen. This hand-holding and sign-posting removes any sense of improvisation from the game. It seems as though things will change once the grappling hook comes into play, but it can only be used on very specific elements of the world in specific ways. The game lacks any “emergence” that has become standard in open-world games, and the missions themselves will probably be boring for anyone past elementary school.
However, if there’s one place where Lego City Undercover really shines, it’s in its collectibles. There are a ton of collectibles, and it’s fun to just roll around the city, spotting and then obtaining them. This is where I had the most fun with the game, but again developer TT Fusion’s insistence on making themselves part of the proceedings gets in the way. You can’t just start the game and go collecting, because some elements of the game are equipment gated ala Metroid. The only way to gain the necessary gear to unlock the entire game world? That’s right, to play the campaign in full.
The narrative itself is a typical send-up of familiar crime drama tropes, which can provide some entertaining moments for people of all ages, typically centered around physical humor and the delight that comes from breaking Lego structures apart. One early scene that got a chuckle out of me was when Chase was trying to save a robber from falling off the side of a building, only to be foiled by the robber’s peg hands sliding out of their sockets in his arms. It’s all pretty obvious stuff, but some of the scenarios can be engaging. The game tries too hard in many aspects, however, and nowhere is there better evidence of this than in one character: Frank Honey.
Frank is Chase’s sidekick for the bulk of the campaign in Lego City Undercover, and he’s grating from the first frame he appears in to the last. He combines all of the worst traits of David Brent (of the UK version of The Office) and Jar-Jar Binks, mixing obliviousness and obnoxiousness to create a terrible character cocktail that is served to players repeatedly. He seems designed to appeal to a young child, but nothing he ever did elicited a laugh from my child, and he definitely didn’t amuse me. It’s one thing to have an annoying side-character in a game, but Frank is so involved in Lego City Undercover‘s campaign that it makes an already-trying task feel impossible.
TT Fusion’s constant interference also means the game loads. A lot. Minute-long loads sandwiched around 30-second cutscenes are a regular occurrence. This wouldn’t be a problem if the game was easy to just pick up and futz around with, but the mandatory nature of playing through the campaign means that these loads must be endured to make any progress in the game at all.
Lego City Undercover had some promise. An open world game centered around the Lego license, with all of the possibilities inherent, made me genuinely excited. When the developers get out of the way and let players have fun, Lego City delivers. Unfortunately, the developer is the worst helicopter parent in existence, constantly pushing and prodding and forcing you to do things you don’t want to do in the name of “fun.”
TT Fusion gets the basics of open-world gameplay right, but its constant meddling eliminates any emergence from the gameplay, and that sucks the soul out of the world, rendering it a fun diversion for a few hours, not a real experience to lose yourself in.
A copy of Lego City Undercover was purchased by the reviewer for the purposes of this review.