Monday, July 21, 2014

Bust Brick-Made Bad Guys in Lego City Undercover




Traveller's Tales has been on a roll with Lego video games for a long time and with upcoming releases such as Lego Batman 3, there seems to be no end in sight. Still, I think that the best Lego game I've played to date has also been the one with a limited release: Lego City Undercover.

Lego City Undercover was released as an exclusive for Nintendo's Wii U, designed with the intent of demonstrating what the Wii U GamePad can do to enhance a video game experience. While that alone is no small feat (Undercover succeeds at this task in spades), the other unique treat that the game has to offer is its expansive open world. Lego Batman 2 and Lego Marvel Superheroes both featured open worlds as well, but the one in Undercover is gigantic, diverse in environment types and completely devoted to Lego's own unique style of play. Read on for my complete review.

In addition to the GamePad features and open world environment, Lego City Undercover also distinguishes itself from other Lego video games by being the one of the few that's not based on a non-Lego license. Many of the most popular Lego video games from the last ten years have been based on Lego's version of a toy license it acquired from a pre-existing franchise (e.g., Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, etc.). On the other hand, Undercover is purely a Lego game; in fact, the name "Lego City" is also the name that Lego gives to its kits that are based on mundane, real-life vehicles and buildings (e.g., hospitals, police stations, fire trucks, trains, etc.). Thus, the Lego City in Lego City Undercover is populated with all sorts of vehicles and buildings that you'd expect to see as Lego City kits. Yet with such a focused interest on toys that are based on everyday locations, items and activities, what could the plot of Undercover be that would utilize such a broad selection of toys? The answer: a cop movie and TV show parody.

In the game, players assume the role of Chase McCain, a "lone wolf" cop who returns to Lego City after a long absence to resume his job in the Lego City police force. His arch-nemesis, Rex Fury, has escaped from prison, so McCain has to go undercover in a number of settings (e.g., a farm, a fire department, a construction site, etc.) to investigate the vast criminal conspiracy that broke Fury out of jail and threatens the citizens of Lego City.




With such a plot as its centerpiece, the makers of Undercover have a blast poking fun at every single cop cliché you can imagine. Over-the-top kung-fu fisticuffs with hordes of criminal henchmen? Check. An endangered love interest that warms up to the hero by the end of the story? Check. A grumpy police captain who always complains about the heroic cop who prefers to play by his own rules? Check. High-speed car chases in city traffic that frequently smash through police blockades? Check. The game lovingly sends up characters and scenes from cop movies and TV shows (Dirty Harry, Starsky and Hutch), mafia epics (Goodfellas), prison dramas (Shawshank Redemption), and just about any other movie and TV show within thematic reach (The Matrix). The writers who crafted the humor for Traveller's Tale Lego games haven't lost their touch, and Undercover shows that they're more than capable of spinning a witty tale even in the absence of a Lego-licensed franchise.

The overall game play of Undercover won't surprise anyone who is familiar with previous Lego games. Players go through a selection of story-based missions to unlock new characters and abilities that will be crucial to completing the game, followed by free play versions of the missions that let players to pick up additional items. Although the game play fundamentals are mostly the same, its breadth has widened considerably in Undercover. Much of this is due to the Wii U's GamePad: Players use the GamePad as a communication and crime-fighting device, which means that it serves as a video phone, a camera, an eavesdropping tool, and a clue detector. The game could have been made without the GamePad, but Undercover benefits greatly by having players to use the GamePad to interact with the Lego City environments in fun, creative ways that regular game controllers wouldn't allow. The GamePad even lets players take pictures of Lego City while they're playing the game, pictures that can be shared with other players in the Wii U's Miiverse community.




Complementing the GamePad features is the open world of Lego City itself, which looks like a Lego mash-up of San Francisco and Miami. Even when players aren't engaged in a story-based mission, they can find dozens of side missions and collectibles in every suburb of Lego City. Most of these extras can be found by using the GamePad. Some of the side missions are variations on the cop action-adventure theme, such as fighting a group of thugs who are committing a crime or chasing a thief before he gets away in the car he has stolen; other side missions are just odd and goofy but are still fun and engaging. I hesitate to guess how much time and effort the programmers of the game put in to building Lego City, but the virtual world they created will keep players hooked for hours as they explore every suburb to find all of the side missions and collectibles.

Two of the most frequent complaints I've read in other reviews of Undercover are its lack of co-op play and long load times. A second player option would've been nice, but I understand why Traveller's Tales didn't include that feature. Because it was one of Wii U's early game titles, Undercover was intended to emphasize the utility of the GamePad; thus, it's logical that Traveller's Tales used its established Lego game play format to draw attention the fun possibilities that the GamePad presents. If this game gets a sequel--and really I hope that it does--the second game could be a parody of "buddy cop" films and two players could switch the GamePad between themselves depending on the mission. As for the load times, they are somewhat long (at least a minute in some cases) but few and far in between missions once the game gets going, so I don't think that they hinder Undercover's overall entertainment value.

Lego City Undercover is a great game for both die-hard Lego game fans and Wii U owners alike. Unfortunately, according to rumors I've heard from different sources, the production of Undercover copies have been discontinued so prices of this title could skyrocket in the near future. It's a crime for such a wonderful game to end production so soon, so you better get your copy while reasonably-priced supplies are still available.





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