Chase McCain is a dude. He really is. As the yellow-headed undercover cop hot on the tail of renowned Lego City criminal Rex Fury, McCain is a constant source of misguided one-liners, overconfidence, roguish charm and downright stupidity, and this is his game. Lego City Undercover doesn’t need a Harry Potter, an Indiana Jones or a Han Solo. McCain and his supporting cast are bursting to their pointy-corners with personality. It's a game that shows Traveller’s Tales at the height of its comedic powers, and the personality that has defined the whole Lego saga still very much present and correct.
That said, let’s get the bad stuff out of the way first so we can get on with having fun. Lego City Undercover is a Wii U exclusive, and is another damning example of the console’s worrying lack of grunt. The open world, while bright, colourful and chunky, stutters and splutters about, with noticeable pop-in and a shaky framerate. It’s not the kind of thing you’d use to show off your new console to a naysayer - it’d send them laughing into the night, clutching their Razer mouse and skipping off in their Gaben socks.
It’s so easy to distract yourself from such technical snoozery anyway that it really makes no difference to how Lego City Undercover plays. From the opening cutscene forward, the game is a masterclass in comedy, veering from true brilliance to solid mirth, and never dipping below chucklesome. As McCain, you’re back in Lego City after a two year hiatus, and have to quickly reintroduce yourself to the local police force before you can start on your mission to bring Rex Fury back to justice.
The laughs come thick and fast, and before you’ve even got the hang of driving around the city, you’re block-deep in a maelstrom of film parodies, buddy cop-movie tropes and utterly daft sight gags that had me rooting for everyone and everything involved.
All of this tomfoolery does help to paper over the cracks in Lego City Undercover’s design. While set in a sizeable – if not massive – open world, most of McCain’s missions take place in dedicated levels, with fixed cameras and other, more typical, Lego elements. Almost every main story mission is a combination of light puzzling, breezy platforming (with nods to Mirror’s Edge) and harmless combat, and none of it is particularly taxing. It’s the story and dialogue that’ll keep you plugging away, as even the trickiest of conundrums can be solved by hitting everything in sight then rebuilding it.
That this never becomes boring is a testament once again to the writing, but also to the skill in which the levels are put together. Much of the puzzling requires Chase to change costumes, with each outfit providing a specific power, and you’ll have to combine them all to solve the elaborate Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions that each level eventually becomes. Even though the process of doing this is facile, seeing it all come together is strangely satisfying. It’s a laid-back game – you can play at your own pace, guiding Chase between the routinely obvious puzzle points while the game washes over you in a happy glaze.
Now, of course, I’m a 30 year old man. For the younger Lego-head, the level of puzzling and spatial trickery could prove a lot tougher, which is why it is a shame that there’s no 2-player cooperative mode - normally a Lego game staple. It’s understandable when you see how the Wii U struggles with the open world, but still disappointing.
Not that it spoiled my time in Lego City. Outside of the story missions, the action does get a little more taxing and engaging. In order to progress, you’ll often have to activate ‘Super Builds’ – bespoke constructions that often allow access to the next mission or part of a level. There’s a big bridge you have to build to get to Barry Smith’s kung-fu temple, for example, or a ferry that takes you to the Shawshankery of Albatross Island.
In order to build these structures, you’ll need to gather up Lego City’s chunky Lego blocks (as opposed to studs, of which there are billions) which are plastered all over the city. They’re pretty tricky to find, either hidden behind the seemingly infinite number of locked doors (all of which can eventually be opened when you’ve snapped up the right costume during the story) or located on the city’s roofs. These can only be grabbed with a keen eye for free-running. Blue and white coloured sections of wall, pipe and roof can be Parkoured, and there are some seriously elaborate climbs and sprints to get through if you want the most valuable bricks.
With this being a Wii U exclusive, there’s some neat Gamepad functionality too, which helps in the hunt for plastic bricks. Like ZombiU, you can scan the environment by holding the pad up to the screen and using the gyro and accelerometer, only instead of tagging the undead you’re now highlighting hidden lego bricks. It also doubles up as a map and a second-screen communicator, and while neither of those tricks are particularly fresh, there’s still an unusual charm to the Gamepad that makes it all work – especially when Chase uses his own version of it in-game.
Ultimately, it’s kind of hard to judge Lego City Undercover as a typical open world effort, because in truth, Lego City Undercover isn’t actually that much of an open world game. Some missions do let you smash the place apart in a car chase or pootle about in a chopper, but outside of this there’s little to do. Stopping on a street corner in GTA, say, lets you into a world of weird NPC tomfoolery and emergent comedy. In this, it’s just Lego men and women walking about.
The game shines in its story missions, when it lays on the humour and the puzzles and keeps the one-liners firing. It might not be the industry-shifter that makes the world sit up and take notice of Wii U, but Lego City Undercover is one hell of an easy game to root for. Here’s to Chase McCain - good on you, you plastic gentleman. It’s been a pleasure.
LEGO City Undercover was provided by Nintendo for review and played on a retail unit until completion. Total time played 9 hours.