Lego City: Undercover preview: child's play
by Kat Bailey, shacknews.com, Feb 26, 2013 10:00AM PST
Lego has been synonymous with licensed products like Star Wars and Harry Potter for nearly 15 years now. Think about that; it's almost tragic. Legos have always brought with them a certain degree of creativity and imagination, which can't help but get lost in the act of building whatever you happen to like from TV.
For that reason, it's kind of nice to see TT Games going back to the brand's roots with Lego City: Undercover. It's an opportunity for them to really stretch out and do something interesting with the series; which, quite frankly, they haven't done in some time. But while Lego City Undercover does a lot of things right, it feels a little safe as well.
Starting with the things that Lego City: Undercover gets right, TT Games seems to have really nailed the scope of the city. Lego City comprises a hodge-podge of elements from San Francisco (including the Golden Gate Bridge) and other cities, and is positively loaded with things to find and do. It's big enough that Lego City has to load a full gig of data into the Wii U's memory; the downside being that the loading times are actually kind of long, but with the upside of the city being large and relatively seamless.
This is great, because it's the city where TT Games' collective creativity is fully on display. A lot of the fun of Lego City: Undercover is in simply tooling around in a random vehicle, not unlike Grand Theft Auto, and maybe finding some hidden items along the way. There are red bricks and gold bricks to uncover, and lots of areas that can only be unlocked with a certain ability, which take the form of uniforms for main character Chase McCain. For younger gamers (think ages 7 and below), the simple act of running into other cars and watching them shed Lego pieces is the kind of thing that can be stupidly fun at times.
Unfortunately, Lego City: Undercover doesn't feel as if it'll be quite as entertaining for adults; which is a shame, since many of the previous Lego games lived and died by their individual charm. Easy as it was for TT Games to lean on established franchises, there was a certain appeal to seeing Luke Skywalker and Harry Potter mime their way through their respective adventures. It gave the grown-ups something to laugh at in-between watching their five-year-old co-op partner fall continuously into pits or run into things with Lego tractors.
The difference is that the characters in Lego City: Undercover (and Lego Batman 2, actually) can speak, which means lots of one-liners of the sort that you would hear on Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network. Hilarious for the kiddies, but the sort of thing that will give adults migraines. This is important, because Lego City is ostensibly a family game, not just a kid's game. Being able to entertain kids as well as adults is what separates a Toy Story from whatever they're making at Dreamworks these days. It also means fewer adults may purchase the Lego games because they happen to be legitimately fun (and there are more than you think!)
What can be said for Lego City: Undercover--and this is important--is that it does succeed in capturing some of the spirit of those old Lego city sets of yore. One of the reasons that Lego City features a police detective, for example, is that the most popular elements of the city sets have traditionally been the police and firefighters. Lego City: Undercover also features a lot of vehicles, more than 100 in total, ranging from boats to helicopters. Both obviously tend to fascinate young boys, which is perfect given Lego City's target audience.
As expected, Lego City also makes good use of the Wii U controller, which functions as a tablet PC of sorts within the game world. Apart from the usual map functionality, it can receive communications from the home office, and a separate gameplay mode utilizing the gyroscope is used to spot suspects. The latter mode brings with it all sorts of horrifying implications. How can the scope separate a suspect from a regular civilian? Is the technology of Lego City akin to that of Minority Report, where it's clear who is a criminal even before they commit a crime? The only thing missing from Chase's Orwellian repertoire is the ability to call in drone strikes.
In any case, while it's fun to poke fun at Lego City's unique sense of criminal justice, it all feels a bit rote. There's nothing particularly unexpected about Lego City, which is surprising given that TT Games has been given essentially carte blanche to do whatever they want with the setting. Mostly, they seem content to learn from their previous efforts and build on what has come before. That isn't a bad thing per se, but the wild sense of creativity one would hope to see seems to be missing.
What Lego City: Undercover does do is take everything that kids like about the Lego city setting and drop it wholesale into a videogame. Don't kid yourself; that's not the easiest thing to do. It's a big world--a huge one, actually--and it should provide kids with many hours of entertainment. We'll just have to see whether adults enjoy coming along for the ride.