Game Review: LEGO CITY UNDERCOVER

Children will be delighted by deep cut references to WB's R-rated classics!

I am a fan of the Lego series of games published by TT Games, but I will be first to admit that they're all kind of the same. An affinity for a particular license (Harry Potter, Star Wars, Batman, etc.) might elevate your overall enjoyment for that respective game over the others, but at a base level they're pretty much identical - you and a friend (or the CPU if a friend isn't there to help) are placed in a level and need to smash Lego bricks, solve simple puzzles, and fight goons as you make your way through a storyline established by the film(s) that game is based on. At the end of a level there will be a boss that you need to hit three times in order to kill, and then you get a cute cut-scene before the process repeats. After you finish the campaign you are encouraged to go back and find unlockable characters, powerups, and other goodies as you make your way toward full completion. If you're me, with limited game time, this process takes you a few months, and by the time you're done there's a new game out to start the whole thing over again.

Admittedly, the formula has gotten a bit stale to me, and I find myself less and less enthused with each new one that comes along (especially when they stretch out a single movie for an entire game - looking at you, Force Awakens). But Lego City Undercover promised some major changes to that formula, by creating a new story based around its popular City line of building sets (instead of basing it on a film or comic book license) and using Grand Theft Auto and other sandbox games as the template instead of their usual formula. Unfortunately, that game was a Wii U exclusive, and like most people I do not own a Wii U, so I was stuck playing the regular games that stuck to the established formula, with only minor tweaks here and there (even Lego Dimensions, with all its "toys to life" possibilities, pretty much adhered to status quo outside of a few puzzles that had you moving your toys around the pad). Luckily, at long last, TT has seen fit to remaster the game and release it for current-gen consoles, so that everyone can play.

Well, your friend or loved one can't. The biggest difference compared to their other games is that there is no traditional co-op element, which means the puzzles, while not difficult, are also not overly familiar to me from the other games. Sure, your friend can pick up a second controller and join the fun, but there is literally nothing for them to do - all puzzles are designed to be solved by one person, and since you spend about half of the game just driving around between your mission checkpoints they would be stuck riding shotgun. The ability to add a second player is exclusive to this next-gen console remaster, but they didn't redesign anything to accommodate it - you just have a second player following you around, helping you fight goons if you wish. There will never be a point where a second player (human or CPU controlled) is even remotely necessary, and they don't even get to appear as another character, which can just make things confusing.

You play as Chase McCain, a cop returning to Lego City (after an adventure depicted in the Nintendo 3DS prequel subtitled The Chase Begins) and looking to pick up his life where he left off. Unfortunately, his arch-nemesis Rex Fury has escaped from prison and seemingly instigated a crime wave in his beloved city, forcing Chase to spring back into action by going undercover, getting to the bottom of what is happening, and puting Rex back into prison where he belongs. With GTA as an influence, it shouldn't surprise you that the plot requires you to run tasks for a variety of bosses and engage in car chases and fights, while learning the lay of the land so that you can be sure to see all the places the developers opted to include. Having played the 3DS prequel already, I was already fairly familiar with Lego City's layout, and was surprised how similar they were in general terms. Obviously the console version is far more detailed, and includes a few areas that you didn't get to see on the DS (such as a Little Italy-themed part of town), but when I found myself outside the police station and was told to head for the woods, I already knew which direction to go.

That said, I was a bit surprised that Chase had to learn the same exact jobs (albeit in a slightly different order) that he did in the other game, something he never mentions. Throughout the adventure you need to pretend to be a crook, a farmer, an astronaut, etc., and each job teaches you new skills that you will need not only to complete that particular mission, but also to go back and find more collectibles you couldn't access before. This is not new for the Lego series, though usually you need to buy expensive unlockable characters (using studs, the series' standard currency), and until recent ones the game never told you which characters you'd need to solve that puzzle or access that collectible. This results in a lot of time-wasting in the other games, because you will see something and it might not be overtly clear that it's something you can't actually access right away, and/or that it's not necessary to complete the level. Here, if you do not have the proper job yet, you'll see a padlock icon in front of the door or whatever it is that has caught your eye, and so you know not to bother with it until later. As a result, I got through the campaign rather quickly compared to others, because it was very rare I'd find myself breaking objects and making my way toward a collectible only to discover I still didn't have the right characters to finish the job.

Funnily enough, this means that the game also feels more urgent than the Grand Theft Autos and other sandbox games. Whereas those practically encourage you to wander around and do other things in between missions, here they do a pretty good job of keeping you on point. Not only will you constantly run into things that are locked off (not usually a problem in GTA once the full city is unlocked, something that tends to occur relatively early), but your superiors will constantly call you and remind you that you're supposed to be stopping a bank robbery, rescuing your girlfriend, etc. Once the campaign is finished (a 12-15 hour process, even if you DO dilly-dally a bit) you will have all jobs/skills at your disposal, at which point you should begin your enjoyable but very time-consuming quest to get 100% completion. In addition to finding gold bricks (450 of them, and I'd estimate you'd only find about 5% of them without looking) you can also track down red bricks that unlock certain cheats (such as multiplying stud values and showing hidden spots on the map without having to find them first), unlockable characters and vehicles, and so on.

And then of course there are optional side-quests, such as races (by land, sea, or air), "mobs" that need to be broken up, timed obstacle courses, etc. Most of it is standard sandbox game stuff, though there are some notable quirky exceptions, such as tracking down 22 pigs that have gotten loose from the farm and need to be returned via pig cannon, or putting out barbecue fires throughout the city. None of this stuff is necessary unless you're after trophies, of course, but it's still a fun way to explore the massive city and enjoy the game's silly humor, a surprising amount of which is based on popular (and oft-R-rated) movies. Being that it was a cop game set in a very San Francisco-esque city I wasn't too surprised to see a Dirty Harry homage, but when I met "Blue" at the local prison and discovered it was a very obvious spoof of Morgan Freeman's "Red" from Shawshank Redemption, I nearly gasped. Even if that was all there was to it, it'd be impressive for a "kids' game", but then you are tasked with playing that same Italian opera music for the prisoners, and a prisoner named Heywood (William Sadler's character) also popped up for good measure. Later on, you meet an Arnold Schwarzenegger soundalike who follows his voice-sake's penchant for bad puns, working in the titles of several Arnold deep cuts into nearly line of dialogue (personal favorite: "That crane is broken! Can't you hear it jingle all the way?"). There's even a lengthy homage to Goodfellas' iconic tracking shot through the restaurant!

Like most original Lego game storylines (Dimensions, the Batman games), the plot isn't particularly interesting - I never cared much about the plot developments as they occurred, and I chalk that up to the game's relative easiness. You can't die in these games (you're penalized a few studs and usually respawn in the same spot you perished), and their kid-friendly nature means that nothing bad will actually happen. It's ironic that it's easier to get swept up in the stories that you already know - I always enjoy seeing how they will "Lego-ize" some of the harsher elements in the games they make based on PG-13 movies (such as Jurassic Park and its even more violent sequels), and it's usually fairly clever. But here, even though I couldn't tell you exactly how it would all end (though even kids can probably figure out who the main bad guy is the second he's introduced), there's little reason to get invested either when there are no discernible stakes. To be fair, this one DOES have you replay some parts if you fail (such as when you need to deliver a car as you're being pursued by cops who can ram the car into being totally destroyed), but it's easy enough to clear these challenges on the first try. And they hold your hand for the puzzles by telling you exactly what job you need to proceed, so eventually my main drive was just to see what other movies they'd reference.

But again, I'm a fan of the franchise (it certainly appeals to my completionist nature, without taxing my patience with difficulty), and as far as the general gameplay is concerned, I found this to be a much-needed change of pace (and, for what it's worth, I found it to be far less prone to glitches/crashes than the other games - I only encountered one crash, and it wasn't during a campaign level anyway). When I realized I had played through nearly half the game and didn't once have to wait for my dimwitted CPU partner to step in the right spot to proceed, or waste time trying to open a door only to discover it was just for bonus content I couldn't fully access yet anyway, I was delighted. I assume the upcoming games (such as the just announced Marvel Heroes 2) will return to status quo, but hopefully this remaster proves successful enough to warrant either a sequel, or TT borrowing another series' template and applying their silly brand of humor to it. A Lego FPS, perhaps? 

A PS4 code was provided for review. After 18 hours of play, I finished the campaign and spent a good amount of timing poking around the city for unlockables. At the time of this writing, I am at 30% completion on that front.

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