With Lego City Undercover, developer Traveller’s Tales has distilled the concept of “fun” into its purest essence and poured it liberally over a city already overflowing with wit and charm. This open-world adventure is a happy-go-lucky delight with endless ways of making you grin. Imagine a giant playground in which your path to endless secrets is opened by hanging onto flapping chickens and riding a robotic dinosaur down the main thoroughfare. Imagine a carnage-free world in which you can jump into blocky cement trucks and mow down lampposts without fear of repercussion. Lego City is a silly, boisterous place busting at the seams with cute diversions.
The entertainment doesn’t end with the jokes, but it certainly starts with them. You play as Chase McCain, a once-great cop called back to duty to find Lego City’s greatest nemesis: Rex Fury. Chase McCain? Rex Fury? These classic cop-show names couldn’t sound more generic, but that’s the point: Lego City Undercover takes great joy in adopting and skewering pop culture tropes of all kinds. In his quest to put Rex back into the prison from which he escaped, Chase buddies up with the mafia, making Goodfellasreferences along the way. (Sometimes, mobsters really do look like clowns, as it turns out.) When Chase learns kung fu, The Matrix jokes come fast and furious. Turn the right corner, and you might find a block with a question mark hovering in the air, an apparent refugee from a Mario game. And you’ll know exactly what to do with it, too.
Lego City Undercover doesn’t rely on quotes and connections for its kid-safe humor, though they provide plenty of fodder for laughs, both verbal and visual. Witness, for example, how time slows down in true action-film fashion as your charming plastic avatar runs along a wall in a daring display of Lego parkour. Or how a close-up of a cackling madman turns into a canny, self-aware commentary on villain stereotypes. But the funniest moments come when the whimsy arises from the characters and their circumstances. One gut-busting scene reimagines ice cream as both a delicious treat and a torture device; another has you listening in on the secret lives of farm animals. Your scatterbrained cop buddy Frank Honey is also a frequent source of gags, from the hysterical way he pronounces “computer” as “com-pyooper” to his recounting of a horse ride gone terribly awry.
The goofiness permeates everything you do in Lego City Undercover. The game offers many of the possibilities associated with open-city games like Grand Theft Auto, but replaces the usual violence with lighthearted charm. You can leap into any driver’s vehicle and speed off, but you aren’t carjacking–you’re just borrowing the ride for police business. If there’s a passenger in that vehicle, she’ll happily stick with you as you tear through the streets. As you zoom along, Chase merrily cries out that his car insurance rates are going to skyrocket as Lego citizens leap out of the way. You can’t harm these citizens, and no blood is shed, though your vehicle might lose bricks as you bang against railings and walls. It’s such a hoot to watch the plastic pieces fly and your vehicle diminish in size that you might drive even more carelessly just for the fun of it all.
The police won’t give chase either, unless the mission calls for it, so you’re free to do as you choose. And what you choose depends on the disguise that’s right for the occasion. Lego City Undercover’s core feature is how Chase can immediately swap disguises from civilian, to construction worker, to farmer, and so on. What special actions you can perform depend on what costume you don. Functionally, this is similar to how Traveller’s Tales’ Lego games have always functioned, except that in most of those games, you don’t swap disguises–you swap characters. Do you need to smash through the boulders getting in your way? Switch to your miner’s disguise and smash them with your pickaxe. Need to break into a locked building? Put on your criminal outfit and pry open the door with your crowbar.
Everything you can interact with is marked with an icon that communicates what disguise is required. But you don’t have access to every disguise at once: you earn new ones as you complete story missions. As you hop and zip through the streets, you spot all sorts of markers to activate, ledges to climb, and blocks to collect. As you scoot from mission to mission, it’s hard to resist the lure of these secondary playthings. A plant that needs water grows into a vine that climbs up the wall, which takes you to a rooftop with a TNT dispenser. You then fly from a jump point to another rooftop, where there’s a giant statue that you blow up with that stick of dynamite before gliding to safety by holding onto a furiously flapping chicken.
The city is loaded with these adorable flights of fancy. Their siren call is strong: there are costumes to collect and towers to climb–and besides, completing these tasks is a lot of fun. Any given thing you do may not be all that engaging (mashing a button to break down a door; pressing a button to grapple to a higher level), but these activities are strung into gleeful puzzles. The puzzles are never hard, but feel satisfying because they require so many costume changes. The glee is enhanced by the game’s attitude. How can you not feel cheerful when a puzzle concludes with you firing a pig from a cannon?
The Lego series’ platforming has always been floaty, and Undercover is no different. Jumping isn’t quite precise, and camera angles aren’t always best suited to the action required. You might leap onto a rock that seems like a perfectly reasonable platform and slip right off, or not grab a ledge even when it looks like you are well within the required distance. Fortunately, Traveller’s Tales wisely made much of the locomotion contextual. Jog onto a wall-running platform, and you automatically skim along buildings like that well-known Persian prince. Press the proper button as you approach hurdles, and you vault over them or slide underneath.
Inexactness may make certain jumps a hassle, but for the most part, leaping and soaring through Lego City is free and easy: you press the right buttons at the right time, and Chase shows off his smooth moves, perhaps making a wisecrack in the process. (“I hope my legs don’t give out!”) And once you have unlocked all the available methods of transportation, moving about becomes even more enjoyable. Some cars allow you a short speed boost, making it hard to resist the urge to hit a ramp and catch air. You might hop into various boats and take on speed challenges, which are fun (if rather forgiving), or fly a helicopter to your destination. The trail of Lego bits leading you to your destination isn’t always reliable, but that’s a minor gripe when half the joy is getting there.
Almost everything you do rewards you with a constant supply of colorful little Lego studs. Studs are everywhere: covering the streets, pouring out of the doors you open, and sprinkling from above when you complete tasks. The Lego games have always excelled at drawing your attention with shiny baubles, and Undercover further hones the art of bling temptation. Studs are your fundamental currency, used to purchase goodies like new vehicles to summon, and if you don’t spend them frequently, they could number into the millions over time. There is another kind of currency, too: Lego blocks, which you collect by solving environmental puzzles and, to a far lesser extent, by smashing everything in sight with your fists, your jackhammer, or the front end of a sports car.
Such blocks are your gateway to superbuilds. Superbuilds are larger structures and objects, like helipads and sand castles, that you build on predesignated platforms. Not only does crafting a superbuild grant you a convenience (Hey–a new place to summon a favorite police car!) or add to the fun (Hey–a big stunt ramp!), but it results in a dizzying and satisfying hyperspeed assembly of the object in question. It also results in a gratuitous shower of Lego pips to signal a job well done: a reward on top of a reward.
Superbuilds aren’t just open-world comforts, however, but also the crux of many mission goals. While you can find the bricks required within self-contained mission environments, it’s usually a good idea to go into a mission with currency to spare. Missions make excellent use of the same mechanics you fiddle with in the open world, but they also include optional side tasks you can’t perform the first time through. Wonder what’s underneath those jittery tiles? You won’t find out unless you play the mission again once you’ve earned your construction worker disguise. What happens if you water that plant? You have to return once you’re a farmer if you want to know. Lego City Undercover is constantly teasing you with the possibilities; it’s just one clever carrot-and-stick after another.
Missions (and open-world puzzles, too) make great use of the Wii U’s GamePad; you hold it up to the TV screen to scan for brick locations, eavesdrop on private conversations, and take photos of evidence. Lego City Undercover uses these mechanics sparingly, which keeps them from feeling gimmicky. The photography sequences are particularly enjoyable, since they allow you to admire the colorful city on the smaller screen, rather than the map that usually appears there. Unfortunately, the GamePad’s screen spends too much time displaying a loading progress bar. Loading times don’t intrude when you are exploring the open world, but the ones that occur between missions are frustratingly long.
Oh yes–there’s combat too. It’s such an afterthought in Lego City Undercover that it doesn’t often register. Taking a cue from Batman: Arkham Asylum, fisticuffs involve tapping an attack button to punch and a counter button when a particular icon appears above an enemy’s noggin. You can also grab foes and throw them, but there’s nothing deep or impactful about these slippery-feeling melee battles. The combat’s best feature is its visual wit. A little bullet time and a few acrobatic moves give the final punches a bit of Jerry Bruckheimer flair, and then it’s off to do something a lot more interesting.
By the time Lego City Undercover’s story comes to an end, you have guided Chase through every action-movie circumstance imaginable, and have probably seen the “twists” coming a mile away. And that’s perfectly OK. The game knows you know where it’s going, and it has fun at its own expense. You can imagine the winks and nods of the voice actors as they deliver their lines; the comic relief is broad, Chase’s line readings are beautifully, achingly sincere, and an Arnold Schwarzenegger soundalike sounds more like Arnie than Arnie ever did. There are bigger, more complex, more beautiful open-world games on the market. But none of them are this good at making you feel so young at heart.