The team behind Lego City Undercover has learned a lot from actor Steven Seagal.
"Steven Seagal has this move where he grabs a guy and sort of flicks his wrist and the guy is on the ground," says Traveller's Tales executive producer, Loz Doyle. "That's what our cop Chase McCain does."
Doyle is playing through a demo of Traveller's Tales' upcoming game, Lego City Undercover. On the screen a Lego man with a full head of plastic hair, drawn-on dimples, a police uniform and little Lego hands chases a burglar clown, hopping from car to car until he catches up and performs a stunt-worthy swerve. The clown cartoonishly pops out from its vehicle; our Lego man — Chase McCain himself — jumps out, makes a dash for his target and, with one swift flick, the clown has been Steven Seagaled.
"It was overwhelming ... The sheer effort of building everything is not to be underestimated."
In previous Lego games, the clown would have taken a beating that would have sent his Lego head flying. But things are different here. There's no violence at all, and all confrontations end quickly and painlessly. The world is bigger —the biggest it's ever been — and rather than guide players through tightly controlled levels, the game universe is now an expansive network of interconnected cities and environments. There's no licensed product attached to the game, no outsiders dictating who the characters are or what they have to do.
According to Doyle, Lego City Undercover is a very different kind of Lego game.
NO LICENSE, NO CRUTCH
Lego as a video game brand has made a name for itself from the likes of Lego Star Wars, Lego Batman and Lego Indiana Jones, and each of these games has received successful sequels and sometimes even multiple sequels. Traveller's Tales has had years to perfect the formula of bringing existing brands into the Lego universe and creating something that merges the darker themes of the source material with the endearing humor of its own blocky universe.
Lego City Undercover is the first Lego game from Traveller's Tales that isn't based on an existing license.
"It was very hard [to make]," Doyle says. "For the first nine or so months we weren't really sure what the game was going to be. We didn't really have a story in place, we weren't sure of the viewpoint we'd use or whether we'd have a lot of buildings.
"It was different [from licensed games] because Lego City exists as a range of toys in the Lego world, but no one had created a video game based on it. No one had created anything else based on it, so it was all new."
Adding to the difficulty of development was the fact that Traveller's Tales was making a game for Nintendo's Wii U — a console they'd never worked with before, and the game would be open world — a style no Lego game had been designed in before.
"It was overwhelming," Doyle says. "The sheer effort of building everything is not to be underestimated."
The world of Lego City Undercover is huge. The environments range from dense cities loosely based on San Francisco to quiet woodland and forests. Players can travel between locations via any means of transport they can climb onto and explore the richly populated settings. Within the vast open world are 15 standalone, tightly designed levels that are in a similar vein to earlier Lego titles, which allow players to put all their gadgets and newly-learned tricks into practice.
Doyle says creating an open world game meant introducing more problems and asking more questions than the development team had ever had to ask while working on previous Lego games. In titles like Lego Batman and Lego Indiana Jones, players were sent out on missions, completed linear levels, and returned to a "hub" from which they'd be dispatched to more linear levels. In Lego City Undercover, the entire city is the hub. At no point is the player "enclosed" in a level.
"If you've got city-based gameplay, a player can just start something and wander off to do something else," Doyle says. "So from a technical point of view, the game's got to remember if they part-finish puzzles.
"It means you can part-finish puzzles all across the city and the game has to remember the exact state of everything if you turn the thing off and come back to it. So on a technical and design level, it was really challenging."
KEEPING IT FUNNY
For all the changes introduced in Lego City Undercover — the expansive city, the differences in design, the family-friendly lack of violence that comes with making an all-Lego game — one thing has remained consistent: humor.
The game is thoughtfully layered with humor, from the simple and slapstick for its primarily younger audience, to the popular culture references for the parents of the players. There's a Mission Impossible reference during a cutscene when two cars collide, connect, and romantically spin in unison. There's a Matrix reference every time Chase McCain goes into bullet time jumping off ledges, and there's a Morgan Freeman-like character from The Shawshank Redemption.
"As a company and as individuals we know parents are playing as well and we don't want it to be a chore for them," Doyle says. "We want them to enjoy it. We want it to be fun. Without a doubt we want our games to be funny."
The development team brought in comedians to deliver the lines in the game to ensure the jokes weren't lost in translation. One of the game's writers is a part-time comedian. Lego City Undercover is littered with small details designed to make players smile. While driving through a forested area, players come across a Mount Rushmore-like structure that features four iconic Lego heads: the pirate, the knight, the cowboy and the spaceman. When police first arrive at the scene of a crime half of them ride on Lego segways. While a police commissioner gives a serious speech, a criminal floats away in the background on balloons.
Lego City Undercover is different, but Doyle is hoping audiences will recognize what's the same and warm to what's new — Steven Seagal flicks and all.
Lego City Undercover releases on the Wii U March 18.