Lego City Undercover sets up protagonist Chase McCain as a haunted man. Returning from exile, the woman he loved is in witness protection, he sacrificed everything for a bust for which his superior stole the credit and his nemesis Rex Fury is back on the streets.
That's to say nothing of the fact that his head is detachable, and made of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene.
Chase McCain is the best damn cop in Lego City, an open world with scale that can go toe-to-detachable-toe with the biggest in the genre. But being a chip off the open world block, Lego City Undercover has picked up some of its bad habits.
Lego City Undercover is simple enough for a kid to excel at, but older players may still find themselves charmed
Despite my grittily-embellished setup, Lego City Undercover is not a game aimed at adults — at least, not exclusively. Chase always arrests the bad guys when he's not throwing them off roofs, but hey, let's just assume they're reassembled down there, and there's not a spot of blood to be seen. It straddles a delicate line to appeal to kids and parents both.
Combat is largely hand-to-hand, and even though there's a rudimentary countering system, it's also impossible to lose — "death" just means Chase instantly rebuilds. It's simple enough for a kid to excel at, but some really entertaining animations keep it from being flat.
On the other hand, Lego City Undercover's ample platforming can be downright tricky. One false move can mean minutes of progress lost and a ton of frustration, due to finicky controls and Chase's habit of sliding off flat surfaces.
Though it's not a major issue, it's a little puzzling that Lego City Undercover doesn't use the Wii U tablet in particularly interesting ways, considering this is a Nintendo-published title.
It's primarily a map, which is, of course, extremely useful in an open world game such as this. Better yet, it's packed with data on collectibles, so you know just how obsessively you need to search the current area.
You'll also use the tablet screen as a sort of scanner (a la ZombiU), searching the environment for clues and audio hints. The world is so littered with collectibles I didn't have much use for this feature, but maybe when you're down to the last few it'd be helpful. Also, you have to stand up to look all around you, which is a bridge too far.
Finally, the tablet's a video communicator, which is a neat trick for immersiveness and keeping the story moving while not pulling you from the world.
It's all very practical, but it's all been done in several other games. Are we already at the point in the Wii U lifecycle where the use of the tablet has become codified to that extent? I hope not.
Parents on hand as Designated Platformer might find themselves charmed. Lego City Undercover primarily trades in Spongebob Squarepants-style wild irreverence, but it's equally willing to veer into a prolonged Shawshank Redemption parody. It's a very, very funny game. Yes, everyone is yellow and a few inches tall, but a world largely constructed of Legos makes the experience feel more timeless than juvenile.
This is the 'Inception' of collectibles
Populated as it may be with miniature people, the size of Lego City isn't diminished. It's a massive city. It's also dense. Lego City is littered with a mind-boggling collection of new costumes, vehicles and Lego blocks to collect. With those Lego blocks, you can complete Super Builds, massive Lego structures like ramps and vehicle call-in points which can lead to even more collectibles. Collectibles within collectibles within collectibles. This is the Inception of collectibles.
After 16 hours of playtime, I finished the game with measly 21.9 percent collectibles found. [cue Inception noise here]
Getting around's a blast, thanks to a combo system that rewards you for structures like lampposts and mailboxes smashed in quick succession. Destroy enough and you'll not only earn a ton of blocks — which you can use for those Super Builds — you'll become briefly invincible. Lego City Undercover gets so much right in its frankly quixotic task of making a kid-friendly open-world action game, it's all the more frustrating to see the important things it gets wrong.
To make up for its inability to implement gunplay and carnage, Lego City Undercover provides Chase with unlockable cover identities as the game progresses. With a press of a button, he can switch from prisoner to spaceman, farmer to fireman, each cover with its own unique abilities. The spaceman can use teleportation discs, for example, while the miner can handle dynamite.
This should provide some nice variation, but there's not enough practical difference between each of the careers. Hammering the "A" button to make the criminal crowbar open a locked door is indistinguishable from the same hammering to make the fireman chop open a wooden door. There are also almost no ways these abilities can be used emergently in the open world, no experimentation. You see a picture of a crowbar, you switch to the criminal, you pound "A." Done.
It's all so prescribed and rote and frankly contrary to the sense of experimentation a world of Legos should foster. Though a new cover provides a brief diversion as you see the cover's tricks, it's just not enough to sustain Lego City Undercover. Those unlockable abilities also force a ton of backtracking — even through previously completed missions — if you want to find all the collectibles that the later careers grant you access to.
The tedium became harder to stomach when I had to repeat large chunks of Lego City Undercover thanks to a system crash (once) or bugs that broke the mission (twice). Cross these problems with the lack of mid-mission checkpoints and you've got the ingredients for a demoralizing cocktail. And speaking of technical issues: The load times are insanity. Thirty seconds before the initial screen, a full minute before going into the open world (and sometimes when returning to it after cutscenes). Frequent minute-long loads would have been tiresome in the PlayStation era. They're excruciating now.
Undercover's successes are impressive, but it struggles to capitalize on what makes Lego special
Maintaining interest and consistency over the course of a massive, sprawling game like Lego City Undercover would be a challenge no matter what the target audience was. Considering it has to avoid the salacious scenes and hyper-violence used to spice its genre brethren, Lego City Undercover is pretty darned impressive. But it's hard not to be a disappointed that Lego City Undercover doesn't play more to Lego's strengths, trading the carnal for the creative or the wanton for wonder. Capturing the look of Lego is an impressive feat that didn't quite hold my attention. But capturing the feel of Lego? That would have been impossible to put down.
Lego City Undercover was reviewed using a retail copy provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews