What do you want out of a LEGO game?
Smart level design? Humor? New powers or costumes? For that matter, what do you want out of an open-world game? Freedom? Sweeping vistas? The possibility (and probability) of carnage and mayhem? In steps Lego City Undercover, which promises both wrapped in kid-friendly gameplay and puns galore. The ideas here are strong, which makes it all the more unfortunate that Lego City is both a disappointing LEGO game and an antiquated, sub-par sandbox.
Chase McCain is everything a great cop protagonist should be: dashing, athletic, and quip-filled. He’s returning to LEGO City in hopes of keeping the peace, catching arch-nemesis Rex Fury, and rekindling his romance with key witness Natalia.
Characteristic of the most recent entries in the series, Lego City is fully voiced and originally written by the developer TT Fusion, but the lack of a license to lean on does them few favors. The story is a chaotic mess of clichés and references that’s sometimes endearing, but often times just uninteresting. The first and last couple of the game’s fifteen story chapters are where the best stuff seems to have been placed, and the rest is just a blur.
It doesn’t help that the game’s personality has to practically carry its weight. In its opening hours, the light puzzle-solving and exploration elements combine with the sheer scope of the city to make something that feels fun and promising. By the end of my 13 hours spent completing story missions, I never wanted to see a gold brick again.
That partly has to do with the main gameplay hook: costumes. Chase can throw on all sorts of exotic attire (Robber! Farmer! Astronaut!), but the 8 options are very slowly doled out over the course of the game’s story missions. The costumes all have distinct abilities that allow Chase entry through certain doors, or access to previously unavailable paths.
What that means in the scope of the open-world is extremely deflating. After an hour of play, I went on the hunt around the city for collectibles (of which there are a staggering amount; in my 13 hours of play-time, I had 17.8 percent completion). My attempts were thwarted when I realized I only had two costumes: my civilian wear, and my police uniform. The game wants to have that kind of Metroid backtracking bent, but in an open-world setting, it’s incredibly frustrating.
The costumes, too, are disappointing. All 8 have reasonably appealing aesthetic differences, but their powers aren’t varied in any interesting ways. The robber has to mash A to open doors with a crowbar. The farmer waters plants. The construction worker fixes electrical panels. At the end of the day, each is just a long, boring animation prompted by a button push.
As the game gives you more costumes, and the levels become more complex, any fun one might have is entirely vanquished. Lego City doesn’t have very many “puzzles,” but it does have an awful lot of costume-specific interactions. It’s rare that you won’t know exactly what you need to do: there’s a robber panel there, and a farmer one behind it, leading up to a dynamite vending machine only the miner can utilize. The game stacks these interactions to the point of absurdity. In later levels, I honestly felt I was spending more time watching animations play out than I was actually controlling my character.
Not all of this animation priority is unwarranted. One of the surprising highlights of the game is its combat, which is a kind of Batman: Arkham Asylum-lite counterattack system. It’s never challenging, but there’s a lot less of it in a game that asks the player to repeat the same couple things ad nauseum, and the various combat moves are slick and entertaining.
The “free run” platforming segments are often pretty fun as well. It remains very basic, but climbing up walls, building jump pads, and utilizing the grappling hook can be a nice break in the normal gameplay loop. In a decision that almost invalidates my support of these sections, a great deal of them take place directly in the open world, rather than in one of 15 tightly scripted levels. Since there’s no fall damage, one misplaced jump can result in 5-10 minutes worth of lost progress.
Lego City‘s downfall is a bit self-fulfilling. Games like this rely on freedom, anarchy and chaos. I’m not saying it’s reasonable to expect to be able to kill hundred of LEGO prostitutes, but there’s a way to make this great while maintaining that sense of free-wheeling madness. People call this game kid-GTA, but it very clearly is shooting for kid-Saints Row, what with its irreverent sense of humor. The only problem is that no part of actually playing the game is all that irreverent or interesting.
Even more egregious are the technical issues, which do little to assuage my fears about the Wii U as a competitive console. The framerate is stable in isolated story missions, but runs sub-30 fps pretty constantly in the open world. Most loading screens are 30 seconds to a full minute, and there are two you’ll hit after starting the game: one before the main menu, one after. The game hard-locked on me once while I was flying a helicopter (and I mean hard-locked, I had to pull the power cord out of my console). Pop-in is present and distracting, to the point where collectible studs would blink into existence as I rocketed past them in a vehicle.
Lego City Undercover‘s odd, unfocused design and bevy of technical issues are simply too large to ignore. There’s real potential for a great, modern open-world game in this format. The one that’s been made feels misplaced on the Wii U; an experiment more suited to the start of a new console generation than the closing of a current one.