Developers often say that their latest game is their most ambitious yet, but for LEGO City Undercover, that bears more truth than most. A Wii U exclusive that's been funded by Nintendo, the game was arguably something of a gamble, both for developers Traveller's Tales, and Nintendo themselves. After all, it's been a while since we've had a LEGO game on home consoles that's not been based around a film license. While the DS had a couple, the last non-film-related LEGO game on home consoles was LEGO Bionicle, and that didn't exactly manage to set the world on fire. But with Nintendo keen to secure an exclusive game that could hook in the wider market and help bring them across to the Wii U, and Traveller's Tales presumably keen to show they can still make a great game without the help of a film licence, LEGO City Undercover began to take shape, as a sort of spiritual sequel to the very first LEGO game, LEGO Island.
Drawing its inspiration from the LEGO City range of toys, LEGO City Undercover plonks you into the plastic trousers of Chase McCain, a hotshot cop who's been drummed out of the force after he accidentally revealed the identity of key witness (and love interest) Natalia, in the process of bringing notorious baddie Rex Fury to justice. Unfortunately for Natalia and the citizens of LEGO City, Rex Fury has now somehow managed to escape from prison - and he's looking for revenge. As the man who managed to bring Rex to justice the first time round (and the guy responsible for causing the mess in the first place), the Mayor decrees that Chase be reinstated in the Police - and it's up to you to put Rex back where he belongs.
And so, with your shiny new uniform and police badge in hand, you're let loose on the LEGO City, with the ability to go (almost) anywhere, and do (almost) anything you like. With LEGO cars, trucks, lorries, buses and trams filling the streets, and little LEGO people strolling the pavements as they go about their day to day business, LEGO City Undercover feels rather different to any other LEGO game you've played - even if there is a lot that's similar under the surface. While you'll still spend a lot of your time smashing things up, rebuilding them, collecting studs, and hunting down collectables, you'll be doing most of it outside the levels rather than in them. Although there are still 15 traditional style LEGO levels in here, the vast majority of the game (we're talking 85%+) takes place in the city itself, whether you're hunting down crooks, searching for evidence, or rebuilding the town, as you continue your search for Rex Fury.
Of course, being a cop does come with its own special perks. For starters, you'll find the good folk of LEGO City tend to give you a lot more leeway than they would a fellow citizen. Press the L Button at any time, and you can blow on your police whistle, instantly bringing all nearby traffic to a halt. Run up to one of the stopped cars and give it a whack, and you'll probably knock a chunk off - but the guy or girl inside won't mind. Press X and you can jump in, pinch their car, accidentally reverse over them, and drive off with their pride and joy before crashing it into a wall and promptly exploding without them so much as blinking an eye. Whether you're driving down the pavement, squishing everyone you see, or just parking in the middle of the road to cause the world's largest traffic jam, the people in LEGO City simply turn the other cheek - and even the police won't try and stop you.
The city itself is sort-of divided into sections (although there are no loading times between them), with each district having a distinct theme. You start off in an area that bares a distinct similarity to San Francisco, complete with those iconic hills, as found in every car chase film since the beginning of time (they even have LEGO trams running up and down the middle), while others have more in common with Venice or Hawaii - just with a distinctly LEGO flavour. But while it may not make all that much sense from a city planning perspective, the variation in the areas certainly helps when it comes to finding your way around town - far from a faceless concrete jungle, you'll quickly develop a mental map of LEGO City's biggest landmarks.
While the idea of an open world may be a little bit intimidating for newer players, LEGO City Undercover does its best to help ease you in, with a number of features to help stop you feeling lost. At all times, there's a handy trail of green studs that you can follow to get to where you're meant to be going next, or, should you spot something that looks interesting on your map, you can touch it to set a new waypoint. It's a simple system - but an incredibly handy one, especially when you're just starting out.
Like most LEGO games, LEGO City Undercover places a huge emphasis on collectables, even if at times it can feel like the developers have gone a little bit mad with power. With a huge city at their fingertips, Traveller's Tales have seemingly taken it upon themselves to cram every last inch of the city with things to see and do. If you've been following our LEGO City series (and if you haven't, you should head over there now for your chance to win some LEGO kits!), you'll likely be familiar with some of the collectibles waiting for you. But with over 100 vehicles, 40 cheat-unlocking red bricks, 65 "super builds", 290 disguises, 60 "police crest" pieces, 15 "True Hero" counters, and countless "super bricks" waiting to be unlocked - along with 450 gold bricks, which are mostly awarded for unlocking other things - it's safe to say you can spend dozens of hours in LEGO City without even touching the story. We know we certainly have.
However, it'd probably be a little bit tricky to try and catch a dangerous criminal entirely on your lonesome - which is why it's lucky Chase has the support of the finest the LEGO City police have to offer. Which is to say, a bunch of complete loons. Your main co-pilot for the game is the somewhat simple Frank Honey, a man who's a few bricks short of a picnic, but at least tries his best. He's the source of some of the daftest moments of the games, and some not-quite-as-funny-as-they-should-be one liners, which nonetheless often manage to make you crack a smile. Meanwhile, back at the station, your gadget tweaking, disguises collecting, LEGO City Version of Q, Ellie, offers slightly more practical help, telling you how to get into places, offering helpful reminders of where you're meant to be going next, and upgrading your scanner to add more functionality.
As you'd likely expect from an exclusive Wii U game, LEGO City also makes full use of the GamePad, taking advantage of (almost) all of its features. In the context of the game, the GamePad turns into your police scanner, which gradually becomes a Pandora's box of tools and tricks. At its most basic level, it functions as a map and communicator, on which your team regularly like to give you calls and pointers, but the more you play, the more extras you'll unlock. Soon, you'll be able to hold it up to your screen and use it as a scanner, moving it around using the motion sensors to detect hidden objects, or, a little bit later on, even use it as a camera to take a Chase-eye view of the action.
But as any budding policeman knows, there's more to the job than just relying on a host of fancy gadgets - sometimes, you've got to get that little bit closer to tail a suspected criminal - and luckily, Chase comes well prepared. With a full range of disguises accessible at the touch of a button, whether you're turning into a miner, a bank robber, a gorilla, or person of the female persuasion, Chase's disguises are somewhat fancier than a pair of novelty glasses and a daft wig - in fact, they grant him extra powers too. Dress as a miner, and you'll be able to buy dynamite from handily placed dynamite vending machines that are scattered around town, which in turn lets you blow up shiny metal objects; while dressed as a crook, you'll be able to unlock safes, and pry open locked doors with your handy plastic crowbar. Grouped into eight categories of disguise, with each category having its own special power, there are over 290 costumes in total to unlock, with some being hidden around the town, while others are scattered inside the levels themselves.
Much like in other LEGO games, the costumes also help to provide an excuse to retread old territory. The more disguises you unlock, the more abilities you'll earn, which in turn helps you access previously inaccessible things. Come back to an area you only visited at the start of the game when you've got a full compliment of disguises, and you'll find hidden parts of the city - and previously out of reach collectibles - open themselves up to you, if you use the right tool.
But with such a huge city to explore, there were bound to be a few problems with LEGO City Undercover, although luckily, they're mostly niggly little annoyances rather than game breaking bugs. The first, and possibly the biggest problem, is the fact that it's all too easy to fall into the sea - especially if you're as rubbish at driving as we are. While going for a swim may not seem like much of a problem, it quickly becomes a much bigger one when you realise you can't actually get out of the water. With very few ladders to haul yourself up on, and no paths or rocky outcrops to try and make your way up, you'll find too much of your time in LEGO City Undercover gets taken up either swimming to safety, slowly, or taking a sharp intake of breath as you slam on your brakes and pray you don't tip over the edge. And while there is an option on the menu to "Return to Police Station", it's nowhere near as useful as you'd imagine. In fact, it's a long way from being useful at all.
You see, the loading times in LEGO City Undercover are absolutely ridiculous, and are amongst some of the worst we've encountered in a game since the tape-loading Spectrum days. We're talking upwards of 60 seconds to load the city, and upwards of 30 to load the interior of the Police Station. Fall in the water and choose to "Return to Police Station" and you'll sit through a 30 second loading time, before being plonked inside the station, where the first thing you'll want to is head out into the city, triggering another 60 second plus loading time. Thankfully, these loading times are very few and far between - there's no loading in or around the city itself, so you'll usually only have to sit through the long one once (unless you play a level, or fall in the water, like we do). Either way, it's still quite an annoyance - and even more worrying, considering it's on a console that's already displayed some pretty awful loading times in other games. Perhaps it's the Wii U that's at fault, rather than the games themselves?
Those who are fans of previous LEGO games will also be surprised to discover that there's actually no co-op here, either. This is a pretty flabbergasting decision, as co-op is something the LEGO games have previously been built on - they've always been at their best when played with a friend/sibling/child in tow, but, sadly, LEGO City Undercover is an entirely single player game. There's not even a way for a second player to join in by turning a Wii Remote on and shooting things on the screen. It's a disappointing oversight, especially for a series that's always revolved around the co-op - and one that runs against what we were told by one of the developers just after the game was announced.
But in all, while they may rob LEGO City Undercover of some of its sheen, it'd take a lot more to rob LEGO City of its fun. Absolutely crammed full of things to do, and secrets waiting to be discovered, the fact you can pour 20 or 30 hours into the game, and still be finding things that'll have you bursting out laughing is a testament to the game's innate charm. When you can have every bit as much fun just driving around the city smashing things, as you can completing the story, you know you're on to a winner. After all, how many games let you take control of their trains? And in how many of those games do cars explode if they so much as clip said train? Put the two together, and you've got a recipe for a game that'll appeal to young and old, male or female, LEGO fans and novices, and anyone with even a passing interest in games. With a huge world to explore, hundreds of collectibles, and more hidden secrets and cool little touches than you'll ever likely discover, if you own a Wii U, you really need to own LEGO City Undercover. We bought a Wii U especially to play it - and we haven't been disappointed.
Format Reviewed: Nintendo Wii U