Traveller's Tales has slowly been increasing the quality of the LEGO games. Even though the first game most know about is the licensed LEGO Batman game, LEGO started it's gaming back with LEGO Island, released in 1997 by Mindscape. LEGO City Undercover seems to almost be a modern take on LEGO Island, with the free-roaming structure and mission-based gameplay. It definitely hearkens to a Grand Theft Auto that you wouldn't be afraid to let your kids play. This is a huge bonus for me. Personally, I got tired of being the bad guy in GTA, and didn't like the idea of working my way up the ranks of villainy. Red Dead Redemption was a shot in the arm for me for the genre, as it allowed me to be noble in my deeds if I so desired. LEGO City Undercover puts you in the shoes (wait, they don't wear shoes, their feet are extensions of their pants...oh well) of Chase McCain, a cop returning to LEGO City to help apprehend Rex Fury, a vicious criminal he previously helped catch who has escaped prison. While Traveller's Tales isn't lampooning one particular brand license this time, it is able to stretch across many licenses. For example, there's a roster of unnamed yet obviously famous police who show up to the Chief's first meeting, from Dirty Harry to Columbo. These jokes are all well played, offering laughs to those who get them, yet subtle enough to be breezed over by those too young to get the reference. In this way it feels very Disney-esque. Regardless, what develops is your generic cops-and-robbers storyline, with a few extreme set pieces ramping up the excitement as the story progresses. While this is no tear-jerking love story or deep revenge plot, it serves it's purpose of giving you impetus to complete the story.
That impetus is needed, as LEGO City Undercover has plenty of distractions. Much like the Grand Theft Auto games, there are side missions to complete, mysterious packages to locate, extra characters to unlock, the works. While this has been seen in previous LEGO games, the open-world aspect of LEGO City feels at first as if it is brimming with potential to find all the goodies. Collectors will definitely have hours to put under their belt with this game. While I haven't been all over the entire map, it truly appears huge, and the collectible list you can bring up on the Wii U Gamepad offers a bounty of fractions and percentages of collections that I haven't even begun to scratch.
Speaking of the Wii U Gamepad, it really shines in this game. Chase uses his tablet-shaped police communicator for video calls, GPS directions, clue location, the works. Manipulation of the pad doesn't feel shoehorned in at all, it feels like an extension of the game, as you move it around to scan the area for criminals or tap away on it to look for hidden clues. It's also fun to note the little things that were paid attention to, such as voices from video calls coming from the Game Pad while Chase's voice stays with his character coming out of the TV speakers.
Two issues are present with LEGO City Undercover that warrant mentioning. First, the key point Kubik discussed on multiplayer is severely lacking. It's kind of like playing Batman: Arkham City and then going back to play Arkham Asylum. When it came out, Asylum was the best thing ever. Then City released. Batman got new gadgets. New movesets. Prettier graphics. A bigger world. Going back to the asylum feels stale. Meanwhile, Traveller's Tales has built a franchise on a great multiplayer engine. The recent additions of allowing players to wander off from each other with the hyper-slick dynamic splitscreen on games like LEGO Harry Potter is amazing. I understand Chase needs his communicator, which only allows one gamer, and the idea of splitting apart in a giant city is a lot more daunting than simply within a single level, but surely Chase could have had a sidekick who couldn't walk too far from him controlled by a Wii Remote player. LEGO returning to a solo experience just leaves you wishing that it had features of it's predecessor. Hopefully a future sequel will remedy that issue.
Secondly, the laborious and odd load times. I'm not sure what activates load times. I'll roam through the city from one district to the next and not see a single load bar, yet have a full load before and after a cutscene that could have been burnt as an image onto the disc. This "FMV Load" also took longer than a load into a specific mission that saw Chase bounding across multiple rooftops in pursuit of bank robbers. Load times can make you feel like you are back in the PS1 era. If we were rendering hi-def super realistic facial features that would be one thing, but we are rendering LEGO blocks. I would have taken a graphical hit to shorten load times personally.
Both of these issues can be overcome, though. Sheer patience can help you through the load times, and you can still "multiplay" with the kids in your life by having them help you through missions, watching the Game Pad's screen and answering calls, calling out directions on the map, or handing over the controller to take turns running missions. LEGO City Undercover boasts the usual LEGO infinite lives, letting you try multiple times without truly failing. Inside of a mission, the game feels like an extension of previous titles: head to a goal, and if you can't figure it out, break stuff to build stuff to get there. See something you can't reach? Probably another character can get it. Replay levels with new people to try out new things. Outside of missions, it's a lighthearted Grand Theft Auto. I find myself living the character too well, though. I don't want to requisition a civilian vehicle just to get to a roadblock to help organize traffic better. I'm kind of surprised at how much walking I'm doing paying attention to morals in a LEGO game...
There is high value in this game, warranting the most likely long-standing suggested retail price. The feelings I got from the first time I played Grand Theft Auto III came back, where I can see myself booting up the game and never hitting a mission, just cruising along and enjoying the universe. There are a couple of flaws that can be overlooked for a true LEGO fan. It's a great game to share with your kids if you are the kind of parent who saves the violent GTA games for after bed, but still want that style of gameplay that you can share with your family. LEGO City Undercover has been touted as a system seller for the Wii U, to some even stronger than the Marios and Zeldas. Personally, I think it lives up to the hype. It is the kind of game that if I played it at a friend's house first, I would be leaving wondering if I could afford a Wii U. Nintendo would be wise to set up this game as a pack in. Many stores are basically doing that via sales and combo packs anyways.
So there you have it. Traveller's Tales has shown that the LEGO franchise can still be fun, even if you eliminate the top three reasons that people play LEGO games. Licenses aren't needed. Multiplayer is great but solo can be fun. Enough value can be packed in to warrant full retail price. Clear that away and you still have a solid game that is able to laugh at the serieses it parodies, as well as itself. If you own a Wii U, you owe it to yourself to have this game. If you don't, you may want to demo this sometime. It could sway you into seeing what else the Wii U has to offer.