Review

Lego City Undercover

Find Myself A City To Live In

Traveller’s Tales finds a home for itself in Lego City Undercover.

By Anthony John Agnello • March 19, 2013

“Simplicity,” writes the musician David Byrne in his book How Music Works, “is a kind of transparency in which subtle nuances can have outsize effects. When everything is visible and appears to be dumb, that’s when the details take on larger meanings.” The Talking Heads maestro’s logic says that Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” may lack the depth and technical profundity of Handel’s Messiah, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t some raw magic all on its own.

The simplicity of the world in Lego City Undercover is the source of its power. Rather than making a vast place to wander—a place that’s intimidatingly complex like Grand Theft Auto’s Liberty City or The Elder Scrolls’ Skyrim—the Traveller’s Tales studio has given you a blocky theme park version of San Francisco. It’s here that you fight (and commit) crime, playing as ace cop Chase McCain. This pseudo-City By The Bay is wide and deep yet ultimately knowable, with a variety of neighborhoods that can be traversed in seconds but are thick with surprises. Great pop doesn’t waste time, though, and by needlessly drawing out Undercover, Traveller’s Tales misses a shot at a masterpiece.

Lego City Undercover

Chase McCain is Lego City’s prodigal son. Years ago, he nabbed master criminal Rex Fury, a jack of all larceny trades who looks a whole lot like Lego Tex Cobb. After Fury busts out of the clink, McCain is called back into action, going undercover into the city’s underworld to find out who’s backing Fury. It’s hard to stick to the chase, though, when there are so many sights to see in town.

Unlike the worlds in its previous games, like the semi-open Gotham City of Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes or the stretched-out Middle Earth of Lego Lord Of The Rings, Lego City is a real Northern California sprawl, with wooded mountains north of the city, a few beaches, a nice big park, and even an island-bound prison. Undercover has 15 chapters, each one broken into a variety of tasks that you accomplish around the city and a separate story level. For example, in the middle of the game, you have to drive to Chinatown, photograph some thugs as they steal a car, and hop into a speedboat so you can steal a moon rover from a rocket launch site for the local crime boss. The moon base heist, like most of the unique story levels, is ultimately less interesting than the journey there.

Lego City Undercover

It’s just so easy to get distracted. Chinatown is a perfect example of how finely laid out Lego City is. It’s little more than a couple of blocks and a small city park, but each piece of the environment serves a specific purpose. Inside the garden is a tiny locked maze hiding Lego blocks that you can use to build a new garage for your collection of vehicles. And nearby, there’s a jump to launch your car over some trees. Chan’s limo dealership hides a parkour course. Every corner has a hidden treat. Smash a picnic table into its component bricks, and you can rebuild it as a doghouse. Find a sleeping bear, go catch a fish to wake him up, and make a campsite.

It’s impossible to know every inch of a neighborhood in the real world, and games like Grand Theft Auto have been trying to mimic that boundless scale for years through sheer size. When game designers go huge like this, the place stops feeling real and becomes boring. You realize that most of the virtual neighborhood is just window dressing. By keeping its boroughs tight and simple, Traveller’s Tales lets you live in them.

Lego City has some serious structural integrity problems because it’s so top heavy. It’s fun to wander the world and make random arrests (or, alternately, steal cars), but too often the game says that Chase isn’t ready because he doesn’t have a particular skill just yet. Like all the Lego games, Undercover encourages you to go back and replay levels once you learn new skills. In Lego City Undercover, these skills take the form of costumes. As a miner, Chase can break rocks, but he can’t scan the environment like he can when he’s a policeman. Nor can he use teleporters like the astronaut. All these skills are arbitrarily locked away behind hours of story. Even the ability to use “golden bricks,” a prized currency throughout the Lego series, is locked away until the game’s back half.

Lego City Undercover

It feels like Traveller’s Tales is nervously overcompensating. Undercover is its first wholly original Lego game with a story made from scratch. There’s no movie license guiding its hand, no need to fill it up with lightsabers or superheroes. Leaving that comfort zone was clearly scary: The beginning of the game is littered with movie references like a whole Shawshank Redemption riff level. There’s a police station populated by Starsky & Hutch, Tubbs & Crocket, and even Holmes & Watson. Undercover even plays explicitly at the Grand Theft Auto mold, having Chase infiltrate multiple gangs and play them against each other.

Eventually, the game settles into a natural, pleasing rhythm of its own, but it spends too much time getting there. Traveller’s Tales needs to trust its instinct and not spread its vision so thin. “To some extent, I happily don’t know what I’m doing,” David Byrne said once upon a time, “I feel that it’s an artist’s responsibility to trust that.”

Lego City Undercover
Developer: Traveller’s Tales
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Wii U
Price: $50
Rating: E10+

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  • Effigy_Power

    I rarely wish a game wasn’t a Nintendo Exclusive because frankly most Nintendo Exclusives aren’t compatible with me.
    This isn’t one of those. It makes me sad. Still, am I going to buy a WiiU for this? Not bleedin’ likely.

    • PaganPoet

      Oh, Effie…you are my sista from another mista

      • Effigy_Power

        Then why didn’t you like my comment, you jerk!
        That’s right, I can see it again… >.<

        • PaganPoet

          Loving, sibling-like ribbing is why.

    • http://gamespy.com/ Reposted Gamespy Comments

      • Gameological Society Commenter

        Great, another unnecessary gimmick account.

  • http://www.avclub.com/users/mattman-begins,89632 Mattman Begins

    We live
    In this city of blocks
    We drive
    On this highway of Lego

    - Talking Heads

    • Cloks

      Psycho
      Psycho builder.

    • http://www.gildedgreen.com/ Girard

      People always playin’
      Open-world-type games.
      Who cares? They’re always changin’
      Mission goals and aims.

      An-tho-ny plays with Legos,
      Listen to the Nintendo!

      Don’t you remember?
      We built this city.

      We built this city OUT OF LEGOOOOOOOOOOOOS!

    • Effigy_Power

      We built this city….
      We built this city on plaaaastic studs…
      We built this city…
      We built this city on plaaaaaaastiiiiiic stuuuuuuuuuds.

  • rvb1023

    This is honestly the first game that made the Wii U look interesting in any way and from what I have been hearing it plays a lot like the rest of their games but with an open-world hub.

    One day I will get this and a Wii U, but a lot further along.

    • http://twitter.com/djbeema beema

      It will probably be on Steam in a few months like all the other Lego games are. Don’t get a Wii U. Just ever. Nintendo needs to hurt.

      • http://twitter.com/Evad_Dalrymp Unexpected Dave

        I hope this one eventually makes its way to all platforms. It looks fun.

      • Long_Dong_Donkey_Kong

         Nintendo is publishing this game, so outside of piracy, it won’t appear elsewhere.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000590707081 Chris Ingersoll

          Having enough difficulty appearing on Wii U as it is…

      • Aaron Riccio

        I love Nintendo, I’m just not a fan of console wars. I know competition’s supposed to be “good” or something like that, but this exclusivity — even the limited kind — doesn’t appear to help. Can’t they sell hardware as if it’s, say, a Blu-Ray player that’ll run anybody’s disk? Or, in a closer analogy, like an eBook reader that can at least be broken to read any sort of eBook format, regardless of seller?

        • rvb1023

           It’s unfortunately not as simple for Nintendo, who only does video games and makes quite a bit of their profit from console sales. As much as I would love Nintendo to only make games so I could play them on consoles I prefer with less annoying methods of control, Nintendo makes bank on hardware, whereas the other companies do not.

        • Aaron Riccio

          @rvb1023:disqus The same was once said for SEGA, and I don’t understand why Nintendo insists on remaining its own entity. Do they really need to learn what so many other companies have already found out the hard way? 

        • George_Liquor

          It costs way too much to bring a new console to market for companies to expect to earn a profit from hardware sales alone. Game consoles sourced from multiple companies, like the 3DO, have been tried in the past, and they’ve all failed miserably.

    • http://tmaiblog.wordpress.com/ Chalkdust

       My rule of thumb is, “at least 6 things I really want to play” before I buy a new console.  Based on this review, I suppose this brings my Wii U checklist up to… uh, two, and the other doesn’t even have a title yet.

      • rvb1023

        Yeah, beyond “X”, Bayonetta 2, and Wonderful 101, Nintendo still isn’t giving me a huge reason to care for the Wii U.

        • http://tmaiblog.wordpress.com/ Chalkdust

          Okay!  I’m up to four.  I didn’t realize Platinum was working on two exclusive titles (but like Grasshopper and Level 5, they have my attention pretty much unconditionally).

  • http://twitter.com/djbeema beema

    Anyone with kids should just tell them this is the new GTA to get them off their case.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mitchell.patrick.murdock Mitchell Murdock

    Don’t feed the Brickster any pizza!!

    • Mookalakai

       I played that when I was about 6 or 7 years old, and when I accidentally let him out of jail, I freaked the fuck out and flipped the power switch on the computer, hoping this could somehow contain the crime wave.

  • IndependentGeorge

    Such a great point about size in open-world games actually detracting from the experience. One of the great aspects of Batman: Arkham City was that, even though it wasn’t by any means huge, every sing alley and building had a purpose, and most had some little goodie or detail that makes a dork like me go slack-jawed with awe.

    • DrFlimFlam

      Definitely so. At first I thought Skyrim’s sprawl was a bit small, but there’s more to do there than I could ever want to do anyway. I hate it when there are buildings with nothing inside, neighborhoods with nothing to do. Fill the game with things to do, not things to look at it and move past.

    • http://twitter.com/tapirman Kyle O’Reilly

      This is a huge pet peeve of mine too as I’m currently dabbling in Sleeping Dogs, and nothing makes me want to Save and Quit more then realizing my next mission is all the way on the other end of the map and there’s no fast travel.  Blerg.

      • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

        GTA: San Andreas was really bad for this. At some point, it basically becomes a glorified commuting simulator.

        • http://profile.yahoo.com/OH7YTOPBQEQXO5PU2JSKS2R27Q Andy of the North

          While I really enjoyed San Andreas, this is correct.  It was primarily sort of a gangsta mountain biking sim for me, more than playing the actual missions.

        • Aaron Riccio

          This is one thing I’m actually looking forward to in the new Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag — according to them, Fast Travel will be between any discovered locations, at any time. 

          It’s also something I appreciate about Tomb Raider: the levels have some room to explore, but they’re relatively tight and on-point. Compare this to Far Cry 3, whose island became gradually less endearing to explore. (Still, some of the accidental encounters in that open-world were pretty cool; I guess make it as big as you want, so long as it’s not EMPTY.)

        • Nabokov_Cocktail

          Just read about AC IV.  That sounds awesome!  Did not even know that was happening.

        • Mookalakai

           Far Cry 2 was the worst about this, because going from place to place was excruciating in that game.

      • The Guilty Party

        Hail a taxi! Instant travel, right there.

        • http://www.avclub.com/users/merve,96925/ Merve

          Better yet: steal a taxi. Or even better: action-hijack a taxi. It won’t let you travel any faster, but it’s just so damn satisfying.

    • Aaron Riccio

      It’s not even just limited to size in open-world games; most hub worlds are out of control and jam-packed with “worthless” collectibles that aren’t difficult to get so much as they are time-consuming to find in the first place.

  • http://gameological.com/author/derricksanskrit/ Derrick Sanskrit

    Anthony, you and I will have to have a long discussion about this “raw magic” I’m apparently missing in JT’s “Suit & Tie.”

    • PaganPoet

      Agreed, I just think it sucks. And I’m no pop music snob, everybody should know by now that I’m pretty much obsessed with Kylie Minogue.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anthony-John-Agnello/1362601810 Anthony John Agnello

        I only mean the single, not the whole album. I like that song a lot but the whole album leaves me pretty cold. It’s the only really good pop song I’ve heard lately that’s big, too. It’s not as amazing as Chvrches “The Mother We Share,” but I wasn’t positive people know that one all over yet.

        Note: Chvrches is just about the best soundtrack you can listen to while playing Lego City Undercover. Their cover of Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” seems built for crashing Lego trucks.

  • indy2003

    What’s this? Why, I can hardly believe my eyes – a reasonably good excuse to blow the dust off my Wii U! I would normally wait until the price dropped a bit, but considering that this is a Wii U exclusive, I imagine it will remain at $50 for quite a while. So I may go ahead and grab it sometime soon. I had planned to be playing Rayman: Legends and Pikmin 3 on the machine around this time, but alas, they’re mere specks on the horizon at this point.

  • Fluka

    That Lego cop bears an uncomfortably handsome resemblance to Aaron Eckhart.

    • PaganPoet

      They even gave him chiseled cheekbones.

      • Fluka

        Not mention the cocked eyebrows and devil-may-care grin.

        Leave it to Lego to give their little block man more sex appeal than like 90% of game leads out there.  

        • Effigy_Power

          You’re breaking my heart, Fluka.

        • Fluka

          It is time I came to terms with my legosexuality.

        • Effigy_Power

          And I have to accept that you found your studfiend. ^_^

        • Fluka

          Gameological: corrupting our youth into the ways of studfiendery!!!  God DAMN it, Teti!  

    • jackofhearts29

      If my 10-year-old self had access to him and a butane lighter, I’d be making him into Two-Face before you could even have a chance to tell Mom.

      • Fluka

        If this ever comes to PC, I bet the little guy *could* easily be modded into Lego Batman…   

  • duwease

    I couldn’t agree more with the statements about open worlds.  One of the things that really turned me off of The Witcher 2 was all of the pointless emptiness that could be “explored”.  A town would be full of dozens of pointless NPC’s and nearly identical house interiors, which were basically pointless to interact with.  Except one in every 50 would actually contain a real character or a quest!  Nothing says “Where’s the walkthrough” like spending an hour wandering through random cottages and hearing the same 10 lines of dialogue while trying to find the parts that are interesting.  And nothing kills immersion like mentally disengaging from the game every 10 minutes to meta-game by reading a walkthrough.

    I know the point is ostensibly “immersion”, but in my mind, it fails.  Exploration is only fun if there’s a reasonable expectation that you’ll find something interesting at the end.  And nothing breaks immersion like the third person who just spit the same repeated line at you. The old Ultima games managed this well.  You could interact with every mundane object.. move chairs, put things on plates.  You could enter any house, sleep in any bed.  But the important difference, I think, is that the towns themselves were small, so that each person mattered, had a daily routine, and had something to say and something to do.  Sure, it led to jokes like “What, the biggest town in the world has 15 people living in it??”  But when you’re constantly interacting with those 15 people without having to deal with identical zombie stand-ins and identical empty houses providing “ambiance”, you spend that whole time engaged and don’t really notice the artifice.

    • Aaron Riccio

      I have no problem with a game that wants to faithful replicate a realistic world. But when you hide quests seemingly at random within that world, you drive people like me insane, because then we have to keep going into the same empty houses, over and over again, expecting that one different result (where there’s actually a quest) that will justify our otherwise insane behavior. 

    • The Guilty Party

      Unfortunately, most forum-dwellers consider that ‘dumbing things down’, because they’ve got OCD and find it enjoyable to talk to 200 anonymous villagers to find the on that gives you a quest.

      Shit like that makes me worry about kickstarter-funded games. Sometimes, listening to your most passionate customers isn’t a good idea.

    • http://www.facebook.com/JamesMauriceAlexander James Alexander

      As a non-completionist I just … don’t … have … this … problem.

      There is a bunch of stuff in open-world games I just ignore if the core experience is good enough.  When I was playing Skyrim I beat the main story, Winterhold and the civil war … and then I was done.

      All the ”empty” houses are just there so there is a sense of realistic scale. There are a bunch of buildings I’ll never go inside in real life unless I’m adventurous enough.

      • duwease

        But wouldn’t you have been interested in doing some side-quests if you were able to easily know about them, and decide whether they were worth your time, instead of having to use trial-and-error to talk specifically to the 4th shopkeeper on the left in the southwest side of the market?  Quite often, in RPG’s in particular, great side-quests can be even better than the main quest stuff.

        And does knowing that you could at any moment walk into any number of featureless houses really increase the immersion that much?  Compared to, say, Final Fantasy XII, where you could wander any number of beautiful, detailed, and bustling cities, whose mundane insides were closed off to you, and whose quest-givers were easily marked off from the milling generic ambiance NPC’s?

        • $itisdancingb940f3cec6f94ebf800a8fa47f6852f6

          The ability to just walk into some random citizen’s house and push his dinner off the table and cast a paralyze spell on him and go jump on his bed is pretty much 99% of the appeal of games like Oblivion to me.

      • Citric

        Now I just imagine someone living life like it was an RPG, walking into houses and rifling through people’s things.

  • DrZaloski

    Instead of just constantly complaining about how “I don’t have a Wii U but I want da game! Boooo!”, I’d rather just be happy that the Wii U is getting some worth. Still excited for Pikmin 3, Wonderful 101, Bayonetta 2, whatever Nintendo is cooking up, whatever Retro has got going, along with Xenoblade 2 and that weird Yoshi game (if it’s anything close to Yoshi’s Island it’ll be good). Also Game and Wario if it’s really good, those games rarely appeal to me though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/angela.wanless.1 Angela Wanless

    Single player only killed this game for me!! =(