“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.
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.
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.
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.”