The Lego City sets, not the franchise tie-in toys, have most entertained my family over the years. In the videogame world, the opposite has been true. Game developer TT Games has lent heavily on films and comics to add spice to their brick-based adventures, and with most entertaining results.
Lego City Undercover, an upcoming game for Nintendo’s Wii U console that I played an early version of, adopts a similar formula but with one very substantial difference — no movie tie-in. Left to its own devices, the Lego world has a very different feel to those enriched by Batman, Indiana Jones and Star Wars. This is a game that focuses much more on the characters and environment itself, rather than set pieces and high action drama.
We play real “police” (to use the vernacular) Chase McCain as he works to make Lego City a cleaner, safer place for the happy bobble-headed Lego citizens. This is the world of the child’s imagination rather than that of Grand Theft Auto. Better than that though, this is the world of a child’s imagination that hasn’t been overly tempered by Hollywood policing or videogame gun-play.
Like his namesake, Marisa Chase from the game Uncharted, our hero Chase does not quickly reach for firearms. It’s sobering to realize how different this makes the game feel, and how enmeshed in cartoon violence the franchise-led Lego games had become with their shooting, punching and “bataranging.”
Chase’s form of policing relies more on his agility and a sturdy pair of handcuffs than shooting criminals down. Taking to the streets in Lego City Undercover, it’s soon clear that this is very much an open world game. You get around, when not in a vehicle, in the same parkour style as Assassin’s Creed. In fact almost everywhere you look there is another influence of a different top-drawer videogame franchise — like the Metal Gear Solid style covert sneaking around with all manner of disguises to help you track down criminals and catch them in the act.
These disparate parts could be an uncomfortable mix, but in the open world of Lego City Undercover they hang together surprisingly well. Being able to see the city extend into the distance and travel around the place in a variety of vehicles gives the game a sense of place — you always know where you are on the map thanks to the Wii U tablet and where you are going thanks to the draw-distance on the main screen. Lego games have long been claiming more of an open world approach, but it’s not been until Lego City Undercover that they will really delivered that.
It’s here that Nintendo’s insistence that the Wii U had to be a more powerful console, and not just a new controller for the original Wii, starts to make sense. Lego City Undercover is a Wii U exclusive, with talk of a Nintendo 3DS version too, and as well as making good use of the Wii U controller it also needs every inch of that powered-up computing capability.
Beyond the look and feel, integrating the Wii U GamePad as an essential part of the game will be the biggest challenge here. It is used as a handheld GPS to help navigate the world, as well as a scanner that can be held up to look around the world by pointing it in equivalent real-world directions. But at times it still feels like this would be just as enjoyable with a traditional controller — perhaps apart from the feature that lets you play the game on the tablet alone, which is still a great gimme for families.
Where the controller works best is when your on-screen Lego character holds an equivalent device. Seeing the little chap consult his GPS unit just as young players peer down at their hands is a surprisingly magical experience that adds a new level of immersion to the experience.
The biggest question mark of all this is multiplayer. The most important aspect of the Lego games in my family has been the ability to team up, fight crime and solve puzzles. To my mind this is why the Lego Batman games have been the most convincing with their ready-made dynamic duo.
Lego City Undercover is unlikely to offer a two-player mode, what with there being only one Wii U controller packed with the console, but there is still room for a second (or third, fourth or even fifth) player to get involved via the Wiimote. This could quite easily extend to the 3DS where players could, as we have seen in games like Batman Brave and Bold, Final Fantasy Echoes of Time and Driver Renegade, collaborate and assist the main player.
The truth of all this is that Lego City Undercover would be a very exciting game for families regardless of which platform it was on. Pair this with the novelty of the Wii U and you have a very enticing proposition. While more avid gamers may bemoan the lack of combat and more sedate pacing, for my family Lego City Undercover looks as good a fit as the Lego City sets themselves are in creating some thoroughly engaging family play time.
Lego City Undercover will be released by Nintendo for Wii U and 3DS by the end of March 2013.