The Fun and Frustration of LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins

The Chase Begins cover image
image: Nintendo of America

Honestly, I’m a bit ambivalent concerning the recent Nintendo 3DS release LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins. Okay, that’s not entirely true; I really love the game. The problem is I’m unsure whether I love it because or in spite of its console predecessor.

LEGO City Undercover, the previous Wii U exclusive to which this handheld title serves as a prequel, was a cockeyed police procedural romp through a fully realized world, one built as firmly on the uncanny characterization of its denizens and the unique charms of its landmarks as it was on the brightly-colored bricks of our youth. It introduced us to Chase McCain, an all but disgraced officer returning to the force after accidentally blowing his biggest case by revealing the identity of Natalia Kowalski, his love interest, as she testified against master criminal Rex Fury. The Chase Begins backs the story up so that gamers can now experience this original incident as a rookie McCain in a still under-construction LEGO City.

LEGO City screen shot 2
image: Nintendo of America

What the game seeks to do—in addition to filling in gaps in the series fiction—is shrink the vast open-world adventure of LEGO City Undercover down to a portable form, and (in the very broadest sense) it certainly succeeds. The problem is that the elements that made the Wii U title such a joy to play lose something when pared down to bite-sized 3DS chunks. The stellar music and voice acting that positively saturated the console experience only pepper the handheld version, and moreover the thriving streets and majestic surrounding landscapes of LEGO City suffer a similar fate.

Sure, you can still seize myriad car types, each of which accelerates and handles slightly differently, Grand Theft Auto-style or alternately parkour your way across roof tops, but this smaller, younger LEGO City feels sadly incomplete. Even as you take part in the creation of the world of the related console title, The Chase Begins sometimes seems like a hollow imitation of its eventual greatness.

The 3DS itself adds a nice bit of visual depth both in-game and during cut-scenes, but it never manages to overcome the graphical muddiness or the tendency of necessary environmental objects to pop into view rather than smoothly scale from a distance. Likewise, the overall control scheme, in which movement is managed with the circle pad and camera controls relegated to the shoulder buttons, is perfectly solid until it isn’t, resulting in some iffy platforming and patently inconvenient camera position locking.

And yet, underneath it all, LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins manages to satisfy on the most important level; the game is crazy fun.

LEGO City screen shot 1
image: Nintendo of America

Whether or not you’ve experienced Chase’s brand of slapstick hand-to-hand combat or his quick-change puzzle solving mechanic (this time cleverly mapped to the direction-pad), this game keeps the action tight and the humor rolling. Players acquire new job-specific mini figure-style suits—which replace the traditional rotating cast of  characters of previous LEGO titles—at a much faster clip than on the Wii U, and this, coupled with a noticeably shorter mission structure, makes for a game that is perfectly paced for the portable space.

Developer TT Fusion also put some genuine thought into the 3DS as a control interface, and using elements like Chase’s cat burglar costume to crack a combination lock by delicately rotating the dial mechanism using the touch screen is expertly implemented. Further, whether you’re visiting locales like the launch pad on  Apollo Island for the first time or returning for another helping after completing the Wii U iteration, the environments, though noticeably sparser, still pack in tons of charm and ambiance.

With an eight to ten hour story mode, you can charge through the game in just a couple of sittings, but to do so would mean ignoring all the supplementary content available. Collectible studs and bricks are literally everywhere, and new costumes or potential Super Builds—massive structures that alter the landscape and open up even more gameplay—hide around every corner. The humorous narrative urges players to move from one mission waypoint to the next, but the engaging nature of the massive free-roaming environment simultaneously tempts you to slow down, take in the sights and really appreciate the diversions of its open world.

If the Wii U LEGO City title is a action-packed, smart-alecky adventure movie, then this smaller experience is humorous cop show; it’s a little less grandiose, and certainly lacks a bit of the original’s scope, but it’s every bit as keen and self-aware.

In closing, I can’t help but encourage Nintendo gamers to purchase both the Wii U and this 3DS version of LEGO City Undercover. Both are gaming experiences that deserved to be explored, but, sadly enough, both truly fall short in the same area—painfully long load times. The world of LEGO City is an engaging sprawl of candy-colored crime and improbable law enforcement, but be prepared to wait for the fun. Often.

Review materials provided by: Nintendo of America

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