Book 'em, Danno.
The first LEGO game ever released landed on store shelves in 1997, dubbed LEGO Island. The game used a first-person perspective and a mostly free-form style of gameplay. I'm not sure I knew exactly what was going on in the game, but it was fun to walk around and hear the denizens of the island chatter away about their daily lives or cry about the destruction by the Brickster, a criminal mastermind bent on destroying the island.
LEGO City Undercover stirred up strong memories of LEGO Island, but I can't imagine what I would have said had I seen this new LEGO game back in 1997. Island seemed devoid of life even then, and now the Wii U brings an entire world of LEGO gameplay, exploration, and collecting to life in HD, capitalizing on the cartoony brand with full voice-acting and free-form gameplay. My cynical inner 2012 LEGO fan still wondered if LCU could stand on its own two feet or if the lack of a popular brand meant Traveller's Tales would fall to pieces.
Players take the role of Chase McCain, a heroic cop who saved the town and got none of the glory in the previous LEGO City game. The parallels between Chase and nearly every cop you've seen in movies begin early and never let up—the chief doesn't like him, he's got a goofy sidekick, a precinct full of do-nothings, and gadgets galore. What's more, Chase can change disguises to use different abilities, a feature that returns from previous LEGO games.
No, Chase isn't Batman or Obi-Wan Kenobi, so he lacks a universally recognizable visage, but it's quickly made up for in the freedom LCU's writers have taken with every brick of the environment. In the opening cutscene alone, Chase meets Starsky and Hutch lookalikes, a mock Dirty Harry, and even a Columbo stand-in.
Undercover persistently winks at adult players, letting them know that even though the gameplay is appropriate for children, Traveller's Tales has a keen eye for the older audience in the room. Push further into the story and even more goofy one-off characters lend themselves to missions and genuine laughter. An early level takes McCain to the island prison where supervillain Rex Fury has escaped.
This level plays out as one long homage to Shawshank Redemption, including a soundalike for Morgan Freeman, a LEGO Raquel Welch poster with an escape route behind it, and a sequence where McCain plays The Marriage of Figaro while the warden is locked in the john. More than anything else, these moments sold me on LEGO City Undercover. When a LEGO man entered the scene behind Morgan Freeman during a cutscene and shook LEGO bricks out of his pants, I absolutely lost it.
LCU saw a wall previous Lego games approached with humor, and dug right through it. Comedy in gaming challenges developers more than anything else, but Traveller's Tales has a practiced hand and the eye for opportunity. In fact, I likely wouldn't recommend Undercover for its gameplay alone. As in previous LEGO outings, players will start a collectathon that never ends and one they're likely never to finish.
There are hundreds upon hundreds of gold bricks, special bricks, super builds, vehicles, and more to collect. You won't be left wanting for more content in the game, but I do wish it all revolved around more than just breaking every object in the environment. Players are constantly reminded of how much there is to collect because there are numerous secondary paths that you can't open until you've unlocked a new disguise or ability.
But this is a minor gripe and collecting is a stalwart staple of the LEGO franchise. If there weren't any collecting, would I complain that the mechanic went missing? Probably. Instead, players should embrace the mechanic as a natural extension of Undercover's wide-open world. You don't have to pick up every super brick you see, but it's probably worth it while you're boosting around town in your cop car or flying over the city in a helicopter.
Driving around and exploring the city streets, backroads, and environments entertains unlike any LEGO game before. Even better, players are encouraged to drive on the sidewalk and generally destroy the bus stops, street lamps, and benches while denizens of LEGO City gingerly leap and roll out of your way. As you destroy more of the environment in your car, a multiplier will add to your brick count, enabling you to erect more vehicle drop points and other in-world super builds.
The Wii U GamePad features a map screen and serves as an in-game communicator tool. When someone back at the precinct needs to update you on your objective, the GamePad will merrily ring and the characters face will appear on the screen, as animated and excited as can be. More GamePad mechanics pop up from time to time, but it can feel forced and not entirely necessary to the experience on your TV. I'd probably even go so far as to trade GamePad features for the convenience of playing the full game on the screen in my hands.
It's true that LEGO City Undercover lacks the drama and sense of urgency a mature player might seek out, but it presents a relaxing, humorous slant on the open-world genre. The story might be a little predictable, but it also draws from contemporary media and a few games I really love, so I'm without complaints there as well. Through Chase McCain, you will feel like a key component of the LEGO world.
Everyone around you needs your help, and at times it can feel like the world will fall to pieces if you leave it. This empowering vibe is undone by the fact that there are plenty of indestructible, unchanging facades, but it doesn't take long to feel fulfilled by the task in front of you, simple as it may be.
Chase and his friends treat the goofy plot with gravity, which only reinvigorates the feeling that without you, LEGO City and its silly, referential inhabitants will come to an end. Undercover is, without a doubt, the best LEGO game yet and one of the best reasons to own a Wii U, perhaps even if you haven't dropped the dough on it already.
Despite the sheer volume of collecting in front of players, Lego City Undercover's genuine humor, open and expanded gameplay, and lovable characters immediately engage the player and never let go. Even after Rex Fury is behind bars, rebuilding LEGO City (and tearing it down again in your car) will never get old.