The point about Lego, surely, is that it provides a blank slate. A jumble of brightly coloured bricks become whatever imagination and dexterity can make of them. The City brand – an umbrella covering fire stations, hospitals, airports and the rest – distils metropolitan life into plastic simplicity, trusting playful minds to breathe life and personality into that shell. This poses a problem for Traveller’s Tales.
Lego alone didn’t make this series successful; Star Wars did. As did Batman, Indiana Jones, Harry Potter and The Lord Of The Rings. The company’s trick has been to mine the comedic vein of slapstick unearthed when you reduce familiar characters to caricatures. Even without the sheer silliness of the concept, riffing on cinema has reliably provided Lego games with story, structure and scenarios for the best part of a decade. What to do, then, without a Hollywood licence?
Riff on cinema anyway, it seems. Lego City Undercover still finds most of its humour in parodying scenes you’ve seen in films, with Titanic, The Dark Knight, Dirty Harry, The Matrix, The Shawshank Redemption and plenty of others being unofficially rebuilt in plastic bricks during Undercover’s course. These gags are part of a wider attempt to impart some personality into its world, but it’s a weird, second-hand kind of character. Buzz Lightyear’s tragedy in the original Toy Story was his belief that he was a dashing space pilot on a mission to defeat the evil Emperor Zurg when he wasn’t being played with. The tragedy of the denizens of this Lego city is their complete and utter conviction that their sole raison d’être is to endlessly rehearse police movie clichés. Doughnuts, grumpy captains, a maverick hero and a sassy desk-bound dispatcher: they’re all here, living in a city built to be a child-friendly pastiche of films most children are unlikely to have even seen.
Often witty, Undercover constantly strains to be wittier as part of a doomed attempt to make up for the fundamental blandness of its world. It’s hard to imagine how TT Fusion could have done a better job with the building blocks provided than this bright, friendly, always sunny and loosely San Franciscan sprawl, but it’s a dull place to explore. A pine-filled forest full of Lego animals is a singular highlight, but otherwise Undercover doesn’t move beyond monotonously metro, the straight lines and hard materials of a nondescript urban environment failing to provide the entertaining clash between the setting and the building materials that other Lego games have relied on.
Still, an open-world design does reflect that City theme, lending Undercover a My First GTA feel. Driving and chasing provide connective tissue between standard Lego game levels, and there’s fun to be had in playing carjacker in a such a friendly, cartoony city. This anarchic thrill is amplified by a scoring system that gives you extra bricks (used to build special structures) in return for smashing any obstacles littering the side of the road to pieces, but chases are undermined by frustrating physics. These cars and trucks behave like, well, pieces of plastic when other vehicles smash into them, unpredictably tipping over or getting wedged between bollards. The ability to correct your orientation with a quick flick of the GamePad should make up for this, but it doesn’t work.
On your feet, Undercover offers a familiar structure, expecting you to stroll into compact levels, break everything in sight and then tidy up after yourself before you leave, the next such room only revealing itself once you’ve done so. Disguises that cheesy hero Chase McCain can wear then complicate this simple loop. A safe can only be cracked when wearing the criminal disguise, boulders can only be smashed with the miner’s pickaxe, and plant pots can only be watered when Chase is dressed as a farmer. It’s a simple reconfiguring of the lock-and-key puzzles provided by having multiple characters in other Lego games, in other words, except it makes a bit less sense.
Both interior and exterior sections suffer from performance issues, with slowdown and pop-in proving to be particularly frequent annoyances. These problems don’t ruin Undercover (though not being able to see collectibles until they’re within a few metres of your vehicle can be frustrating) but, after a series of lacklustre Wii U ports, it’s disappointing to see one of the system’s first major exclusives in 2013 run anything less than smoothly.
GamePad integration, meanwhile, never extends beyond modest and functional, rarely asking anything more from the player than some basic photography and a bit of scanning of the surroundings. The rest of the time the screen does little more than provide a home for Undercover’s minimap, and its placement there does make navigation trickier than in, say, GTA. A trail of studs on the road highlights a route for players, but rarely an optimal one, and flicking your eyes down towards the second screen can easily lead to a crash.
A number of Undercover’s flaws won’t matter, however, to its target audience. For kids, this gigantic, gently challenging game offers the familiar stud collecting, furniture smashing and rudimentary puzzling of the Lego games writ large and sprinkled across a toy town of an open-world game. Only the more irritating driving missions will require the temporary recruitment of mum or dad. But for parents and adults, Undercover is a less inviting prospect, even with its satirical undertone. It’s a plastic facsimile of GTA – a game that was hardly humourless to begin with, and one that has already spawned a genre’s worth of more sophisticated rivals and clones.