Lego City Undercover

Year: 2013/2017
Platform: PlayStation 4
Genre: Action/Adventure
Review Date: 1/7/21
Rating: ****

"It's not so bad once you get past all of the terror."

After a long hiatus, disgraced supercop Chase McCain returns to Lego City when his arch nemesis Rex Fury escapes from prison. It's unclear why Chase had to leave town in the first place, but it's not really important. All we know is that the police chief hates him, the mayor adores him, and an old flame can't decide whether she loves him or hates him. Chase's investigation has him going undercover to infiltrate two of Lego City's underworld crime gangs. Everything builds up to a kidnapping, an evil mastermind who wants to destroy Lego City, and a showdown on The Moon of all places. Once the main story is finished, you can continue to clean up crime, rescue lost cats, and return stray pigs in the impressively expansive open world of Lego City.

The game was originally developed as a Wii U exclusive back in 2013, and ported to PS4 and Switch in 2017. As a result, the data scanner was designed with the Wii U game pad in mind, and all Nintendo references and in-jokes were removed from the ported version. Other differences are that you can't view cinematics in the briefing room (which makes that area completely useless), and red bricks become automatically available instead of having to purchase them. This is odd because the interface for buying them is still in the game, which serves no purpose at all. The game also served as a template for "Lego The Incredibles" (2018), which I didn't realize when I originally played through that game. The game is unique in that it's the first Lego game from Traveler's Tales that uses an original IP instead of a licensed franchise. The writing is very good and cleverly riffs on numerous action movie and police procedural clichés from the 70's and 80's. It spoofs such shows as "Columbo", "Dirty Harry", "The Shawshank Redemption", "Titanic"", "The Matrix", "Aliens", "My Cousin Vinnie", "Goodfellas", "Starsky And Hutch", "Cagney And Lacey", "The Maltese Falcon", and numerous others. And of course there are some James Bond references as well. The jokes come fast and furious, and while most of the corny humor elicits more groans than laughs, one particular mission that features an Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator as a construction foreman is truly hilarious. It's one of the funniest video game moments I've ever experienced, and extremely well done.

Like all of Traveler's Tales's other Lego games, this one is broken into several chapters that have Story Mode and Free Play mode. In Free Play, you can collect additional characters, vehicles, shield pieces, and red bricks, assuming your crew has the necessary abilities to access them. Character classes include police, robbers, miners, astronauts, farmers, firefighters, and construction workers. You can also add a generic character to your roster, which is where things can get really fun and silly. My favorite go-to character was Surfer Girl, who had just the right amount of fierceness and feminine charm. You can also create your own custom characters to fill out your roster, so you can create an entire posse of monsters or shirtless beach dudes if you want. The biggest disappointment is the lack of female characters to choose from, as there are no female criminals, miners, or construction workers, and only single options for female firefighters, astronauts, and farmers. Chase actually has a female counterpart named Grace Makepiece who is pretty cool, but all of the character dialog is performed with a male voice, which can make things a bit odd. It's also odd that Chase's voice is used regardless of what character you happen to be playing at the time.

The graphics are gorgeous (apart from the occasional dodgy texture here and there) and the world of Lego City is nearly entirely seamless. Most of Lego City is based on San Francisco, with a touch of New York thrown in. While it's instantly and delightfully familiar, it's odd seeing Liberty Island, Alcatraz, and the Golden Gate Bridge all lumped together. There's a Chinatown district that's the home of a stereotypical Asian gang, and an Italian district that features a stereotypical East Coast type mafia gang. There's also a seaside amusement park that brought me immense joy. One of the game's "super builds" includes a roller coaster, and riding it made me absolutely giddy. The presentation is superb, and having spent nearly all of 2020 in quarantine, it reminded me of how much I missed going to amusement parks. On several occasions I fired up the game just so I could ride the roller coaster. There are several other carnival rides in the game, including a swinging dragon boat, a high-rise drop, an octopus ride, and a spaceship ride. You can also ride a train that visits every district in Lego City, except for the islands. It's delightfully pleasant and scenic.

The music is pleasant and catchy, and often reminded me of "Shenmue" (1999). The voice acting is very good overall, and there are some clever celebrity impersonators. The Morgan Freeman impersonator is particularly good and his character's dialog is amusing. The audio levels are pretty even for the most part (which is unusual for Lego games), although the audio clips used in the data scanner are twice as loud as everything else. It's extremely jarring and makes me wonder if they originally used the Wii U controller speaker. The controls are straight forward and simple to use, but the camera can be aggravating and uncooperative. The data scanner, which is supposed to be used to find hidden objects like bricks, challenges, and character tokens, is unreliable and has an unpredictable range, which can make tracking down the last couple dozen items more difficult than it should be. Sometimes the scanner will show objects that simply don't exist, and won't show you objects that are literally right in front of you. The car theft missions are also problematic in that the button to access them is the same as the cancel button, which leads to a lot of confusion and false starts. It took me about ten hours to figure that out and get the timing just right so that I wouldn't immediately get kicked out. I don't know if that's a design flaw or a porting issue, but it's a huge problem. Another frustration is that flying vehicles are extremely limited in where they can go and what they can do. They're only useful for surveying rooftops for items and challenges you may have missed. A problem that's common with other Lego games is that the fire hose is inaccurate, and aiming water is a lot more difficult than it should be.

The performance is good most of the time, although it gets worse the longer you play. Character portraits also disappear over time, which makes me think there's a persistent memory leak. The initial load times are long, but not nearly as aggravating as later Lego games, which take several minutes to load. It's one of the most stable and least buggy Lego games I've played, and I didn't experience any crashes or failures while I was playing through the story. However, after I started spending more time exploring the city, problems started showing up. After reaching 50% completion, I encountered a half dozen hard crashes, and visual glitches became more prevalent. On one occasion, the helipads stopped working, so I couldn't fly anywhere. On another occasion, the police vehicles all turned black, so I couldn't tell who was chasing me. The game auto-saves frequently, but state isn't always persisted and you sometimes have to repeat certain tasks. The state isn't always reflected in the environment, so a statue you destroyed previously may reappear a few hours later.

Overall, despite the various warts and random crashes, I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Lego City and was constantly thrilled by discovering new things. For instance, if you swim too far from shore, a shark comes along and gobbles you up! Unlocking characters and vehicles is always fun, even though you'll only end up using a handful of them. The writing kept me smiling throughout, and the wonderfully diverse world is delightful to revisit over and over. Unfortunately, while you can replay the story missions, you can't replay the links between them, which robs you of some very clever and humorous bits, and also means that you only get one opportunity to ride the giant robotic T-Rex. Enabling red bricks streamlines the gameplay and makes it considerably more fun to play, so unlocking the super color gun and unlimited dynamite as soon as possible is highly recommended. In closing, I'll leave you with some quotes that had me smiling ear-to-ear.

Possibly the funniest line in the entire game is when Chase is falling down a seemingly bottomless mine shaft and encounters a giant spinning fan blade: "Why is that even there?!?"
"That's one small step, foreman." - Engineer at space center
"I think I can see the bottom. No wait, that's just murky darkness with the promise of injury."
"Well, what do you know? In space you CAN hear them scream."
"One of those worms drew a moustache on my mother's painting! Do you know how much I had to pay the artist not to paint it on in the first place?"