It's all too easy (and some would argue a little lazy) to describe Lego City Undercover as 'Grand Theft Auto meets Lego' but that really is the best way to sum it up. While family-friendly versions of Rockstar's controversy 'em up have been attempted in the past - most notably The Simpsons Hit & Run - Lego City Undercover comes closest to nailing it. It's so close, in fact, that had someone told us Rockstar had worked with Traveller's Tales to make a Lego version of GTA we'd have believed them.
Naturally, it differs greatly to GTA in tone, and aspects of the gameplay have obviously been changed to suit the younger audience. You can't run around smacking people in the chops but wanton destruction is still very much possible as cars, scenery and objects can be smashed into little blocky pieces. You can still hijack cars too, though obviously the game gets around it by saying it's police business rather than carjacking.
The less realistic nature of the game also allows Undercover to do things that we wish were possible in GTA. A quick tap of the L button will make Chase blow his whistle, stopping all traffic in the vicinity and eliminating the need for that all-too-regular GTA humiliation where you engage in a doomed on-foot chase with a sports car.
Car envy - the act of seeing another car on the road and wishing you were in that one instead - is also much easier to deal with in Undercover, as you simply have to drive alongside the car and press the X button to hop out of yours and into theirs. In fact, perhaps calling it 'Lego meets Just Cause' is more apt, especially given that you also receive a grapple gun early on in the game.
Car handling is a little loose, though this may be down to the reason that dangerous driving isn't just permitted in Undercover, it's actively encouraged. The more roadside objects like lampposts and bus shelters you hit in quick succession, the more your stud multiplier builds and the more studs you'll get every time you pick one up. Staying on the road, then, almost feels like you aren't playing the game properly.
It isn't just studs you're collecting this time - you'll also get Lego blocks every time you smash a piece of scenery. These are spent on the various Super Builds located around the game map - some are optional whereas others are part of the main story.
One Super Build creates a small station where players can request specific vehicles to be dropped off by helicopter, while another sees you building a huge boat so you can sail to Albatross Island to meet a prisoner who can help out on a mission (while indulging you with numerous Shawshank Redemption references).
The city itself - at least, the area we played - has less skyscrapers or other large buildings than you'd expect in a city-based open-world game (there are still some, mind). The reason for this is a decent one - the majority of the buildings in the game are based on real-life Lego City playsets.
Take the Forest Station, which is where you're given the grapple gun - though it's a little more detailed than the one that can be bought in toy shops, it's clearly supposed to be the same building and as such kids who already own it will love seeing their toy appearing in the game.
As for longevity, the game consists of fifteen missions - the first of which took us about an hour or so to beat - and on top of this there's also the inevitable collect 'em up Lego games invariably become when you want to get a 100% save file.
While the numbers may change by the time it hits the shops, the preview build we played suggested that a 100% file would involve putting together all 65 Super Builds, earning 450 Gold Bricks, collecting 40 Red bricks, unlocking 110 Vehicles and finding 290 characters. The more things change (there's no co-op for example), the more they stay the same.
Though it may not immediately strike you as the sort of exclusive that will have gamers jumping ship to the Wii U, there's still no denying that the more great titles the system has the more its success becomes possible. From what we've seen of it so far Lego City Undercover is likely to be one of these great titles, and come the end of March we expect the reception from those who play it to be a greatly positive one.