The Lego game formula, successful though it may be, has been in serious need of a shake-up for some time.
Over the course of eight years, Traveller's Tales has released twelve Lego games based on a variety of licenses. Star Wars, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Pirates Of The Caribbean, Batman and The Lord Of The Rings have all had the Lego game treatment to date and most gamers have played at least one (likely more) of these titles.
While each game's offered a perfectly enjoyable experience for young and old alike, each has also been so similarly structured that all you need to know is the next game's name to get an accurate impression of how it plays. While we may know absolutely nothing about, say, Lego Marvel Super Heroes, we already know so much.
Lego City Undercover, then, is a game we've been anticipating for a long time: not just because it's a Lego game and they're by and large entertaining, but because the promise of a license-free, open world game could finally free the series from its cookie cutter shackles. While it doesn't quite completely do this, the changes it does enact are enough to make this the most entertaining Lego game in years.
"The most entertaining Lego game in years"
The game tells the story of Chase McCain, a cop returning to Lego City to take care of unfinished business. A few years prior, Chase puts the evil criminal Rex Fury behind bars (the upcoming 3DS game tells this story), but unwittingly mentions his love interest's name - Natalia - live on TV, forcing her to enter witness protection. The guilt caused Chase to leave Lego City, but he is called to return when Rex escapes.
Such a complicated plot would be tricky to explain using the Lego series' trademark speech-free cutscenes, but fortunately Traveller's Tales has added voice acting to footage. This is something most Lego games have gone without and, though we were previously concerned that voice acting might dilute the signature slapstick humour, the whole package is now much funnier.
The jokes are hilarious, with some real hearty groaners in there (in the diamond mine section, one worker complains "I wish I'd joined the army like my brother, then I'd be a major instead of a miner"), the voice acting is top quality (the likes of Adam Buxton and Peter Serafinowicz contribute) and the multitude of film references should raise a chuckle.
While the open-world setting and voice acting may imply that Lego City Undercover is a completely fresh title that's cut its ties to Traveller's Tales' previous Lego games altogether, at its heart Undercover is still very much part of that series. Much of the engine, animations, sound effects and HUD are similar to titles of old. And though Undercover provides players with a less linear gameplay structure, many familiar aspects return.
If you thought its GTA-style sensibilities would spell an end to tight platforming stages, for example, think again. Throughout the course of the game you'll be sent on fifteen special assignments, in which Chase enters a building or unique area and finds himself in what's essentially a traditional stage much like those in the licensed Lego games. As ever you'll be finding gold bricks and red bricks in these stages while collecting enough studs to fill a "City Hero" meter.
Previous Lego games have featured special sections that only certain characters could access. For example, Lego Star Wars had doors that only Stormtroopers could open, so the player would have to unlock a Stormtrooper later in the game then replay the level to open them. Undercover features a similar system, but in this case Chase instead puts on a number of different disguises, each with their own abilities. The police office disguise carries a grapple gun, the criminal disguise allows the player to break open locks and safes, the miner can break rocks with his pickaxe and use dynamite to blow things up, etc.
Thankfully, there isn't much backtracking used to stretch the game's lifespan. Most of the Special Assignment stages present obstacles and secrets that players already have the appropriate disguise to deal with. It's more the open-world section that will have players making mental notes of places that look interesting but presently inaccessible.
It's just as well, because it's in this open world city that Undercover truly shines. Previous Lego games used a 'central hub' system in which players used a smaller area to access the game's various 'proper' stages. Here, while there are still fifteen linear Special Assignment stages, they're no longer the main focus of the game.