When LEGO City Undercover was announced for Wii U and 3DS the general reaction was, “A LEGO Grand Theft Auto? Who wouldn’t want that?” It was an outrageous idea, but also one brimming with potential. This was a game to keep an eye on. Traveller’s Tales have been blending tight, kid-friendly gameplay with humour that appeals to the young and old for eight years now, and all their hard work and success afforded them the opportunity to make this, the most ambitious LEGO game yet.
LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins is only similar to GTA in its open world gameplay; in terms of story it obviously couldn’t be more different. Coming from TT Fusion (who Traveller’s Tales acquired in 2007 and who made a number of the handheld LEGO games over that time period as well as LEGO Rock Band for consoles), The Chase Begins is a prequel following Undercover’s protagonist Chase McCain as a rookie cop on the tail of criminal gangs across LEGO City.
Chase is the ultimate good guy, a cocksure, wise-cracking hero with no dark past and no gritty dilemma to overcome – but that didn’t stop me imagining a twisted backstory for him as he, under my control, went around the city punching this, that and everything until it exploded. Is it all in his head? Well no, it isn’t, he’s just a great leading man for a children’s game. The plot pits McCain against Rex Fury’s tattooed crook and his gang as they wreak havoc across the game’s multiple regions.
Being a handheld title, The Chase Begins strips back a lot of features from the console version. That doesn’t mean this is a cheap imitation; there is a lot going on here and TT Fusion switch things up often enough to keep the game fresh despite the limitations. As the game begins Chase is sent out to collect doughnuts for his superior officer, opening up the first portion of the City. This area is well-sized as an introductory part of the game, with plenty to see either by foot or on wheels.
Each of the seven areas has a set of missions that need to be completed to progress to the next part of the city. As he progresses Chase acquires a wardrobe of disguises that come with their own unique abilities. For example, early on he must find a burglar outfit so he can go undercover at a prison(makes sense) and which also allows him to break into buildings with a crowbar and unlock safes.
Missions vary from finding missing dogs and building scarecrows to fighting and chasing down criminals. Well-paced, they never out-stay their welcome, and they juggle things up nicely to ensure that what you’re doing rarely becomes monotonous.
Many would have expected combat to be similar to LEGO games past, but here it’s almost a LEGO-fied version of the fluid combat seen in Rocksteady’s Batman titles. McCain punches, throws and counters enemies with an X floating over their head, which leads to a collection of nice animations that see our hero juggle enemies with his legs and perform various silly finishing moves. Once the criminal is stunned by these, Chase can arrest him with a simple tap of the A button. It’s unpretentious and very fun, but there’s not a whole lot of challenge.
As an adult playing a game aimed squarely at children, judging difficulty is always tricky. I breezed through it as I had expected (and hoped) but even then I felt The Chase Begins was perhaps too easy. The main issue is that there is no fail state: too many hits and McCain will explode into a pile of bricks, but he’s instantly resurrected without having to restart a mission – just like in other LEGO titles. It works for those co-op-centric games but not in something like this. Here, failure is momentary and no more than a small bump in an otherwise smooth road.
With little sense of skill progression, players don’t ever need to be much better at LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins than when they started. However, the combat is fun and satisfying which remedies this, as does the wealth of imagination on offer in what Chase in his various guises can do.
It isn’t all combat though – there are also car chases. Being an officer of the law, McCain can commandeer any vehicle with the tap of a button – no car-jacking animation here. Driving could stand to feel more precise and the sluggish camera control can at times feel restrictive, but by and large the cars handle just fine. However, when involved in a chase there are some issues with collision. At times my car flew off at strange angles after landing a damaging blow, giving the enemy a head start before the chase began again. It came across as transparent and wasn’t handled with the kind of finesse evident in other parts of the game.
Outside of missions there isn’t a whole lot to do other than collect the various kinds of bricks and generally explore. These bricks, in their three increasingly harder-to-find forms, can be spent at the police headquarters on new disguises (pretty much all the skins found in the game) and on vehicles which can be spawned at certain points. They also allow the construction of Super Builds which add, among other structures, death-defying car jumps and helicopter pads that allow fast-travel. There’s a depth to The Chase Begins that the target audience are unlikely to explore the extent of and which shows off just how much effort TT Fusion put into the game, even if it isn’t the classic they were no doubt hoping to make.
Released shortly after Luigi’s Mansion 2, LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins was never going to stun anyone with its graphical fidelity. TT have created a colourful and well-designed world that is perhaps too focused on large, open and empty spaces in a couple of areas. That said, for the most part it looks perfectly fine, although there are frame-rate issues both with and without the 3D switched on. Perhaps that is understandable given the game’s open world nature, but it stutters nonetheless.
The draw-distance is naturally not that far but the fog that hides it is distant enough to keep the world feeling open rather than claustrophobic, which helps a game comprised of smaller open areas rather than one open world.
Musically the game is a joy. It’s nothing profound or deep, just fun music that perfectly accompanies the on-screen hijinks. It’s most notable when you jump into a vehicle, activating a Starsky and Hutch-style tune which inspires players to hammer down the throttle and typically, as a consequence, crash straight into a wall.
It’s a sense of fun duplicated in the voice acting. In the smattering of cut-scenes with dialogue everyone gives it their all, playing to stereotypes and being genuinely funny. LEGO Batman 2 and LEGO The Lord of the Rings didn’t feel quite right with voice acting because the physical comedy was so good, but here both work together splendidly.
VERDICT: Hardware limitations are evident, and the relative ease of The Chase Begins does hinder it, but there’s plenty here that impresses. The open world is great to explore to the short extent that it can be and the missions maintain a high quality throughout. On a technical level the game was hard to pull off, but pull it off TT Fusion have.
The Chase Begins is precisely what was expected. It doesn’t rock the boat, but carries itself with a charm and sense of fun that has become synonymous with LEGO video games. There’s even a reference to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey to be found – how many other kid’s games can say that?
GOOD. A game that scores 7/10 is worthy of note, but unworthy of fanfare. It does many things well, but only a few of them incredibly well and, despite a handful of good qualities, fresh ideas and solid mechanics, it fails to overwhelm.