Review: LEGO City Undercover
Published by Jack Taylor August 4, 2017
This fun (and funny) experience impresses without standing on too many LEGO bricks along the way.
LEGO City Undercover is widely considered one of the best LEGO games of recent years, and certainly one of the best games released for Wii U, coming out less than six months after the system's launch. Getting the open-world adventure onto their newest console was something of a triumph for Nintendo, although the game's exclusivity to a system that ultimately shifted less than 14 million units did hinder its reach somewhat. It's great to see, then, that LEGO City Undercover has the chance to gain a brand new audience - not only on Nintendo Switch, but on other current platforms too - but does the game still shine as brightly as it did before?
LEGO City Undercover, as we've mentioned, is an open-world action-adventure game which takes place in the hustle and bustle of LEGO City, a metropolis with more than a dozen large districts and a handful of smaller ones. Your role is that of Chase McCain, a police officer returning to LEGO City after two years away; Chase has been called back to the city by Mayor Gleeson in order to help with a recent crime wave, which has started since the notorious criminal Rex Fury escaped from prison. Your job is to bring peace back to the city, and you'll have the support of the LEGO City Police Department and its helpful (and not-so-helpful) staff, as well as further support from other characters you'll meet with as you progress through the game.
One of the key mechanics of Undercover is - as the title implies - the ability to use disguises, which you'll collect throughout the story. Each of the seven main disguises has its own special abilities, such as the Robber's crowbar or the Farmer's watering can, and each ability is used to progress through the main story and to complete and collect everything LEGO City has to offer. You're free to swap between them whenever you need to, and any actionable items are clearly marked on the ground; for example, tasks that the Farmer can carry out are highlighted with green icons. Even once you've obtained a disguise, some of them have additional abilities that you won't get until later in the game, providing even more collectibles to find.
We use the term "collectibles" loosely here, since one of the more unique aspects of the game's completion is that while you do collect certain things - studs, bricks, costumes, and vehicles - everything else that counts towards completion is an action rather than a collectible. Each disguise has two different tasks to complete; as an example, in the whole of LEGO City, the Robber disguise has to destroy 18 ATMs and steal 13 vehicles. In addition to the 14 disguise-specific tasks, there are also five which can be carried out at any time, such as building a disguise booth or activating a metro station. It's a good idea to complete the story, which includes multiple chapters and assignments, before diving into the collectathon, and it's great that you're fully able to do this without detriment - if this was an RPG, you might be expected to grind between story chapters, but you can easily sweep through the story (which is as enjoyable as it is funny) and then start collecting everything if you prefer to play the game that way.
At the heart of any LEGO game is humour, and LEGO City Undercover is no exception - even the opening scene is filled with silly jokes and references, and the game never lets up, with daft puns and awesome nods scattered throughout. Even the little asides from characters on the loading screens will make you chuckle, but mainly because they're normally from fellow police officer Frank Honey, and he's just a bit slow sometimes (much like the loading times). Frank is just one member of a large supporting cast, and with their unique traits, each character helps make the game a little more fun in their own special way. The game's writing and voice acting both stand out in that regard, and it all adds to the quality of the whole experience.
One of the main quirks of the Wii U version was its use of the Wii U GamePad, on which Chase's police communicator is heavily based. It was so pivotal that it was "always on" in a sense, meaning off-TV play wasn't possible - for obvious reasons, this is no longer a concern, and the ability to play the game while the Switch is undocked is a big one-up on the original. As for the police communicator, it retains its original functionality, providing a full map of LEGO City and a useful list of all those collectibles you still haven't found; it also lets you set your destination if you're travelling across the city by road, so you can be guided to your desired end-point. Some of the communicator's original features, including scanning for items and clues, have been handily placed on the main screen and are accessible with a button press.
This new version of the game also retains the controls of the Wii U version, thanks to its near-identical button configuration. The left and right sticks are used to control Chase and the in-game camera respectively, while A is the action button, B is used to jump, and Y is for attacking. Disguises can be easily switched using the ZL and ZR buttons, and these are also used when driving - ZR to accelerate and ZL to brake. The controls are easy to use and remain the same in co-op mode, although it's worth noting that because of this, it's not possible to play with one Joy-Con each; both players need two Joy-Con or one Pro Controller. While we weren't able to test the co-op mode - and therefore can't attest to the game's quality when in use - it allows a second player to drop in and out and splits the screen down the middle to allow both players to head out across the city to do their own thing.
As with any remaster, you'd expect a few improvements on the original, and sure enough, some of the niggles that were present on Wii U are now no more. Previously, when you collected costumes and vehicles, you'd need to go back to the police station to buy them using your studs before you could use them; while you do still need to buy them, you can do this from any disguise booth or call-in point without having to make the long journey back down the station. We've already mentioned the fact that being able to play on the go is another big bonus, given how long you'll play if you want to 100% the whole thing, although you'd best keep an eye on the Switch's battery life while it's out of the dock. The visuals have also been improved, and in TV mode the game looks even better than before.
Unfortunately, while these changes are certainly for the better, there are a few more issues to grumble about than before. The loading times are still pretty bad, despite the fact that they're now covered up with tourism posters and funny tidbits from the game's characters; the fact is, you can polish a loading screen, but it's still just a loading screen. The residents of LEGO City also appear to have come over all funny, randomly running and jumping about at times - even when you're driving towards them - which is a bit weird, and certainly more common than it was before. There are also a few more graphical and audio glitches, such as music cutting out at odd times, and the camera is a bit more fiddly this time around. It's a shame more time wasn't given to polishing the game, since while those issues don't detract from the experience, they're still noticeable and can be a little jarring at times.
Anyone who missed out on LEGO City Undercover the first time around should seriously consider giving this a go. If you've enjoyed previous LEGO games, love collectathons, or just have a thing for a good adventure, this is very likely to scratch an itch - it might only take 10 to 15 hours to get to the credits, but you're looking at a play time almost four times longer if you're aiming for 100% completion. If you already played the Wii U version, it's clearly not as easy a sell, and unless you're desperate for co-op or off-TV play, you need to consider whether it's worth double-dipping on this one.
Ultimately, it might have a few problems here and there, but the experience is so robust and enjoyable that any issues you might have are likely to be inconsequential. It's fantastic to see one of Wii U's best games on the Switch, and even if it might not be a must-have title given the strength of the Switch's library thus far, it's certainly an early favourite and one that deserves to be enjoyed by a much wider audience.
LEGO City Undercover is out now on Nintendo Switch.
The Nintendo Channel would like to thank WB Games for providing a copy of LEGO City Undercover to review.