They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so Grand Theft Auto must be pretty flattered at this point. Numerous games have mimicked the same open world format made incredibly popular by Rockstar’s longstanding series. Not wanting to feel left out after taking on so many other properties, LEGO decided that it was their turn with LEGO CITY Undercover. The catch is that they decided this back in 2013, and it was only for the Wii U. Four years later, a game that was widely considered to be one of the best LEGO games finally gets its well deserved release on the current generation of consoles, but have the past four years prepared LEGO CITY Undercover for its wider release, or does it feel like the four year old game that it is?
Unbridled by following the script of a certain property, LEGO CITY Undercover is a wholly original LEGO game. Don’t think for a second that not riffing on a specific franchise means it lacks humor and energy though. It still has plenty of hilarious pop culture references, mostly to famous movie scenes and characters. One level features a caricature of Arnold Schwarzenegger that keeps using Arnold movie titles in his lines, like “Did you hear that gate open? It seemed to jingle all the way!” Jingle All the Way of course being the name of the 1996 holiday comedy starring Schwarzenegger and Sinbad racing around town for the last Turbo Man action figure on Christmas Eve.
Within the first 10 minutes of Undercover, they game had already parodied Titanic, Baywatch, Dirty Harry, and Sherlock Holmes, while probably featuring a bunch of other references that I missed because of how expertly it manages to work each one in without overtly calling attention and saying “Hey look at me! I’m a pop culture reference!” As mentioned before though, the most thinly veiled reference is the fact that the whole thing is clearly a take on Grand Theft Auto without officially being LEGO Grand Theft Auto.
A Familiar Friend
Those familiar with the LEGO games of past will still find those recognizable elements such as levels with an abundance of collectibles that can’t be collected unless you have the proper character abilities. The real distinctive factor is LEGO CITY Undercover’s use of the open world as more of a living environment and less of a level hub with collectibles. It’s something that’s been explored in LEGO games before (and since), but hasn’t ever felt quite as ingrained as it has with the structure they created for Undercover, being that open world games appears to be the “property” that they are specifically parodying for this release.
The collection grind is more real than it’s ever been in LEGO games and after 13 hours I finally completed the main story line with only a 26% total game completion. One of the most intriguing parts about Undercover is the way it sets aside the standard multi-character ability fest that most LEGO games are. Here you only play as Chase McCain, a LEGO City cop going undercover to capture Rex Fury. To access different abilities, Chase needs to change into a variety of disguises. The robber can jimmy doors and locks, the farmer can grow plants to reach higher places, and the astronaut can use teleport pads and eventually a jetpack. If you’ve been playing a lot of LEGO games, it’s definitely a noticeable step in a different direction while still retaining a decidedly LEGO game feel.
While these things may have been contemporary in 2013, and it certainly challenges conventions of a LEGO game quite a bit, a lot has changed in the last four years. Think about it this way: LEGO CITY Undercover has been out on Wii U for the entire PS4 life cycle. This means we’ve had games like The Witcher 3, Horizon Zero Dawn, and inFAMOUS Second Son come out since then and show us the ways in which the open world genre can be flipped on its head. Undercover comes along a little too late on PS4 to make it seem as appealing as it would have four years ago.
Make Known the Port
There are also a couple technical issues that landed at shore with this port. The draw distance is disappointing, and watching the collectible studs phase in around the world were a constant reminder that this wasn’t designed with the power of the PS4 in mind. This is noticeable in some of the textures and jagged edged shadows that betray the fact this was actually a four year old Wii U exclusive at one point, not to mention some of the lengthy load times that don’t seem to have been optimized for PS4. Similarly there are audio balance issues throughout where one moment voices may be nearly hidden by the music, and the next you’ve blasted your ear drums while listening in on secret undercover conversations, though my guess is that these portions of the audio were originally routed through the Wii U gamepad, hence the radical difference.
That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy my time with LEGO CITY Undercover. The original characters and writing were quite a bit of fun. Chase is like a slightly more intelligent version of Futurama’s brazen Zapp Brannigan, and one of my favorite supporting characters, Frank Honey, is a hilariously happy-go-lucky and lovable idiot that gets a kick out of everything in life. The references to other movies without being tethered by a licensed tie-in makes for some great moments, and of course that looming completion percentage and abundance of interest points on the world map kept me distracted and happily collecting every collectible, and will continue to until Undercover’s Platinum trophy is mine.
LEGO CITY Undercover is and was a step in the right direction for LEGO games, seeming to offer a little bit more freedom and gameplay than the typical destroy-and-collect fare that LEGO has offered in the past. This step has come a bit too late though, as games around it have advanced to a point where even the distinctive open world styling feels outdated. Undercover is a fantastic LEGO game with all the right humor and obsession inducing collectibles, but hints that maybe it’s time to take a long hard look at what can be done to fundamentally change the LEGO franchise to build the new evolution they need brick by LEGO brick.
LEGO CITY Undercover review copy provided by publisher. Reviewed on PS4. For more information on scoring, please read our Review Policy.