‘Lego City Undercover’ has a goofy playfulness that’s hard to find
Those ubiquitous plastic blocks known as Legos have been firing kids’ imaginations and bruising parents’ feet for more than six decades now (the first set was released in Denmark in 1949). In recent years, however, a curious thing has happened: Lego has gradually morphed into an unlikely digital entertainment brand.
That’s pretty much entirely due to the Lego line of video games developed by British publisher TT Games. Hugely successful both critically and commercially, the Lego video games have in turn spun off several multimedia projects, TV shows and even feature films, like last year’s “The Lego Batman Movie.” (Which is entirely awesome, by the way.)
“Lego City Undercover” (Rated E-10) is the latest installment in the core video game series, and it’s another winner in what may be gaming’s most reliable franchise. Fun for both kids and adults, the Lego games retain a goofy playfulness actually kind of hard to find on store shelves these days.
“Undercover” was initially released in 2013 exclusively for the then-new Wii U platform. But since relatively few people ever bought a Wii U, relatively few people ended up playing it. That’s now been remedied with the re-release of the title on PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Windows. And it’s a good thing, too, because this is one of the strongest Lego titles ever.
Unlike other recent releases, “Undercover” is an original story with new characters and storyline. Lego has famously licensed other properties – “Star Wars,” “Avengers,” “Lord of the Rings” – but this time around they’ve provided their own adventure and hero.
That would be Chase McCain, a loose-cannon cop patrolling the metropolis of Lego City, a funky geometric hybrid of New York, London and San Francisco. Chase has been tasked with ending a citywide crime spree orchestrated by underworld boss Rex Fury. The main storyline is divided into traditional missions and chapters – plan on about 12 hours to finish the campaign. But the real accomplishment here is the game’s open world design, meaning that Chase can venture anywhere in Lego City at any time.
The game is conspicuously mirroring adult crime genre games like “Grand Theft Auto,” but with everything spun out into PG-rated playfulness and satire. In fact, the game cleverly references the entire history of the city crime story. Watch for cameos by blocky approximations of many famous characters: Sherlock Holmes, Dirty Harry, Starsky and Hutch, Columbo, even (I think) Cagney and Lacey.
These pop culture riffs will likely go right over the heads of younger players, but they’re a lot of fun for grown-ups. This is a fabulous game to play with your kids. Happily, the new re-release adds local multiplayer options so you can work together to solve the game’s many tasks, obstacles and puzzles.
Co-operative multiplayer has always been a hallmark of the series, but the original Wii U was a solo-only affair. As such, the levels and missions here are not designed for two-player solutions. You’re basically playing through with Chase One and Chase Two, though you can unlock and swap in other characters later. Anyway, it works just fine. The designers have clearly put a lot of effort into innovative level design this time around.
“Undercover” sustains the silly comic tone of previous games (and movies) and the dialogue is enjoyably daffy. TT Games brought in comics and TV writers to develop the script, and it shows. The many, many cutscenes play out like animated comedy sketches. My only real complaint: Load times between scenes are surprisingly long.
Parents often ask me to recommended titles for their kids getting into video games, and I always say you can never go wrong with the Lego series. That advice still holds with “Lego City Undercover.” But don’t forget you can always get the older games for $4.99 in the bargain bin, digital or literal. Those original “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” games have yet to be topped.