First Impressions: LEGO City Undercover

Cruising round the blocks

Recently we were fortunate enough to travel to TT Fusion's HQ in Wilmslow, England, to learn more about LEGO City Undercover, a high profile Wii U exclusive that arrives in March. During our day at the studio we were able to partake in an extensive hands-on session with the title, in order to gain a greater understanding of all that it has to offer.

Prior to playing the game itself we were given a little background on the development cycle, and it became immediately clear that this has been a significant, sizeable project for the studio. Concept work began in 2010, with early footage showing an isometric camera and a simpler design far removed from the final game's approach, while the final layout for the city was agreed in 2011. It was in this second year of development that the biggest change came, with Nintendo getting in touch, showing off the Wii U and providing early dev kits; the exclusivity and publication was then confirmed.

What became clear in that presentation is that this project has taken on a level of depth that's arguably new ground for the franchise, notably with the subject matter moving away from a license and to the popular LEGO City franchise. Focus on toys and the actual building blocks are paramount, with every car model — of which there are apparently around 200 — being produced in real-life with existing LEGO sets before being painstakingly recreated in TT Fusion's bespoke modelling software. The studio may be best known for its handheld LEGO ports while TT Games did the high-profile games, but it's gone all out in this home console project. When you include voice-work from well-known comedic voice-talents such as Adam Buxton, Josh Robert Thomson and Peter Serafinowicz, it's clear that this is no quick-fix LEGO title to sell easy copies.

It's important to know this background, as it does provide an important indication of how rounded and complete the final result feels. We were playing a build that, to all intent and purposes, was regarded as final, and it feels rather impressive. It's not the first open-world LEGO title, but it feels like a move forward for the series in terms of its freedom to explore, well crafted story levels and its implementation of the Wii U's capabilities. Fans of the series can be confident that this is shaping up as an excellent experience.

To get to specifics, LEGO City Undercover looks crisp and attractive, but doesn't feel like a major step up from previous HD entries on Xbox 360 and PS3, at least not in terms of polygon counts. What it is, however, is wonderfully realised, with exploration allowed to almost anything you can see on the horizon, provided you've progressed far enough in the story — roughly a third of the way through — to unlock the whole city. A clever camera system means that you have almost full control with the right-stick while out and about in the environment, but it becomes more limited and fixed within buildings or missions areas, where it guides you or points in the right direction.

The camera also matches the frame rate in that it's smooth but somewhat lazy, in the classic LEGO style, reflecting the fact that everything is made from blocks. The game moves at a tempo that encourages older players to put their feet up and relax, while suiting younger or less experienced campaigners. It's pleasing that driving a car through the city is practically seamless and lag free, but don't expect break-neck speed on a par with a Need for Speed experience; despite progressions to new areas, this is still unapologetic and LEGO in style.

That LEGO style goes right through the production, and our earlier mention of comedic voice talent and the trailers shown so far giving an idea of the story-telling on offer. The humour is consistently silly and light-hearted, with touches to satisfy older players — such as the relentless range of parodies — and younger gamers likely to be amused by the slapstick animations and mannerisms. Characters are exaggerated, such as the daft-as-a-brush Frank Honey, while Chase McCain is a charming and cheeky star. Some of the parodies are brilliant, while other jokes are better for the kids, but the general impression is one of harmless entertainment. Credit should also go to the developers that animated the NPCs and City inhabitants, too, as there's something inherently goofy and amusing about driving around in a LEGO car and watching the locals dive for cover.

What's clear is that this is an experience that, should the collecting bug bite, will take a long time to see through. Somewhat breaking convention, studs — which serve as currency — are earned by building objects, rather than smashing them to bits, while rampantly breaking apart every piece of LEGO will earn you bricks. These are literally building bricks, with a number of "Super Builds" — 65 in total — which are sizable and useful structures scattered throughout the world. Some are vital as part of story chapters, in which case you're well advised to hang onto a fair chunk, while others are fun options that are useful for ordering unlocked cars, for example. Collecting sizeable bricks to build up your total is just one part of the exploration on offer, with areas regularly found that are locked until certain abilities are unlocked later in the story.

And that's the balance that this title encourages, with a dizzying range of unlockables only being accessible once progress is made with new character types and abilities. The early focus is likely to be on story progression, before curiosity and exploration plays its part in later stages. In around 4-5 hours we reached the fifth of 15 chapters, yet the fourth and fifth chapters were increasingly lengthy, with the developer telling us that the trend continues with each becoming longer and more complex. An estimate is that a typical player will need around 15-20 hours to complete the story chapters first time around, and a similar period once again to find and unlock all collectibles for 100% completion. For those ready to take their time and explore the vast world on offer, there's a lot of potential bang for each buck spent.

The diversity of experience is really the core concept that seems to drive this title, ultimately, with scripted story missions contrasting with open-world freedom in the city. For their part, the story segments that we played were some of the most intuitive and entertaining we've played in the series. Only once were we scratching out heads and wondering what to do next, with the puzzles and environments feeling natural and instinctive for the most part. It's typical LEGO fare in these areas — flick a switch, swap characters to interact with a puzzle, with some light platforming thrown in. And yes, as the trailers suggest, there's some accessible and fun parkour action to be found.

So what we have is a LEGO title of real promise, with its final marker being how it sustains interest and enjoyment over its admittedly lengthy campaign. From what we've seen there's the prospect of real variety, with our missions often combining platforming, easy but fun combat, puzzle solving and, occasionally, some car chases through the city. Like many LEGO titles it does its best to help you along, with prompting arrows to help you in story areas, and green beads guiding you on the city's roads.

The well-advertised Wii U GamePad features also play a role, with the controller being represented in game as a police computer. It's used to scan for clues using the screen and gyroscope — though unfortunately there's no option to move the view with a stick, it's movement only — and you receive calls and instructions on the screen and through the controller's speakers. The conceit of controller as computer works nicely, though the map unfortunately doesn't allow for manual tagging of locations, so you're reliant on the markers that the developers give you. A nice touch that we didn't see is an unlockable camera, which can take screenshots to post to Miiverse from within the game — perfect for showing off car boost-ramps that can see you performing impressive stunts in specific areas.

As one of the first major Wii U releases of the year, and with Nintendo picking up the publishing responsibilities, there's a lot of pressure on LEGO City: Undercover to maintain the success of its licensed predecessors. Based on what we've seen so far, it could very well live up to expectations.

We'll outline some key features of the game later this week, including Nintendo cameos, and you can also check out our extensive interview with the developers.

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