As one of the most popular toys in the world, LEGO has been a part of almost everyone’s lives. The unbridled sense of creativity and possibility that the bricks produce is arguably unmatched by anything else, so it’s no surprise that the LEGO Group has continually pushed for the creation of LEGO games. Be it based purely on building, or on famous licenses, the LEGO franchise has seen a vast variety of gameplay styles over the years; while not all of these variations are notable, they carry a certain playful spirit.
This month Wii U plays host to the latest in a long line of LEGO games in the form of LEGO City Undercover. In a first for publisher Traveller’s Tales, Undercover is not based on any license; instead it is built around the simple concept of LEGO and the LEGO City line of sets, offering free exploration and limitless possibilities, essentially creating the LEGO city you wished you could have built when you were young.
But this isn’t the first game of its kind, and while TT Games and this game’s developer, TT Fusion, may not have had much experience with license-free LEGO games, the history of the LEGO franchise has gradually been laying the brickwork for such a massive project.
Long before TT Games came into the picture, the LEGO games were outsourced to a variety of developers, with the first being Mindscape in 1997. Its creation was LEGO Island, a game that no doubt many of our readers grew up playing on PC. Very much an open-world LEGO game, LEGO Island featured no plot and no real structure – the island was open right from the start, and while mini-game sequences could be activated by travelling to various locations, such as the race track, there was absolutely no direction to the game. The only part of the game to feature a narrative was the Brickster’s escape, with players tasked to recapture the villain before he destroyed the island.
Many fans still remember this game fondly today, and with LEGO City Undercover arriving, the parallels are remarkable. Both are based on the City line of LEGO sets, and both are very much an open world game, giving you the option of completing missions or just exploring the island. LEGO Island also introduced what would ultimately become the LEGO game’s trademark humour, offering quirky, off-beat dialogue throughout, along with some downright crazy moments such as firing pizzas from a helicopter. Only in a LEGO game.
This open-world blueprint would be expanded upon by its two sequels, LEGO Island 2: The Brickster’s Revenge and LEGO Island Xtreme Stunts. Both games featured a more detailed island and a greater emphasis on vehicles, something that is a focus of LEGO City. While we’ve never seen another LEGO Island game since 2002’s Xtreme Stunts, LEGO City very much feels like the spiritual successor to these great titles.
While the LEGO Island series made up the backbone of LEGO’s gaming efforts from 1997 to 2002, the company also experimented with creating different genre games based on its own franchises. From real-time strategy title LEGO Rock Raiders, to Sim City-esque LEGO Loco, to the Theme Park World clone, LEGOLand, every facet of the company was represented. And while elements of these games would appear again, one stood out above them all – LEGO Racers.
The first LEGO title to appear on a Nintendo system, the N64, LEGO Racers proved to be a decent hit with fans and a acted as a competitor to Mario Kart 64. Bringing in elements from all of LEGO’s franchises, LEGO Racers allowed you to race around numerous tracks in a variety of cars, even allowing you to build your own vehicle from scratch. The sequel added in explorable hub worlds, something that is resurfacing in LEGO City Undercover. If these games showed one thing, it is that many of us have an innate love of creating LEGO vehicles.
2005 was a watershed moment for LEGO games, with the release of LEGO Star Wars setting the blueprint for almost all future LEGO titles. Developed by Traveller’s Tales for the first time, LEGO Star Wars took the film prequel trilogy and gave it the LEGO treatment, bringing with it some of the best humour in any game series to date. The gameplay was very much excellence through simplicity – the ultimate aim was simply to reach the end of the level, but how you got there was very much left to you. Smashing objects yielded studs, the LEGO game currency, and could be used to purchase items in the store, while MiniKits could be collected by hunting down canisters. It was simple, it was funny and most important of all, it was fun.
That’s not to say the old style of LEGO game was abandoned entirely. LEGO Star Wars brought with it a hub world from which levels could be selected and MiniKits could be viewed, very much akin to the open-world games of old. While the scope was limited, the hub offered a chance to try out different characters, and if so inclined, start a small scale war in the parking lot outside the Cantina.
LEGO Star Wars proved to be such a hit that a sequel based on the Original Trilogy was released a year later, followed by a LEGO treatment for Indiana Jones. Just three games in and it was clear TT Games had a hit on its hands, as families responded well to the simplicity, while adults enjoyed the comedic references to the films of their childhood.
Since then, many more franchises have been released in blocky form, ranging from Batman to Harry Potter (and even a Rock Band spin-off), each one bringing refinements to the now expected LEGO gameplay. But as the series has worn on, calls have begun to be heard for a change in the formula; after six years, it is an understandable complaint.
LEGO Harry Potter was one of the first to expand the open-world element of the LEGO games, something that was ultimately realised in LEGO Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, the full open-world experience that will soon be appearing on Wii U. Offering a fully realised Gotham to explore, LEGO Batman 2 brought back the classic exploration of old, and by simply offering a more freedom, breathed new life into an ailing gameplay style.
This open-world concept was pushed even further with the short lived MMO (massively multiplayer online), LEGO Universe in 2010. Featuring a huge online open world, LEGO Universe was LEGO’s first attempt at a communal environment, and switched the focus back onto the building element by introducing plots of land. While the MMO eventually failed due to lack of support, the building element of classic LEGO titles proved popular with players.
Which brings us to LEGO City Undercover. Heralded by many as not only a new game style from TT Fusion but also as the sign of better things for Wii U, it is under a lot of pressure. But really, it has nothing to fear. LEGO City Undercover is the ultimate realisation of a journey started by LEGO Island back in 1997, and continued by TT Games into the modern era. It features the open world freedom of early LEGO Island titles, the love of building and vehicles that LEGO Racers brought, the smash and collect mechanics that the licensed titles introduced and the brilliantly witty humour that has been a constant feature over the years. It’s arguably the realisation of a dream that many gamers once had when they were young, and as we said in our review, it “is a giant play bucket of ideas and humour”.
But where next for the LEGO franchise? TT Games is already hard at work on LEGO Marvel Super Heroes, which promises to build upon not only LEGO Batman 2, but also LEGO City Undercover, by introducing a large open-world area to explore outside of the main quest. Sooner than that however is the prequel to the Wii U title on the 3DS, LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins, which promises similar action to its bigger brother on a smaller screen. One thing is clear though, whatever comes next, the LEGO series is continuing to get stronger and stronger.