LEGO City: Undercover, understandably, was considered a big deal by Nintendo when it came to the Wii U exclusively back in early 2013. While it was a welcome arrival, it struggled - like various other titles - to arrest the early slump in system sales, and though Nintendo published the title it was evidently not locked down permanently. One of the few non-licensed LEGO game projects has now arrived on Nintendo Switch, PS4 and Xbox One, with a slightly new look but largely the same content.
LEGO City is still, of course, a popular brand in 'real' LEGO and is well known among kids and big kids alike. As the IP wasn't tied to a third-party franchise, though, TT Games / TT Fusion had free rein to do as they pleased as long as they incorporated the core 'real world' vibe of the brand. When we spoke to the developers at the time it was clear that they'd enjoyed the freedom to produce an amusing game that also took the LEGO series in a bold new direction.
In early 2013 it was, indeed, a leap forward for the LEGO games. It wasn't the first entry to dabble in open-world mechanics, but it was certainly on a whole new scale and level of ambition. In truth some of the gameplay loops and approaches to this sizeable world are a little creaky now, as the genre has moved on in the past few years, but even today LEGO City is a huge and rather fun place to mess about. There's not much 'emergent' gameplay going on, but as you progress through the story and unlock more abilities all sorts of landmarks and challenges pop up. Car time trials, free run courses and basic puzzles are scattered around the city in dizzying numbers.
Like any LEGO game there are three core tasks - unlock abilities, smash everything in sight and hoard stubs and bricks like a shut-in with a penchant for small cat ornaments. Many of the world's secrets and extras, though, will only be accessible once you unlock the various costumes to delight cosplay fans among us - you'll be a fireman, astronaut and more. As such the game pushes and prods you to progress the dozen-hour story in order to access and see new areas, unlock abilities and collect the currencies that you'll need later on to complete various 'Super Builds' and more. The story can satisfy as the full experience, but for those happy to spend dozens of hours then 'completing' the game fully, it's also one big tutorial in teaching you the various ways to play.
Like pretty much every LEGO game, including the most recent ones, gameplay is simple and also occasionally fiddly. Controls are accessible and mostly fine, but sometimes platforming and the camera can be more awkward that they should be; we've made this complaint about most LEGO games, so it's obviously no different with this re-release. Generally, though, our hero Chase McCain moves pretty well, and it can also be fun experimenting with different vehicles in the game, some that handle beautifully and others like a three-wheeled trolley.
The big change here on Switch, though, is the ditching of dual-screen play - in the original Chase had an in-game tablet that looked awfully similar to the GamePad, and the second screen was a rather charming always-on display. That's gone, of course, though Chase still has his tablet; in truth the second screen isn't really missed here. You now use the D-Pad (or the left Joy-Con's equivalent of it) to answer calls and they pop up on the TV, and there's a map screen along with 'scanning' on the TV. In 2013 much was made of the GamePad as integral to the game, but in practice it's not a major loss.
The other big changes are on the surface, with the visuals getting an overhaul for the current generation; interestingly some that watched our comparison footage preferred the lighter and more playful Wii U look. For our money the adjusted engine and graphics are an improvement, with better textures and far superior lighting; we're not talking top of the line visuals, but it's a step up. That's just a matter of taste, perhaps, but another observation we'd make is that, when docked, the game is a smoother experience on Switch. It actually wasn't bad on Wii U, but it's nice and solid on Nintendo's new system in single player, most of the time.
Let's cut right to it, though, elements of this port are very sloppy. There are some occasional glitches and hiccups in the visuals, with unexpected oddities at some points - we also had the game crash on us a few times, even after the day one update, and noticed the Switch gets rather hot when running the game docked. That suggests a slightly rushed job.
Interestingly, too, this is one of the first games where we've seen a notable performance downgrade in handheld mode. We know from reports in the past that the system has lower processing speeds when undocked and evidently that is a problem here, though we must say the majority of developers have done a far better job of optimisation in other games. The framerate is very choppy when the system is undocked, which is frustrating when there's also a noticeable visual downgrade. We recommend keeping this one docked and played as a 'home console' experience.
Another performance disappointment is in the new co-op mode, which makes this the same as practically every other LEGO game on Nintendo hardware. The solid solo framerate - which targets 30fps - practically halves when a second player jumps in as a guest, with the splitscreen evidently too much for the system to handle as it renders the busy open world twice. That's clearly the issue, as when one player looks at the map, for example, the other half of the screen suddenly jumps up to the full framerate, before grinding back again when both characters are running around. Co-op, to be blunt, is not a fun or worthwhile option in this one.
Those performance issues, sadly, indicate a rather low-effort development cycle here, at least at the porting stage. Nice work has been done on the environments and lighting, as mentioned above, but the actual process of running it on Switch at times seems like a 'plug-in and hope for the best' approach. In single player when docked the game is quite smooth and pleasing on the eye, with a few occasional choke-points and visual flaws, but playing in handheld mode or co-op simply isn't good enough.
That's a shame as, despite the somewhat faded open-world tropes and pop-culture gags that are now a few years out of date, this is an enjoyable, sizeable and worthwhile LEGO experience. After enduring a bit of co-op and portable play for review purposes, we had a far more jolly time playing this on the TV. It's a humorous and quirky game that embraces the silliness of LEGO, and while its writing is still a tad messy it made us smile plenty of times.
It's a product of its time, to an extent, with LEGO games having taken some strides in the past year or two. Sometimes the puzzles are too simple or repetitive, and occasionally it embraces the iffiest foibles of the IP's games, but LEGO City: Undercover is still a good time. There's loads of bang for your buck, with plenty of humour and memorable set-pieces.
Overall, LEGO City: Undercover doesn't quite stand up as well in its 2017 form as it did when it originally came to Wii U; series improvements have come in the years since that leave this one looking slightly dusty in comparison. There are also some technical issues that hold it back, with odd graphical blemishes - a pity as the updated engine is generally an improvement - along with performance issues in co-op and handheld mode.
That said, played as a console game in single player, like its original, this still offers an easy-going and slightly anarchic fun time. The same crazy storylines, set pieces and scenarios are still here, as are the cheesy jokes riffing on famous movies. LEGO City: Undercover's case isn't quite as convincing as it was in 2013, but it still has plenty to offer.