We all love a good origin story, right? It's an opportunity to delve further into the inner workings of a character, to learn what they're all about and how they became the hero that we know and love. LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins, however, is an oddly timed tale of this ilk: we only just got to know Chase McCain a month ago in Wii U's LEGO City Undercover, but already we have a prequel that takes us back two years in McCain's life to show how the hotshot cop rose from rookie to regular action hero.
The strange thing is, Chase doesn't actually start out as green as you might think. Despite his lower rank, from the outset he's about as skilled as he is two years later, freerunning and fighting talents in tact, and debatably he grows more over the course of his Wii U adventure than he ever does on 3DS. In The Chase Begins, McCain arrives in LEGO City, shiny new police badge in hand, and is promptly thrown into the investigation of a city-wide crime syndicate. Which, naturally, requires him to dress up in a variety of disguises that each offer different skillsets.
This prequel is set in much the same style as its console big brother – it's a departure from the usual licensed LEGO titles, an original story set in an open world city that's yours to explore. There's a storyline to follow, but you can also stomp around at will, snatching up LEGO studs, bricks that scatter whenever you smash things – used to build landmarks, jump ramps and vehicle call-in points – and discs that allow you to purchase new costumes and vehicles.
Of course, familiar LEGO mechanics such as unlimited lives, basic puzzles often solved by constructing a nearby object and straightforward combat return, too. Both during the plot and threatening innocents in dodgy streets, there are criminals to tackle through a simple fighting system that flows well. You can go on the offensive by throwing and grappling enemies, or wait for them to strike before turning the tables with a devastating counterattack, many of which take inspiration from films or take kung fu to its most ridiculous extremes. Once you've worn them down enough, slap on some handcuffs to pack them off to prison.
It wouldn't be a LEGO game without some clothes swapping. All of the main costume types found in the Wii U game show up on 3DS, though they're presented in a completely different order and some have new abilities, so the structure still feels fresh even if you've already put a couple of dozen hours into the console version. If you've played both, you'll instantly recognise much of the city layout, which has been transposed over to the 3DS edition.
There are numerous interaction points dotted around the city, such as fuse boxes that can be fixed up while dressed as a construction worker, and hooks for cops to grapple onto. Some of these use the 3DS's touch screen, such as the burglar's safecracking mini-game, though more often than not it's a case of mashing the A button. Finding and 'solving' each of these distractions counts towards the completion percentage, and you'll need to be dedicated to reach the coveted 100% mark; it took us 12 hours to reach 23%. If you're just in it for the story, though, that can be cleared in around eight hours.
3DS's motion sensing functions get a work out as well: there are viewpoints in picturesque areas, and you have to move the system around to snap the perfect postcard photograph. You can also scan for useful items or locations at any time in the same way, and there's a cool new mechanic where you have to wiretap doors to listen in on conversations, tuning the audio in by tilting and twisting the console into just the right position. Each is used sparingly so they don't get old, and they blend in well without feeling forced. StreetPass is also supported; you can put together a gift package of postcards you've collected, vehicles discovered and other goodies, which is then sent out to anybody you connect with.
Where The Chase Begins diverts significantly, however, is in its mission structure. Whereas LEGO City Undercover often pulled you into separate levels away from the main city, in similar fashion to other LEGO titles, The Chase Begins takes a more ambitious approach, setting missions within the city itself. The story is very linear and played in strict order, so you stay in one section of the city per group of missions, but it's nice to see TT Fusion attempt something different. You're still in restricted areas when it comes to continuing the story, and the puzzles and general structure remain quite similar, but they're much larger spaces that give a greater impression of freedom.
That ambition is also to The Chase Begin's detriment, though – the technical issues it suffers are the real criminals that lurk in LEGO City's alleyways. The framerate dips noticeably when there's a lot on screen, or a wide view of open space, only to run perfectly smoothly in areas where buildings or walls obstruct more of the surroundings. We were able to test the game both before and after the recent 3DS system update; we found that it improved the performance, though it's still sluggish when there's a lot to display. The game's certainly playable, both pre- and post-update, but it doesn't look like the most attractive thing during slowdown – a shame, as the assets and animation look fantastic on 3DS.
Sadly that's not the only technical foible. The draw distance is acceptable but not outstanding, a blueish fog regularly clouding out far off architecture. Much more distracting is the pop-in on local, non-essential objects – you can be walking down the street and suddenly a person will appear, ghost-like, from thin air when they're just a few centimetres away from you. The same happens with vehicles, which is slightly troublesome when driving at speed, as you can end up crashing into cars that you didn't even know were there. It's an insurance nightmare.
Objects similarly drift out of view when they've moved far enough away – thankfully the exception is when it's an object that's critical to your goal, so if you're taking part in a car chase for a story mission, your target never drops out of sight. Being a LEGO game, where it's nigh on impossible to fail a mission and you have infinite lives at your disposal, and with a strict lock on essential objects staying on-screen, it's more of an irritant than a game-breaker. In a title with harsher difficulty, however, it'd be completely unacceptable.
Worst, though, are the loading times, which are close to the Wii U version's in length and more frequent. It takes around 40 seconds to load a save, 40 seconds to enter or exit the police station either way, and this time the city is divided into sections – moving into another borough takes 40 seconds, too. Once you're in an area there's no more loading until you shift elsewhere, which means there's little interruption once you're doing a batch of missions, but there are some really egregious chains of loading during the story.
As the campaign goes on, you move further and further afield – one of the final areas is on the outskirts of the city, and if you start within the police station it takes four separate loads, 40 seconds a time, to reach it if you drive. It's not conducive to portable play at all – you can build helipads to warp directly to the area you require, but you're still looking at a minimum of one 40 second wait. At least there are tool tips, which dispense some pretty useful snatches of information, to read on the bottom screen.
The knock-on effect of these issues is that, while the city is reasonably big and packed with little things to do, such as the interaction points and unlockable street races, it dampens your enthusiasm to explore for hours as you could in the Wii U version. The typical LEGO humour and charm laced throughout helps a little, though with the hilarious voice acting unfortunately restricted exclusively to movie segments, it isn't a laugh-a-minute affair.
LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins is an enjoyable game that features many of the hallmarks of a quality LEGO title – there's tons of content, a decently crafted campaign and some fun uses of the 3DS hardware. However, it's burdened by several technical issues that sap away at some of its appeal and prevent it from being the handheld blockbuster it could have, and should have, been.