Sunday, May 5, 2013

3DS Review: "LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins"

LEGO has long had a strong presence in the realm of video games.  Starting with LEGO Star Wars in 2005, the company hit upon a simple but effective formula that has banked them obscene amounts of money for ever since:  Make a basic platformer with lots of stuff to destroy and collect, add a well known license, throw in some tongue-in-cheek humor, and voil√†.  A surefire hit for all ages.

But there was a time when LEGO games did not revolve around popular film licenses, and did not just consist of collecting little studs, looking for red bricks, unlocking characters and the like.  Back in the late 90s through the early 2000s, LEGO actually created a remarkably diverse collection of software.  Based on a variety of their original themes, LEGO games from this era covered all sorts of genres, from kart racing to chess to train simulations.

By far the most significant of LEGO's various franchises from this time was the LEGO Island series.  Consisting of three games released in 1997, 2001, and 2002, the LEGO Island series was primarily based the on the various "city" themed sets and put you in the role of Pepper Roni, a pizza delivery boy, who was tasked with stopping the dastardly deeds of notorious criminal The Brickster and his minions.  Though the gameplay varied between the titles, all three games provided an open world to explore, missions to complete, and all sorts of goodies to collect.

Now, over a decade later, LEGO has come full circle.  LEGO City Undercover is primarily based on the various "city" themed sets and puts you in the role of Chase McCain, a police officer and detective, who is tasked with stopping the dastardly deeds of notorious criminal Rex Fury and minions.  The game provides a huge open world to explore, missions to complete, and all sorts of goodies to collect.

Of course, open world games are all the rage these days.  LEGO City is unique, however, in that it caters to a family audience.  All the trappings of a game like Grand Theft Auto are present and accounted for here but, thanks to the LEGO branding, are presented in a non-threatening kid appropriate way.  It means you get all the fun of having a sandbox to play around in with none of the less desirable content so often associated with the genre.  Really, it's a brilliant move on LEGO's part given how virtually no other games are trying to do the same thing right now.

Today I'm looking at The Chase Begins for the 3DS, a prequel to the storyline told in the Wii U LEGO City game.  As of right now, I haven't played the Wii U game, so my impressions of this game are based solely on this game alone, as I can't compare it directly to it's home console counterpart.

And my impressions are quite good!  The basic gameplay mechanics are carried over from the various licensed LEGO games of the past few years.  Silver, gold, and blue studs are still the collectable of choice, and grabbing up as many as you can is still as compelling as it's ever been.  In keeping with tradition, nearly any object in the world constructed out of LEGOs can be destroyed, revealing plastic pieces to collect.  Chase is the only character to play as, but his various disguises provide him with moves similar to the various character types in previous LEGO games, such the ability to use grappling hooks or interact with certain objects.  The game also includes some basic combat, as always, which is fun but extremely easy, causing it to get a bit tedious after a while.

The open world gameplay makes things feel quite distinct from previous LEGO games, however.  LEGO City is yours to explore, though a series of missions is present to keep the story moving.  It's not a very compelling narrative, and it ends on a very unsatisfying cliff hanger to set up the events of the Wii U game, but the story is mostly a means to an end here.  The story-based missions take under eight hours to complete, but constitute only about a quarter of the content The Chase Begins has to offer.  Playing the missions opens up more of the world to explore, and as you do, you're free to ignore the missions and do whatever you please.  If you'd like to keep the plot moving you can.  Or, if you'd like to go punch some flowers for a half hour to rack up some studs, you can do that too.

This is a game that really caters to players who like to goof off in a game's world and simply see what they can do and where they can go.  The city is positively riddled with nooks and crannies to explore, and while some of these locations don't lead to much in particular, most do have some kind of collectable tucked away inside to reward players for poking around.  The LEGO games have long relied on this sort of collect-athon mentality, but it's much more compelling in the context of having a huge world to explore at any time.  Players are also free to hop into any vehicle they come across, and careening around town in various cars adds a whole new spin on seeing what the world has to offer.

So, indeed, for those who like to explore game worlds and collect lots of goodies, The Chase Begins is portable bliss.  There are, however, a few unfortunate technical issues that pop up thanks to the handheld nature of the game.  TT Fusion did a phenomenal job packing in the same gigantic city to explore that is offered in the Wii U game, but it's very clear that the 3DS is struggling to handle it at times.  Draw distance for characters and vehicles is a bit screwy, often causing them to fade in and out of existence while they're right in front of you.  Additionally, the whole city is covered with a dense fog.  Since your viewing distance is often obscured by buildings and trees and such, this isn't a huge issue.  That said, when up in a high place or a particularly open area, it can look a little odd to observe nothing but blue fog out in front of you.  The world is also divided up into several areas, and crossing from one into another means a lengthy load time, up to a minute long.  (Again reminiscent of the LEGO Island series, particularly the second installment...)

Sounds and music are also a little bit odd.  The game features some incredibly funny and clever writing, but with voice acting being limited only to key story moments, the humor does seem rather subdued at times.  Sound effects are pretty solid, but music is strangely scarce.  Driving vehicles, combat, and certain missions are accompanied by score, but the rest of the game is largely silent.  A little ambient music would have gone a long way here.

So, in the end, LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins does have its shortcomings.  It tries to be a full-fledged console style sandbox game but, thanks to some technical limitations, it isn't always able to fully succeed in that goal.  The missions tend to be pretty simplistic and the combat gets old fast.  That being said, the world is still extremely fun to play around in and there's plenty of hours of content to enjoy here.  The story is pretty flimsy, but it clocks in at a length that would acceptable for a full handheld experience, and it's only the tip of the ice berg here.  If you're a handheld gamer looking for an exploration heavy home console style experience, The Chase Begins will scratch that itch nicely.  It has some rough edges that may irritate some, but the underlying experience is great fun.

Now, how about we bring back LEGO Island proper next time?  I'd like to see what Pepper and company has been up to all these years.  Please?

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