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Lego City Undercover review: Chip off the old block

Much like the toy these days, Lego City Undercover is both familiar and unfamiliar. Or, more to the point, it's two games masquerading as one, the first new and the second old.

The introduction of a tremendous open world, a plastic parody of a city full of whimsy to discover, and more importantly to collect, is what should define Lego's Wii U debut. This miniature metropolis sits alongside an almost wholly separate campaign, its tight, linear missions shuffling to the break-it-rebuild-it rhythm which has long been the Lego beat.

The first game, the exploratory open world collect-a-thon, is not just fresh, it's on the verge of greatness. It's unfortunate, then, that to fully enjoy it you must wade through the second game, the campaign, and all its relatively drab, through-the-motions familiarity.%Gallery-173623%

The first impression of Undercover is a Lego version of Grand Theft Auto, and the game certainly riffs on Liberty City and the locations' common inspiration of New York. However, to play it, explore it, and in particular find a plethora of items to collect in it, evokes the spirit of Xbox 360 gem Crackdown. This is not a bad thing at all.

Like Crackdown's Pacific City, Lego City has something to find in every nook and cranny, both high and low. While it isn't as visually obvious a collect-a-thon, there are 450 gold bricks to find in the game, comparable to the 500 agility orbs of Crackdown. The difference is the bricks aren't just dotted around waiting to be grabbed, but are obtained by doing various things around the city.

Most of these unlocks are, in terms of method, really no different from the bricks just being there, like watering a hidden flower bed or drinking a cup of coffee secluded on a ledge. While the methods are simplistic, and there isn't any drive to collect the bricks beyond ticking the completion percentage over, the allure lies in a consistent variety. One second you're unlocking a block by rescuing a cat stuck on a mall's roof, the next you're blowing up a silver statue in Chinatown, or floating across rooftops by holding onto a chicken, or sending a pig back to the farm by riding him to the nearest pig cannon (yup).

There are other things to collect too, like Lego skins and vehicles, as well as deeper, more GTA-like gold brick missions such as chasing down bad guys or driving a time trial. While there isn't the attribute-boosting compulsion of Crackdown, there is the naturalness of it simply happening as you explore Lego City – and you want to explore Lego City. It isn't a technical marvel, but the setting does a great job of playing to nostalgia and wonder.

Walking and driving around Undercover feels like how childhood imaginations (and big kid imaginations) would conceive living in the Lego City playsets. From the Octan fuel tanks to the very specific curve of the pine trees and the just-like-the-box accuracy of the buildings, the city itself is an authentic love letter to Lego. More than in any recent entry in the series, Undercover's setting reaches into the soul of Lego and finds something to hold onto – even if its ethos is still miles apart from the constructional freedom of the toy.

What a shame, then, this other game in Undercover, the plodding, uninspired, seen-it-done-it-got-the-red-brick campaign, gets in the way. It's not awful by any means, but compared to all the newness of the city it's just so ordinary and insipid. The campaign is essentially the same game we've been playing since Lego Star Wars, except now there's no associated franchise to riff on, and spoken dialogue is very much en vogue. You'd think that might give Undercover room to evolve, but you'd be wrong.

The campaign follows the story of the wonderfully named Chase McCain, a cop returning to Lego City under the storm cloud of a murky past. The plot's a nice enough play on the cop hero genre – as nice as a tale about plastic people can be – and its pitch is almost on the money for its intended audience.

The humor, however, is less convincing. If anything, Undercover exposes how the previous games got by on the fun of giving franchises the Lego treatment. Without an array of licensed assets to play on, Undercover tries to generate laughs through its own characters, like McCain's bumbling sidekick Frank Honey. Too often, the end result feels strained, louder than it is funny. Honey, for example, could be great, with his enthusiastic boneheadedness reminiscent of Pope candidate Dougal McGuire from UK sitcom Father Ted. Instead, by the end he's more like an annoying child - "I think the robbers are still around so BE QUIET" - ho ho ho, shut up already.

It's no surprise Undercover is funniest when it sticks to what the Lego games have been doing for ages: riffing on popular culture. There are many cute nods to movies, with everything from Titanic to Scarface getting the yellow brick treatment. The show-stealer is an Austrian-sounding foreman who speaks only in overemphasized references to Arnie movies – even the customary drop of "I'll be back" earns a guilty guffaw.

As for the meat of the campaign, its 15 chapters aren't completely separate from the city, but they may as well be. As with GTA, you have to get to where you're supposed to be, and along the way you might have to chase cars down, escort someone, whatever. The missions themselves, however, are in closed environments external to the city, and as such not only fail to take advantage of the game's best feature, but repeatedly draw you away from it.

The missions take to familiarly small, linear environments to reprise the series tried-and-tested hit-and-fix gameplay. As ever, you're breaking everything in sight into little bits, and then building anew what you can from the wreckage. With its audience in mind, the missions fall back on the series' join-the-dots puzzle-platforming and simplistic combat. There are stand-out moments, sure, particularly towards the end as the plot speeds up and the locations loosen up, but for the most part this is the Lego you've come to know and love/hate/be disinterested in.

It wouldn't matter so much if the freedom of Undercover's open-world half wasn't intrinsically tied to the campaign, but it is. To unlock all of Chase's abilities, like pig launching, fowl floating, pavement drilling, and jetpack-boosted jumping, you have to unlock their associated disguises – hence the whole "undercover" thing. The farmer disguise, for example, lets Chase load hogs into heavy artillery and use poultry aerially.

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Unlocking them is the issue. To get every disguise, you'll need to play through the entire campaign. Trying to go about Lego City without all the disguises frustrates every single time you pass something that's inaccessible because you don't yet have the required ability. It's not because of any impatience, but simply the knowledge that what you're currently doing isn't working towards acquiring that ability – this is something Crackdown nails. If you really want to enjoy the content-stuffed, open world Undercover game, you're first going to have to play through the linear, same-as-ever Undercover game.

Other issues that don't help include the series anomaly that is the absence of co-op – again, see Crackdown for why it's a galling exclusion this time around – and the mind-meltingly annoying loading screens. They seem to vary between thirty seconds and a minute, and tend to be absent for ages before clumping together like a line of mischievous traffic lights stop-starting you one after the other. Guess which half of Undercover they appear most in.

If you can get through the campaign – this likely depending on how you've fared with Lego games in the past – then there is a vast, different, wonderful, and simply fun city to explore and drain of all its stubby, blocky resources. Developer TT Fusion wasn't kidding when it put 100 percent completion at around 40-50 hours. It's no Liberty City, but Lego City is big.

It's also why Lego City Undercover, while disappointing in some respects, is far from a total disappointment. Yes, the campaign is unexciting compared to the delights outside of it, but there's great promise too. It feels like developer TT Fusion is, quite appropriately, building towards something more with Undercover, something that really shows Lego games can stand on their own two leg blocks. It just isn't there yet.

This review is based on a retail copy of Lego City Undercover, provided by Nintendo.

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