As the Wii U steadfastly remains a console that few gamers give a damn about, Nintendo needs a charismatic LEGO adventure more than ever to convince more casual players to fork out for its latest gaming gizmo. But while City Undercover is a bold evolution of the ingenious formula established by Traveller's Tales’ licensed LEGO games, it isn't the killer title Wii U early adopters so desperately crave.
Essentially Grand Theft Auto for kids, LEGO City Undercover thrusts players into a sprawling, free-roaming world where you’re bombarded with challenges and minigames that advance the main story, along with plenty of opportunities to stray from the beaten path and make your own fun. Solving puzzles allows players to wear different disguises and learn the skills required to access previously locked areas of the city, in turn giving the game tremendous replay value as you can retread old ground and always find something new to do.
Like Traveller's Tales’ Batman, Indiana Jones and Star Wars LEGO titles, City Undercover is a charming romp that winds younger players into the experience with an engaging backstory and slapstick humour, but never feels condescending or juvenile. In a stroke of genius, the action is also punctuated by sharp pop culture references that riff on classic movies and TV shows such as Goodfellas, The Matrix and Starsky & Hutch, giving parents plenty of belly laughs as they help their kids bumble through the garish challenges.
But despite its cute looks and endearing personality, City Undercover feels less satisfying than its forebears.
For starters, despite being a Wii U exclusive, the game makes limited use of Nintendo's new hardware, with no innovative off-TV options that exploit the GamePad or its screen, which is most often used to display tedious progress bars during the game's myriad loading sequences.
Like other LEGO adventures, the game’s slippery platforming sections are tainted my imprecise controls and awkward camera angles that will frustrate players of all ages, and anyone who’s played LEGO titles on the Xbox 360 or PS3 will be disappointed by the Wii U’s shonkier visuals, jerky animation, and urban landscapes that lack depth.
Worst of all, though, City Underground doesn’t feature any of the glorious co-operative modes that added longevity to other LEGO videogames, a critical oversight in an adventure that’s designed to be enjoyed by families, and should gives kids and parents an opportunity to play side-by-side.
Reviewed by David McComb