The time was E3 2011, where Nintendo were showing off the Wii U for the first time. Among the games revealed was something under the name of LEGO City Stories. Awesome, I thought. A LEGO game based on something original using the familiar template of the well-regarded TT formula. I’d already enjoyed the delights of the Star Wars and Harry Potter games, so something original without the restrictions of the licences would make for an entertaining game.
Then in 2012, the game had seen a rename to City Undercover, and more was known about it. Soon after, Batman 2: DC Super Heroes released, giving me a taste of the additions and improvements that would be within the Nintendo exclusive game. A true open world experience full of secrets to discover and unlock with the right powers, along with the standard levels that every TT LEGO game includes to push the story along.
With a release set for 2013 for City Undercover, it wouldn’t be until Christmas where I’d get to experience it – and the Wii U – for myself. It was everything I had hoped it would be and more, full of the typical LEGO humour and bursting with references to plenty of characters and scenarios from various films. But that story wasn’t just an excuse to jump between funny bits, as the plot had a clear narrative and knew exactly how it wanted to get there.
Unlike with previous LEGO games (and even future ones, too), that story was no longer told just within the levels, with missions that followed on from within the open world that involved more than just heading to the start of the next level. Such missions would sometimes act as the tutorial of the various activities scattered across the open world, such as finding runaway pigs as a favour to a farmer, along with the abilities of disguises you unlock with the world.
Those disguises are important with this game, as you’ll only have one character at all times to be playing with. There’s no co-op style puzzles with this one, so the only thing you’d be swapping into is those disguises. I never felt that only having one character ever impacted enjoyment of the puzzle solving, since they were still varied enough to never feel like you were repeating the same situations too many times.
Despite only playing as Chase McCain, there’s a whole host of characters that get introduced throughout the story that – even if the story only spends a scene or two with them – are full of charm and have at least one memorable moment. Even the background characters can sometimes be surprising with the things they say, and even mange to reach the same levels of charm as more relevant characters.
Along with that is the world, and how the characters react to it. Whether within cutscenes or out, background and minor characters feel like they belong there, rather than just being placed there. They feel connected to the world, which is also a larger part of what makes this game work. The world feels natural, even if segmented into obvious themes, with levels feeling like they are a part of that world. Such is also a part of the natural progression to the story.
The locations for these levels all exist within the world, whether that be the sewers into the bank or the highest rooftops of Cherry Tree Hills. The fact you can’t access them outside of the level they are used with doesn’t matter, since the entrance and exits from each of the levels are directly connected – even if loading screens get in the way. And once out from the levels, sometimes there’s a follow-on activity that directly relates to what happened in the level just completed.
It really feels as though TT Games put everything into this one to make it the best LEGO game ever. From the grand scale of the story and the world, the smaller details that make up both, and even the music that fits the theming of where it’s used, it feels an almost flawless experience all the way through. The liveliness to the world and how natural it feels – even within levels that are skewed toward feeling more gamified – also go some way to making it feel like a huge leap forward for LEGO games.
As the fourth generation of LEGO games starts with the soon to be released The Skywalker Saga, I only hope that they are taking the best of what this game offered to make another huge leap forward. It sounds like the advancements are large, including the interconnected feel to the entire game, but we have yet to see if it has all the elements to make it a truly great one. And perhaps, once I get to play it, The Skywalker Saga will dethrone City Undercover as the best LEGO game for me. Until that time, though, it will always be City Undercover.
Images taken from: LEGO City Undercover (Wii U) Nintendo UK page