When it comes to modern games, the appearance of anything Lego has become synonymous with pop culture silliness thanks to the creative efforts of TT Games. Since releasing Lego Star Wars in 2005, the England-based developer has unleashed a torrent of whimsical Lego adventures set in every fictional universe from Batman to Harry Potter to Pirates of the Caribbean. So what happens, then, when a developer so known for working with official movie licenses creates an original Lego story?
The answer to that question is Lego City Undercover, a Wii U and 3DS exclusive due out early next year. If there's one thing that can be said about Lego City Undercover, it's that TT Games doesn't need an official movie license to have fun with Hollywood. Lego City Undercover is one great, big homage to '60s and '70s crime movies, from a San Francisco-inspired setting ripe for car chases to a main character who bears the most police-y of all police officer names: Chase McCain.
McCain is an exiled detective sent away after he successfully locked up the city's most notorious criminal mastermind. Why would that be cause for exile? Well, when your slimy superior officer decides to steal the credit for your arrest, you can see why he wouldn't want word getting out that it wasn't, in fact, his own handiwork. But now that criminal mastermind is back on the streets, and McCain has been called back to Lego City to see if he can't work his magic for a second time.
McCain's journey plays out in an open-world setting not unlike a family-friendly version of Grand Theft Auto. You can run around and "commandeer" vehicles from hapless citizens, explore the city to perform optional side quests, and generally take your time between story missions.
But it's in those story missions where you can see the way that TT Games is casting an especially broad net of pop culture references and irreverent humor. At one point McCain must infiltrate Albatross Prison (an island compound with more than a passing resemblance to Alcatraz) and speak with a character named Blue. When you meet this guy, you can't help but notice a striking similarity to a certain esteemed actor from The Shawshank Redemption. Eventually you finish your conversation, and another character walks up to Blue and asks something to the effect of, "I need some help! Are you free, man?" To which Blue responds, "No! I am not Freeman! His lawyers might be watching!"
Snappy dialogue like that pervades Lego City Undercover's in-game storytelling. There's a mile-a-minute pace of pop culture in-jokes and references that seems capable of pleasing adults with their cleverness and children with their silliness. You really get the sense that TT Games is taking advantage of this game's lack of any official movie connection to forge decidedly unofficial connections to lots of different movies.
Where Lego City Undercover feels more like classic Lego fare is in the way the game plays. Missions tend to be a combination of platforming, puzzle-solving, and very light combat. It's the sort of low-barrier gameplay where challenge doesn't come so much from the missions themselves, but from how much of the huge amount of side content you want to tackle. The open-world format looks like it will add a bit more freedom to the way you take on that content, but the gameplay itself seems like standard Lego stuff.
There are some novelties that come with the Wii U hardware, however. You can use the screen on your GamePad as a sort of mini-map/GPS, dropping a waypoint on the touch screen that will create a trail of green Lego studs on your TV so that you can more easily drive to a particular destination. You can also use the GamePad as a sort of augmented-reality scanner to look around the environment and easily distinguish criminals from ordinary citizens. (Yes, cute little Lego police officers aren't afraid to use Big Brother technology.)
Whether or not TT Games is playing it safe with the way Lego City Undercover plays, it's clear that the developer doesn't need an official movie license to make a game that's every bit as charming and humorous with its pop culture sensibilities as those other Lego titles. Wii U owners will want to keep an eye out for this one when it's released in early 2013.'