Nintendo's heritage is unquestionable, but some of its franchise updates in recent years have been spottier in execution than we used to see. Numerous Mario games have come and gone and have been surprisingly easy to ignore, which is something I would have been beaten up for predicting in the playground 20 years ago, and the plumber's not the only one guilty of blotting his copybook with weaker instalments. Still, thanks to games like LEGO City Undercover, Nintendo's hardware remains a great place to go for the kind of experience Nintendo's fans used to expect on a regular basis.
Developer Traveller's Tales is working without the safety net of a Batman or Star Wars licence for this one, but that doesn't cause any problems. Instead the adventures of Chase McCain - a swashbuckling undercover cop in a Grand Theft Auto-style open-world crime caper - take in references to all sorts of 80s and 90s movies, from Goodfellas to The Matrix. The writers have a stand-up comedy background and it shows, with great jokes laced all throughout the game, keeping you company as you clear out levels or zoom around town, and delivering some of the biggest laughs in storytelling cut-scenes.
The action itself initially seems a bit too simple - drive to missions, run through fixed-perspective LEGO levels hoovering up the coin-like studs and unlocking new abilities - but the game's sense of humour and awesome sense of how to make collectables compelling transcend its seemingly generic components. Super Bricks are the best of the collectables - gathered whenever you knock down destructible objects in your car or bash them with your fists, both of which you do constantly - and they unlock things like helipads, loop-the-loops, fairground rides and booths for ordering vehicle drops, among other things.
We Built This City
LEGO City itself is the key to this, full of buildings, side streets and other LEGO dioramas that are begging to be explored, knocked down and criss-crossed for collectables using your growing arsenal of abilities. These see you swapping disguises that confer new techniques, like a miner who can handle explosives and whack things with a pickaxe, or a farmhand who can double-jump and flutter beneath the flapping wings of a captive chicken. It's all delightfully silly and beautifully animated - little touches like the farm disguise having you adopt a hips-forward pose, chewing on a piece of straw, are a constant cheer.
As you roam around, the Wii U sometimes struggles to keep the frame-rate locked in at a consistent level, but it never drops to depths that interfere with your enjoyment of the game. Speaking of the hardware, the game also makes extensive use of the Wii U Game Pad controller, although nothing it does is particularly spectacular - it's mostly different ways of viewing your environment, a navigation device and a tool for navigating catalogue-style menus of unlockable items back at police headquarters. The reliance on the Game Pad is kind of a shame for one reason, though - it means you can't bring in another player for the drop-in co-op that used to be the series' calling card. Young friends or parents who like to play with their children (or, er, their friends and spouses!) may find this frustrating.
LEGO Entertainment System
In a technical sense, then, maybe the game doesn't particularly need to be on the Wii U, but once Nintendo fans get stuck into it then they will find that it makes a lot of sense in its current home. This is the embodiment of the kind of game design that Nintendo is famous for: twinkling, funny and rarely less than entertaining. Its charms are subtler than they are in the big, brash licensed LEGO games, but once they emerge they're no easier to cast aside.
- Fantastic city, fully of hidden collectables you'll yearn to gather.
- Hilarious script and environmental humour, among the series' best.
- Absolutely huge, capable of tying up your tots (or you) for longer than half a dozen other games combined.
- Game Pad usage is OK but nothing special.
- No multiplayer options, which is a shame in a game famous for co-op.
- Slight performances issues.