The car chase has not been kind to me. There was the lamp-post that I hit pretty early on that took off the roof of my car, and then the corner that I took too tightly that swiped most of the back off. Someone on a motorbike hit the side of me and that knocked a few bricks off. I think that was probably when I lost the hood.
If we're being honest, perhaps a fire truck wasn't the best choice for a high speed pursuit, but one was trundling by and I blew my police whistle and the driver hopped out to let me use it. The way I see it, he can absolutely have his car back when I'm finished, although he's going to have to follow me down the street, scoop it brick by brick up in his arms, and reassemble it into a fire truck.
Describing Lego City Undercover to people, it'd be easy to talk about the city, or the puzzles, or the spirit the game radiates with every action. But you've got to start with what happens when you crash a car.
When you crash a car in Grand Theft Auto, the hood crinkles and smoke pours from underneath. Keep beating it up and you'll lose a door, or the windscreen will shatter, and eventually it'll burst into flame and that will be that. In a world made of Lego, though, things are much simpler. With each collision, the vehicles are unbuilt, revealing their boxy interiors and internal structure.
Soon, they are nothing more than a chassis, complete with shuddering engine block and startlingly unphased Lego driver. And then , in a shower of colorful bricks and studs, they explode. The first time the game revealed this process to me, I sat holding the controller and grinning, as I did whenever the game showed me something new or surprising or joyful. Playing Lego City Undercover is an exercise in grinning.
I like Lego games in the same way I like cheesecake, or the film Finding Nemo, or when a cat comes and sits on me. Experiencing these things are enjoyable and make me feel pretty good, but I won't usually go and seek them out; I'll come to them, or they'll come to me, and then I'll have a good—if not particularly memorable—time. Neither, too, can I experience them all the time. A cat sitting on you for too long becomes an imposition.
Too much cheesecake leaves a taste of lemon in your mouth. For a long time, I thought my favorite Lego game was Lego Batman 2, in which, let loose in a vast open-world Gotham, you rampage around while playing as seemingly anybody who has ever appeared in a DC property. When you're Superman and you're flying, the Superman theme swells behind you, and this sounds like a small thing, but when I picture the game I see a plastic man, tiny arms outstretched, buzzing a skyscraper to the sound of John Williams. Undercover is my new favorite Lego game, and when I picture it, here is what I see:
A policemen dressed in a robber's outfit gleefully driving a sit-on lawnmower. A bear, sleeping on a collapsed tent in a campsite. A large ferry building itself piece by piece. Three clowns robbing a bank. Lego bricks on Lego bricks on Lego bricks.
Lego games generally come in two flavors. You've got your Harry Potter or your Batman in which players traverse a series of large-but-manageable linear levels, engaging in basic-but-satisfying platforming or puzzle solving. You swing from vine to vine, or discover secret rooms, or use a character with a particular capability to Clear The Spiderwebs or Open The Hidden Door or Crawl Through The Small Gap Because They're A Dog. Everything makes an amazing sound whether it's being built or destroyed: The sound of Lego moving against Lego sounds like ice being shaken in a glass, or coat buttons cascading onto a table. It is deeply satisfying. There will almost certainly be a level in a mine. There will definitely be one set in some sort of station or transit terminal.
But Undercover is the other sort of Lego game. Here, between the linear levels, the player is let loose into an open world as intricate as it is gigantic that is filled—utterly filled—with things to do. The game is set in Lego City, a name so literal that it immediately evokes a sort of unselfconscious playfulness. What else would the city be called? Pedestrians on its streets say things like "I'm so GLAD I moved to Lego City!" and walking past them, I find myself thinking "me too, me too."
Across the city, hundreds of valuable "super bricks" have been scattered, and much of the interaction with the game involves hunting and collecting them, which sounds so immediately off-putting, doesn't it? We've collected so many collectables across so many open worlds that the prospect of picking up hundreds of Lego bricks sounds almost physically unappetizing. Undercover's handling of the super bricks, though, manages to solve two great problems of the open world game: First, it makes collectibles meaningful. Second, it makes the vast city feel full of an easy possibility.
Almost every super brick is tied to a challenge that has been placed seamlessly into the world. See that ladder up the side of the diner? If you climb up there, you can leap to the opposite building, swing across the flagpoles to the hotel, drop down through a skylight, open a safe and grab a super brick. Or that shipping container with the hole in the base? If you use the nearby terminal to send a tiny remote control car into it and solve a little maze, you can turn on the power to the nearby building and grab another.
Even describing this feels like I'm not doing it right. I'm using words like "collectible" or "challenge" or "platforming." I'm reaching for the language of video games and finding it coming short. At the same time, I don't mean to suggest that there's something profound or transformative about this collection of Lego bricks. It's just—nothing I can find conveys the loose playfulness involved in exploring this city or the gentle tug of curiosity that pulls me towards some colourful climbing frame strung across a city block. If we went outside and found a nice smooth stone right now, we wouldn't have Acquired A Collectable. If we raced each other to climb a tree we would not be Platforming.
At first, this overwhelmed me. Other than telling you how many things you've found, there's no quest log, no tracking system, no way to keep an eye on puzzles you haven't solved yet. On top of this, some of the challenges were essentially incomprehensible to me: strange glimmering blocks I couldn't interact with, purple icons I couldn't parse, a ladder hanging just out of reach.
As the game progressed, though, and I moved through its linear levels, I began unlocking outfits I could carry back with me into the open world. The miner breaks through the silver blocks with their pickaxe, the robber uses a crowbar to force open doors with purple icons. Becoming more familiar with this rhythm, what was overwhelming becomes almost tantalizing: This thing I can't use looks like a launchpad—am I going to unlock an astronaut? A tooltip I saw referred to a paint gun! When do I get a paint gun?
Here again, the rhythm is as easy as it is playful. There's no need for a quest log when any encounter can be solved within minutes of finding it, no need for a complex map when striking out in any direction will lead to something to discover. Undercover's city is substantially smaller in scale and fidelity than those of Grand Theft Auto or Assassin's Creed, but it feels infinitely deeper and more involving.
Playing Undercover is such an easy, uncomplicated joy
There is something comforting here. I could turn the game on now, and know with utter certainty that I would stumble immediately into something gently engaging and playful. Spend enough time with it, and I know too that the game will unveil some new surprise—an outfit that makes sense of that locked door outside the police station, something new to build from those piles and piles of Lego bricks. I've seen screenshots of planes and helicopters and I am so curious about what being able to fly is going to do to the puzzle designs, what surprises I'll find on rooftops.
Playing Undercover is such an easy, uncomplicated joy, and it's carried along by the sense of humor it demonstrates across pretty much everything. Lego games are usually powered by a sort of cheesy parody that relies as much on averagely-executed slapstick as it does very basic reference humor. The slapstick and parody are here, sure, but so is a voice cast that seems utterly committed to the tone of the game, as well as a script that is unusually quick and clever. It's not consistent—jokes don't land about as often as they do—but when they do, it's that rare thing: a comedy game that actually works.
I keep coming back to the word "gentle." The game is running on my television as I type, and I can hear pedestrians talking as they walk past my character. It is warm in Lego City, and its citizens are warm, and their lives are filled with either genuine contentment, ("This is the first day of the rest of my LIFE!" said a man, optimistically) or uncomplicated curiosity ("The POLICE have FIGURED OUT how the criminal ESCAPED!"). When trouble emerges, it is surmountable. "She put PICKLES in my sandwich," says another man. "She KNOWS I hate pickles."
People sit in the sun on the roof of the diner. A Lego dog barks, a Lego plane drones in the distance. Across the street, I can see a series of blue handholds that lead up to the roof of the hotel, and if I stand on the top, I'll get a great view of the city. I'll also get a super brick, almost certainly. And that'll be real good too.