If there’s a kind of game you wouldn’t expect on the 3DS its a large city-wide Grand Theft Auto-ish open world sandbox adventure. That’s exactly what TT Fusion tried to squeeze into the small form factor of Nintendo’s portable console with LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins. Unfortunately the keyword here is “tried”.
The game follows the adventures of a young Chase McCain as he joins the LEGO City Police Department and sets up to clean the city of every thug, gangster and lowlife terrorizing its streets. To make things harder Deputy Marion Dunby hates him as much as he loves doughnuts, and doesn’t hesitate to send him to perform the most lowly tasks, that often turn out being the cue for much greater deeds.
Chase will have to put a stop to the crimes of the infamous Rex Fury while dodging the evil eye of his direct superior, building stuff with LEGO all over the city and possibly hitting on the customary beautiful (for a lady made of LEGO at least) TV reporter. Sounds complex? It isn’t, but it’s plenty to give us a lot of things to do, especially compared to most portable games.
The plot is enriched by a colorful and likable cast. You could define most of the characters quite cheesy and stereotyped, to be completely honest, but that’s pretty much the point of LEGO games. Luckily the writing is great, and that turns most of the cheesy parts into actually funny and enjoyable skits.
What’s unfortunate is that (unlike the Wii U’s “big brother” LEGO City Undercover) there’s very little voice acting, a flaw that often softens the impact of the most humorous lines that seem to be written to be actually spoken. They aren’t, and they simply aren’t as funny when you have to just read them.
When I said that TT Fusion “tried” to squeeze an open world game in the 3DS I meant it. Some major compromises have been made in environmental design and graphics.
Characters and vehicles look good and the cutscenes are lovely, but the positives pretty much end there. Environments are terribly drab and underdetailed, with flat low-resolution textures and low-polygon models that simply fail to match up with the idea of a place built with LEGO.
The sensation of driving around a ghost town is exacerbated by the fact that the streets aren’t very populated both in terms of cars and pedestrians. Forget the crowded lanes of Liberty City, because LEGO city is as bustling as a sleepy countryside village. Add to that the extreme abuse of distance fog (that in LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins would be better defined as “way too near fog”) to reduce the polygon count and match the limited hardware resources and you get a rather bleak picture, quite literally.
In addition to that the city isn’t really “open world”. It has been split in several areas to ease the load further, and moving from an area to the other (or from exterior environments to interiors) triggers long loading times that turn exploration into a bit of a chore.
Considering all those compromises you’d expect a spotless performance, but that simply isn’t the case, as the game suffers from very visible framerate drops in several occasions. While the attempt to push the 3DS to its hardware limits is laudable, I can’t say that the result can be defined a success.
If you can look past the visual hiccups and the long loading times, though, there’s definitely something quite good to be found in LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins‘ gameplay. The structure is very similar to your familiar Grand Theft Auto, with a series of story missions between which you can enjoy roaming the city (until you hit the border between two areas, that definitely spoils the enjoyment at least a little bit) to find find secrets or simply wreak some havoc.
An interesting twist is offered by the game’s disguise system. Each area includes a themed disguise that will basically change Chase’s abilities in order to let him access different areas and bonuses. In his usual detective clothes he’ll be able to follow otherwise invisible footprings or use a grappling hook. As a robber he’ll manage to unlock safes or steal cash from ATMs. While wearing astronaut gear he’ll have access to a jetpack and so forth.
There’s a large number of disguises and all of them are visually customizable by finding secret variations scattered all over the city. While the cues on what disguise you have to use for every puzzle are a tad too obvious, they mix the gameplay up and add variety to Chase’s missions.
The only drawback is that following the story you’ll find a lot of secrets that won’t be unlockable until you find disguises that will be available much later in the game, adding to the longevity of the adventure but also triggering a lot of backtracking that could be a dealbreaker for those with shorter attention spans.
Missions are nicely paced and normally fun, often spiced up by a large serving of puzzle platforming. They’re also rather short, but this is more of a perk than a flaw, as it fits a portable game quite perfectly, letting you enjoy content in short bursts instead of forcing you to pause in the middle of a mission when you have to leave the subway or when your lunch break ends.
Luckily no task will force you to cross the limits between different areas, meaning that the frustration due to the long loading times is somehow mitigated by the fact that you don’t strictly need to encounter them often enough to make them unbearable.
The fact that the game is aimed to a rather young audience is most evident in the complete inability to fail. If you wreck your car you’ll instantly get a new one. If you die you’ll just lose a few coins and immediately resurrect. Criminals running away will actually stop to wait for you if you get left behind… You can get stuck if you can’t find your way around some of the platforming puzzles (that are normally rather easy and telegraphed anyway), but if you want a challenging experience LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins simply isn’t the game for you.
You’ll often find yourself having to go toe to toe against bands of thugs, and while combat offers a variety of moves, the way to trigger them is a tad obscure and randomly button mashing will get you pretty much through every situation. The bosses you’ll fight at the end of each area of the city are definitely more interesting, as each of them features a peculiar mechanic that you’ll have to figure out in order to win.
Ultimately most of the fun of LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins is found in how much it tickles your collector’s fancy, providing myriads of unlockables scattered all over the place. The game is definitely very rich in its content, and managing to collect everything that can be collected and unlock everything that can be unlocked will keep you busy way more than enough to make the purchase worthwhile.
The ability to actually build objects and structures with the LEGO bricks you’ll find along the ride and the limited power to actually change the face of the city spice things up further. I would have liked to see it used more, with a higher variety of constructible elements, but it’s definitely something LEGO addicts can look forward to.
LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins is not a masterpiece, and it’s visibly inferior when compared to its big brother on the Wii U. That doesn’t make it a bad game, and there’s still quite a lot to be enjoyed if you don’t let the technical shortcomings and compromises discourage you.
It belongs to a genre that you rarely find on the 3DS, and I have to give props to TT Fusion for even attempting it. The depth of content, the variety of missions and disguises, the puzzle platforming, the funny story and the delightful humor turn it into a viable purchase at least for those that want to enjoy a (semi) open world game on Nintendo’s portable and even more so for those of us that love LEGO games. The franchise really needed a bit of a twist and LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins does provide a refreshing breeze of change.