As one of the world's best-selling and most popular toys of all time, LEGO has been a household name for over sixty years, inviting youngsters and adults to explore their own worlds by simply putting together plastic bricks. From city to desert, east to west and an ever-expanding roster of franchised sets, LEGO has always been a toy to build, break and play with. Continuing the experience in the video game realm has been the natural expansion. Over two decades there have been game adaptations of LEGO Harry Potter, LEGO Star Wars, sandbox open LEGO worlds, racing and even a house builder. With the LEGO range of video games, especially those crafted by Traveller's Tales, Nintendo has stepped in to build a vibrant, exciting and expansive LEGO-themed city with developer TT Fusion. With the Wii U version of LEGO City Undercover offering the bigger high-definition experience, what can the Nintendo 3DS take bring to the table?
During the Nintendo Wii U show-reel at E3 2011, Nintendo announced an exclusive deal for a new type of LEGO game that collates together the timeless LEGO City play-sets and weave these into a thrilling cop adventure for all ages. Undercover would play host to the different rescue themes, bustling urban environments, cars, police forces and vehicles available, whilst being driven by a story that involves taking down the bad guys. The result two years on is a family friendly approach to games like Grand Theft Auto, sprinkled with a dollop of 80s-inspired American police cheese blended nicely with dry British wit - slapstick for children and sophisticated for the LEGO fanatic that's all grown up.
At first glance, the Nintendo 3DS version looks almost identical to its high-definition brother and it could certainly be forgiven for thinking that the handheld edition is a simplified port. Well, in this case, TT Fusion decided to make the living room and portable experience complement each other more. Unfortunately, more often than not when scaling a project to the likes of the Nintendo 3DS, PlayStation Vita and mobile platforms, developers almost - pardon the pun - cop out of creating a substantial, console-like experience. However with LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins, the studio has crafted a prequel that, for the most part, works as a standalone story and as a stepping stone to the Wii U version. The charming high-definition and open 3D world in the Wii U experience has been shrunk down to accommodate the Nintendo 3DS hardware but still encompasses as much as possible to try and give the same level of control and freedom.
The Chase Begins, as the name suggests, tells the tale of a rookie law enforcer who goes by the name of Chase McCain. Unlike the Wii U version, McCain is an absolute nobody; another uniformed chap in a large, doughnut-munching police force. Initially fumbling around town to help save a doughnut delivery man, the new recruit ends up learning the ropes, saving lost pets and even going undercover as one of the goons. It's not all straightforward for the McCain, though, as the story develops into a far more complex tale than he would have imagined.
Though there are familiar elements for those who have played the Wii U version, the characters are also as they were several years before. The Chief of police now is a lady, her eventual successor still as loopy as ever, and Chase practically left to his own devices without much of a sidekick this time round. The dialogue is what brings the lead roles and non-playable residents and crime-lords of LEGO City Undercover to life, using a convincing and clever script to keep the action flowing yet slip in hilarious and highly memorable moments. However the exceptional voice acting in the Wii U edition has been stripped back for the 3DS release, only being found in a handful of rendered cut-scenes spread out throughout the main story. It's certainly not a game-breaking omission by any means, but a shame given the brilliance of the Wii U version's script, meaning a lot of the humour comes down to the text and facial expressions.
Storyline and dialogue to one side, LEGO City Undercover is both a game that's about exploring the city, getting from A-to-B, and part action. The Nintendo 3DS version focuses more on the smaller morsels of the bigger picture to try to appeal more to portable play and perhaps those shorter commute sessions. The majority of sequences involve fending off gangs of three or four enemies who will try to quite literally knock your block off, pursuing the ring leader or collecting something or other. Hunting down a parrot for a prisoner, returning stolen construction vehicles to a tea-drinking trio and using an RC car to escort a prison chief are amongst some of the zany missions on offer. There is perhaps less variety in The Chase Begins when compared to its bigger brother, slipping into repetitive shores from time to time, but includes digestible chunks that complement Chase's origins story well. The combat and driving mechanics are tight in execution - it's an enjoyable ride around town, and fending off foes involves either throwing or grappling, rounding things off with a well-timed handcuffing. There are moments, though, where the game's camera can struggle to effectively work with the player; the view can be rotated manually using the shoulder buttons, but during fixed positions it can throw movement off because it doesn't quite follow Chase from behind.
The rookie cop isn't strictly limited to using his dazzling smile and his fists, as new abilities become available as the storyline progresses by the use of costumes to change the way McCain appears. As a police officer he will be granted access to a grappling gun, a crowbar as a robber and a mining tool as a construction worker. These allow Chase to venture through locked doors, underground shafts and all sorts of other areas searching for collectables and storyline essentials. Whilst adding variety, especially in the latter stages of The Chase Begins, these can become tricky to work with on occasion; the multiple switching and unexpected use of weapons during combat becoming frustrating when faced with various baddies.
On the downtime between fighting crime, there are also moments in LEGO City Undercover where players will need to pursue bricks instead of baddies, bundling together as many "super bricks" as possible in order to craft new buildings or tools. It means punching through practically anything and everything within the bustling urban environment - benches, tables, chairs, computers - anything crafted out of LEGO. For the most part, these bricks are readily available and there isn't much disruption to the main game when trying to collect bricks - it's more seamless compared to the Wii U outing, for instance - however, it can become more demanding and repetitive as the game progresses.
Visually, LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins follows the same vibrant and delightful art direction as the Nintendo Wii U edition, weaving together both LEGO and more realistic elements into one seemingly endless cityscape. There is understandably less detail in the portable edition, but TT Fusion has brought as much of the world to the Nintendo 3DS as possible. Since the draw distance is far shorter here, blended away using a fog effect, it lets the game run at a smooth pace throughout, though there are tiny chunks of slowdown particularly when there are several vehicles on the screen at the same time. Top marks all round though for attempting to bring the console experience to a handheld, when other options could have been something potentially far simpler. As for the 3D effect, it is utilised well when there isn't much movement on-screen, but when driving, climbing buildings and pummelling baddies, it can become painful for the eyes and is much better switched down to low, or off entirely.
Short-but-tasty morsels offer a solid single-player experience on the move. There are issues with camera and repetitiveness at times, however. Primarily action based, there perhaps could have been more variety in the 3DS version, but still LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins is a well-constructed game that does well in bringing the console experience to Nintendo 3DS.
TT Fusion has done well in capturing the essence of LEGO and the Wii version of LEGO City Undercover in portable form. The large scale open world remains, and the action runs smoothly for the most part. There are minor slowdown issues when the action gets heavy, though nothing too game breaking. The 3D effect should be turned on sparingly though, and doesn't contribute too much to the experience.
The sound direction is, unfortunately, where the game tones things down a notch with only a handful of melodies available for driving or action sequences and it does feel repetitive and fast. The brilliant voice acting in the Wii U version is left only to the short cut-scenes and could have been used far better in The Chase Begins.
The single player campaign is fairly lengthy, expanding the world of LEGO City as players progress. Beyond the story itself, there are a handful of extras to complete and the whole town to explore when on the downtime. There are also StreetPass features to keep the game in action when on the move, allowing for costume goodies to be traded with others.
LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins is a well-rounded experience that complements the Wii U edition well. It offers a humorous storyline with plenty of action and exploration sequences. An ideal companion that produces short gameplay chunks to play whilst on the move and a lengthy solo campaign for those longer play sessions. Not without its faults, The Chase Begins is a worthy addition to the Nintendo 3DS roster.