Is Lego City best experienced by getting lost, or by following directions? Maybe the answer is doing both.
I had to tear myself away from the Lego City demo 15 minutes before my time was up. I had been given a choice: continue exploring the ready-made demo save file they had set up for me or start a new save file and see how Nintendo and TT Game's open-world Lego extravaganza starts out. I put down my GamePad, and politely asked to see the game's beginning.
Within a minute of the game's opening cinematics, I had encountered both a Wilhelm scream and a "Titanic" "king of the world" reference. After the intro cinematic concluded with undercover cop Chase McCain returning to Lego City, Nintendo's J.C. Rodrigo cheerfully gave me the impression that I'd actually missed out on many more references. (Can anyone tell me where I heard the line "That'll buff right out" before? It's driving me bonkers!)
Humor is shaping up to be a hallmark of this game, and more than once I couldn't help but crack a grin as the game's lighthearted dialogue played out. Even in the middle of active gameplay, there were opportunities for witty banter, calling to mind the constant tongue-in-cheek back-and-forth of last year's Kid Icarus: Uprising. And learning how to use a newly unlocked audio listening device, McCain suddenly started voicing his own noir-style internal monologue, even as the NPC he was conversing with protested that she was still there. Trying to use my new tool to eavesdrop on a distant criminal conversation, I stumbled upon an unrelated conversation that seemed to serve no other purpose than to reward me for my curiosity and add flavor to the world of Lego City.
And in my hour spent with the game, Lego City definitely seemed a world unto itself. Since it's based on Lego's own original franchise (the buildings in the game are sourced from real-life Lego construction sets), one gets the feeling the game's creators were given freedom not just to craft their own unique setting and story, but also pour as much unbridled creativity into as many corners of the game as possible. For example, instead of careening off to complete my next mission, I decided to park my car, hold up my GamePad, and activate my scanner, resulting in an X-Ray vision view on my GamePad screen of the real world on the TV. The GamePad's screen highlighted some secret collectibles and puzzles that I might've just zipped by!
One of the hidden collectibles I discovered was just out of reach (I hadn't unlocked the necessary abilities to nab it yet, but the spot was automatically marked on my map so I could return later), but the other was locked behind a series of mini-puzzles. In order to destroy the statue of ace criminal Rex Fury, I had to get some dynamite. To get the dynamite, I had to use a curious but convenient dynamite vending machine. In order to use that dynamite vending machine, I had to tap a button and switch to my miner's costume.
But in order to get the dynamite to the statue, I had to unlock a door. To get the key, I'd have to find where it was stashed nearby. To find its hiding place, I had to follow a series of footprints with McCain's in-game GamePad acting as a blacklight. And in order to activate that black light, I had to switch to my police costume at a glowing, context-sensitive circle nearby.
That may sound like a complex sequence, but realizing that such a meaty puzzle had been hidden right around the corner was impressive. It managed to have me use my GamePad, the game's costume switching (and contextual ability switching) system, and a little follow-the-footsteps sleuthing and exploration. And it had all been completely optional.
Nintendo's J.C. Rodrigo and Krysta Yang informed me that Lego City: Undercover had easily hundreds upon hundreds of collectibles to dig up. (To impress upon me the sheer magnitude of stuff in the game, J.C. rattled off a quick but incomplete list of items, including silver statues, vehicles, character/clothing options, Lego studs, Lego bricks, gold bricks, red bricks, super bricks, super builds, etc.) Even crashing into and breaking apart objects all over the game world also composed of Lego blocks yielded the collectible studs and bricks I used as currency to unlock or build even more things in the world. It seemed like going off the beaten path in this game could potentially yield ample rewards. It also seemed like, depending on your mindset, this could either be heaven or hell for compulsive completionists. J.C. admitted to me he'd spent more than 60 hours running around various in-development versions of the game and was hoping they wouldn't take his current test version of the title back anytime soon because he was still having fun digging through content.
But it seems like care has been put in the game so that if you don't want to get lost, you won't. Almost the entire city may be at your fingertips from the moment you start playing, but as I played the demo I always had clear objectives for how to advance the storyline. This clarity is aided in a large part by the Wii U GamePad often functioning as a combination map and GPS navigation system. I need only touch and drag to scroll and zoom my GamePad city map, and indicators easily point me towards my next destination. Tap and hold down on that destination, and a green line appears on the map drawing a path through the city streets. Look back up to the TV, and that green line shows up as a route of green dots hovering in the middle of the road, making navigating to a destination across the city just about the easiest thing in the world. I felt perfectly safe with so many guidance systems in place, safe both to lose myself off the beaten path, and safe to jump right back into the story missions any time I wanted to.
Most of the demo focused on this concept of Lego City as an open world chock full of missions and side missions, collectibles and content. But I also noticed a lot of smaller touches. I could tap the X button to jump with vehicles even as I was rocketing down the road (But watch out! I tried to vehicle-jump into a bus, only to end up as a passenger!). I got into a vehicular chase with a bad guy, and after totaling his vehicle got to run him down on foot, then use the A button to trip him up and cuff him. I spotted the game's color-coding for free-runnable environments—blue and white—on some pipes and scaled to the roof of a building. I was informed of the existence of, but never got to actually see for myself, Albatross prison, which was on an island somewhere out past the docks and bridges. I got a tiny peek at the game's many unlockable clothing options and vehicular unlocks. And I was just able to scratch the surface of the game's system of switching outfits for Chase McCain as a way of expanding his contextual abilities, be it using grappling hooks, detecting footprints, or utilizing dynamite.
Oh, and I also noticed the game's support for subtitles throughout its extensive spoken dialogue, witticisms, and banter. I could turn it off, but I happen to like subtitles, and I happen to think they'd be useful in the future for whoever else is sitting beside me as I get lost in the world of Lego City: Undercover.