A flawed foundation underneath a strong building.
Lego City Undercover for the Wii U is probably one of the best games I've played in a long time. It has a huge city to explore that's full of activity, tons of collectables, and top-notch writing and humor. After finishing it, I was really excited to get my hands on the 3DS prequel, Lego City Undercover: The Chase Begins, and see where our hero Chase McCain got his start. After completing the game, I can say that the game is very ambitious, but it's still a few bricks shy of a load.
The Chase Begins is set two years prior to the events of the Wii U game. Chase is a rookie cop trying to make a name for himself in the Lego City Police Department. It's an open-world game in the sense that you can do the game's various missions at your leisure and are free to explore the game's city at your own pace. Unfortunately, the game has to load each of the game's neighborhoods, which take up to two minutes to do so, making exploring the city more of a chore than anything else. Thankfully, when you're doing a set of missions, it never asks you to venture outside of the neighborhood you're already in.
The mission structure of the game is very basic. At the start of each chapter, you're given access to a new “disguise,” which gives you a special ability. For example, the Robber lets you break open doors and use a paint gun, the Construction Worker lets you fix electrical equipment and use a jackhammer, and the Astronaut lets you use a jetpack in specific areas. After getting said abilities, you are sent on several missions that utilize the newfound ability, but quickly devolve into “Go to glowing spot and use ability” or “Go to glowing spot and beat up criminals.” The focus is more on combat, as criminals show up frequently and require too many hits to fully take down. You can't really use any of your special abilities against the enemies other than to stun them, so you're stuck with constantly tossing and kicking them, which gets old very quickly.
Before and after you complete those sets of missions, you're treated to a fully voice-acted and animated cutscene with Chase and anyone else that's involved with the specific area that you're in. While these scenes are entertaining in their own right, I wish that same attention to humor, character, and charm was transferred over to the main game. The writing, aside from some clever wordplay in the mission titles, is about as generic and literal as you can get. Everything outside of those cut scenes have a stark lack of emotion, voice acting, or any type of sound outside of some ambient noise, so it is hard to care about anything. The music outside of the dialogue exchanges is lifted straight from the Wii U game, though highly compressed. Still, the ‘70s cop-drama-influenced soundtrack is a good fit for the game, and adds some much-needed tension to the game’s action sequences.
Since it is a Lego game, unlockables are plentiful across the open world, including different costumes, new cars, and special red bricks that give you special bonuses like extra racing missions and stud (the game's currency) multipliers. You'll need studs that you find on the sidewalks, after defeating enemies to buy the various unlockables, and bricks (the game's secondary currency) to buy new landmarks and calling points for all the cars you've unlocked. While it's nice that the game gives you plenty of stuff to unlock, it's ultimately useless, as they give you no real advantage to progressing in the game's story. I was able to complete the entire game in about six hours, and never felt like I was being held back by a lack of abilities or extras.
But the sticking point for everything that is wrong with The Chase Begins can begin and end with its atrocious load times that put the Wii U version to shame. Starting the game up can take up to two minutes, and loading each individual neighborhood can take up to a minute and a half. The game also suffers from a very low draw-distance, which is hidden by various fog effects and pop-in of the game's cars and citizens. The graphics otherwise are colorful and appealing; it is still technically impressive how much of Lego City the system can show. However, the game suffers from constant dropped frames and and general hiccups, as the game can just stop for up to three seconds once you hit the attack button so it can load the appropriate animation.
Overall, the game isn't a complete travesty, despite all of its issues. It controls well enough, and is generally fun to play in short spurts, but I can't really recommend it to anyone that's not a child, as it's just a bit too basic. Especially if you have the Wii U version of the game, do not double dip for the 3DS prequel, unless you want to know everything about Chase McCain. Otherwise, Lego City Undercover: The Chase Begins is, woefully, just another brick in the wall.