Is "Lego City Undercover" "Grand Theft Auto" for kids, as it's been described by everyone who's described it? Yes -- for better and for worse.
"Undercover" is more pleasant than "GTA." It takes place in a sunnier world, and is brimming with "Family Guy"-style pop-culture satire that will come as no surprise to anybody who played the joke-filled Lego games based on "Star Wars" or "Harry Potter."
Indeed, a world made of toys might be the ideal setting for a "GTA"-type game. One of the most irritating things about "GTA" -- that you can steal cars and smash through telephone poles without anyone caring -- is immediately neutralized here. In Lego City, you can plow into people, cars and buildings with impunity, because everything's made of plastic bricks and can be put back together again, so no harm done. And, like fellow "GTA" ripoff "Sleeping Dogs," "Undercover" inverts the narrative so you're playing as a cop instead of a robber. This way, you're not stealing the vehicles you're stealing; you're commandeering them for a "police emergency," as protagonist Chase McCain blithely yells when you kick people out of their cars.
But with the game's pleasantness comes a price. Think of "GTA" as bowling, and "Undercover" as bowling with bumpers. "Undercover" re-creates San Francisco -- well, a version of San Francisco with pyramids and a spaceport, so no Lego theme is left behind -- but doesn't let you experience it the way you might want. Take jumps, for instance. Going airborne in "GTA" is a natural byproduct of the landscape and the way you're driving. Ramps in "Undercover," on the other hand, act as boosters, shooting your car into the air as the camera cuts to a dramatic angle; the jump itself is the same every time, regardless of your speed or angle when hitting the ramp. Another example: Early in the game, you get a grappling hook -- but soon learn you can only use it at designated grappling points that are few and far between. It's one of the many ways "Undercover" pretends to give you new abilities when it's actually forcing you into autopilot.
|'Lego City Undercover'|
|» System: Wii U|
|» Price: $49.99|
|» Rating: 3 out of 5 stars|
"Undercover," like the Lego games based on movies, also relies too much on smashing things to collect little plastic bits, Lego City's currency. Every time the game gains some momentum, it slows itself down with sequences where the object is to go up to inanimate objects and hit the attack button.
All that said, the Wii U's first major game since its November launch is worth the wait. "Undercover" is a cheery, bloodless alternative to "GTA" that's funnier than it has to be, and like its inspiration, hard to put down because there's an endless stream of amusing things to do. We look forward to a sequel that stays kid- and adult-friendly but takes off the training wheels.