The License-Free ‘Lego City Undercover’ Is Full of Great Movie Moments
Shorn of a single franchise, this open-worlder nudges and winks its way to a plethora of fun references, and is one of the best Lego games around.
'Lego City Undercover' screenshots courtesy of Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Ostensibly aimed at the younger end of the gaming market though they are, I've long held an affinity for the Lego games. There's been at least one new one on shelves every year since 1997, and with original properties and licensed products combined, there are almost 70 titles in the catalogue to date. My favorites have included the Original Trilogy Star Wars game, Lego Batman: The Videogame (their one word, not ours, don't @ me), and the evolving Dimensions series of toy-to-life stories and "Adventure World"s.
I like these games because they're easy to enjoy—most play similarly, basic action-platformers with no-risk enemies and simple physics and logic puzzles. They're cool Sunday afternoon fare when you're too lazy to really try, and great to share with kids, either just as observers or as a stress-free player-two tag-in. The better licensed games have a lot of fun with the property in question, often slipping jokes in there that fly over the heads of little ones. Dimensions has been great for this—as I wrote before, The Lego Batman Movie story pack represents one of the best licensed video games I've played in years.
There's a new wave of Dimensions sets out now—and, much like previous ones, they're very aware of the game's parents-and-offspring demographic. So we have The Goonies to play through, with a level proper based on the brilliant 1985 movie, to add to the existing mix of contemporary and nostalgic franchises, from Adventure Time to Ghostbusters via Gremlins and Harry Potter.
But I'm keeping the incoming adventure with Mikey and Mouth—and Sloth, of course, who is the pack-in mini-figure—to the side right now, because of TT Fusion's fantastic Lego City Undercover, which after debuting in 2013 for the Wii U is now a multi-platform title (PC, PS4, XBO and Switch), available in a remastered guise. And while it carries no formal license, Undercover might just be the most enjoyable movie-referencing Lego game to date, constantly underpinning its missions with winks and nudges to famous television shows and feature films.
I really shouldn't have slept on Undercover until now—it's a cute open-worlder that effectively copies the Grand Theft Auto formula of exploring a wonderfully bright and vibrant city and walking into glowing hotspots to commence missions, only with a PG certificate attached. And while GTA's satire is often scathing, dressing its environments with cheap and nasty puns, Undercover's penchant for parody is expressed with a lot more affection, and family-friendly slapstick humor. This is evident from its opening cutscene, which takes a clichéd but chuckle-worthy swing at Titanic's schmaltzy bow embrace.
And from there, we get scenes that unashamedly, but absolutely unofficially of course, riff on the car chase from Mission: Impossible 2, Starsky & Hutch, the movies of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and so much more. The construction worker character Albert Spindlerouter constantly nearly quotes from the Austrian actor's best-known roles, including "get to the chopper" and that whole clothes business from The Terminator. When Undercover's policeman protagonist Chase McCain—who, alongside Sloth, has just been added to the playable Dimensions roster—is instructed to learn the ways of kung fu, his master is Barry Smith, an Adam Buxton-voiced analogue of The Matrix's Morpheus.
My favorite of all, though, is the Shawshank Redemption-aping third chapter of the game, set inside an Alcatraz-like island prison. Here, you meet Blue, who is Red in everything but name—he even sounds like Morgan Freeman, a bit, not too much that a lawyer might get itchy. There are other elements of the level that borrow from Frank Darabont's classic movie, including the playing of the same The Marriage of Figaro duet over the prison-wide PA while someone's locked in the toilet. It's just like the movie, but with a saucepan stuck on an inmate's head, obviously. What a cool way to kick off a short conversation with your kids about one of the best films of all time.
The licensed Lego games have to play by the licensed Lego game rules—have a laugh with the source material, of course, but stick to it, and don't do anything that's too, well, weird—Dimensions' purposefully mix-and-match characters and accessories aside. Undercover, in contrast, carries no attachment to any pre-existing franchise. It is its own, quite excellent hybrid—an original IP within the Lego brand, able to poke fun at, and laugh along with, all manner of recognizable (to older players, at least) shenanigans, while also painting its own, unique characters in appealing ways. Chase is a very likeable leading man, Frank Honey a bumbling comedy sidekick of sorts, and Forrest Blackwell makes for a suitably wickedly smiling main antagonist—though his British accent gives away his evil intentions long before its properly revealed.
I had no excuse to leave Undercover this long—I own a Wii U, and am always eager to pick up new(-to-me) games for it. Its origins as a Nintendo exclusive remains evident in the new release, with Chase's primary gadget basically a Wii U GamePad packed with video calling and different environment scanning capabilities, but now that it's out for all modern consoles, you, too, have no excuse to not give it a look. Caveat, of course: if you don't like the Lego games, at all, steer clear, because it has all that familiar breaking and rebuilding, pushing stuff around and collectibles grazing. Otherwise, Undercover is the perfect rainy afternoon attraction: kid-friendly GTA-ing full of fun references, with a laughing bag of gags and a glorious world to steadily smash into tiny plastic pieces.