Developer: Traveler's Tales
I’ve been a pretty big fan of the LEGO titles Traveler’s Tales has developed over the years, but even I’ll admit that most of the ports to handhelds have been poorly executed. I haven’t played all of the handheld versions, but what I’ve seen has generally been watered down, stripped of either hub or open world elements, and in general not the best way to experience any given LEGO title.
LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins for the 3DS looks to change that opinion, and does a pretty great job of doing so. Built specifically for the 3DS, and billed as a prequel to the Wii U game, you’ll play as lead character Chase as he works his way up from his first day on the Police Force in LEGO City. While not as visually impressive as the Wii U title preceding it, this is a far better handheld effort for LEGO titles than you’ve seen before.
The open-world setting of LEGO City remains intact throughout the 3DS adventure. The only real compromises are the limited draw distance and some lengthier loading sequences between city sections, so the overall driving and exploring aspect isn’t quite as seamless. But the mission structure here is definitely portable appropriate, featuring short bursts of gameplay that allow you to make some forward progression despite only playing for 10 to 15 minutes at a time.
But the game isn’t exceptionally short because of it. Each section of the game is divided across different costume themes, starting off with Chase as a standard cop, moving into an undercover role as a criminal infiltrating a prison, switching to a construction worker thwarting a local gang, and so on. Each of these sections is comprised of various missions, and unlocks a new core outfit for Chase that comes with unique abilities. Each outfit class has further outfits to unlock within, found by collecting hidden tokens and purchasing the outfit with the necessary LEGO bits you collect when smashing objects.
Every area of the city also has a number of side objectives to complete. You’ll have the option to scan the environment around you with a device, switching into first person mode and helpfully highlighting anything interactive nearby. Once you find an object, you can mark it on the mini-map for quick reference. The only thing I would have preferred about this is the ability to mark multiple objects at once for future reference, which doesn’t seem to be an option.
These objectives will require various costume classes to overcome, like the Farmer for Pig Cannons, or the Construction Worker for repairing items. You’ll need to revisit sections of the city over and over with new outfits to complete everything you see, but exploring the city and driving around is fun enough that it rarely feels like a chore. Even then this material is completely optional, so if you’re burned out on exploring, you can switch back to finishing up missions.
There are a handful of issues I have with LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins. One of those issues is that I found combat to be pretty bland, more so than your typical LEGO game experience. The LEGO series hasn’t really progressed much on combat in general; usually providing a button-mashing experience with limited death penalties. LEGO City does make a change here, giving Chase the ability to counter attack, grapple with enemies, and throw them around. But for run of the mill foes this actually makes combat feel a little slower, and I never encountered an enemy where there was any sort of real challenge. You have plenty of time to counter attacks, and enemies don’t try to actively avoid throws or grapples. Granted, this is surely meant to be friendly to a younger audience, but despite the changes the combat feels as bland as it ever was.
Also, previous LEGO titles, at least more recent entries, have had some pretty clever boss battles. LEGO City suffers here as well, featuring a number of on-foot and car chases that seem setting appropriate, but when you finally corner a boss you simply grapple with them, tap A to secure that grapple, and then throw them. You do this over and over again, usually 5 to 6 times, in order to win. This remains constant for a large number of boss fights. Gone are the puzzle elements and unique abilities, outside of some of the chasing bits.
I also ran into numerous issues where Chase would get stuck on small elevations in the environment. This was mostly an issue when walking through doorways, as the bottom part of the door seemed to be slightly elevated, meaning I couldn’t walk through but needed to hop past the obstruction. This is hardly a major issue, but became increasingly annoying over time.
All in all, this still remains a far better effort for the LEGO titles than what we’ve seen on 3DS, or any handheld before. Clearly building the game from the ground up with a unique scenario is the way to go. It’s a fun, bite-sized adventure that ties in nicely with the Wii U game, but doesn’t sacrifice the open-world setting outside of some minor technical limitations. Even if you’ve been burned by the ports of LEGO titles in the past, I can safely say that this is one LEGO adventure worth picking up for the 3DS.