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Lego City: Undercover ::: Review

Lego games have steadily been getting larger. A long time ago in a game far, far away we were once blessed with a tiny cantina that formed our mini-fig’s hub world. Ever since then Traveller’s Tales have slowly but surely been growing their ambition: Indiana Jones had his museum; Harry Potter ran around Hogwarts and its grounds; and more recently the Hobbits toiled through a scaled Middle Earth to a blocky Mount Doom. All were impressive in their time but what Undercover achieves sets a new Lego standard.

To call Lego City a hub world would be doing it a great injustice; it’s a world in its own right. Streets filled with traffic criss-cross the map, flanked by towering buildings and minifigs out for a midday stroll. Residential areas filled with gardens and driveways give way to industrial docks on one side and a forest covered mountain the other. All the time all manner of cars, boats and trains make their way about town as you stand grinning like a buffoon in the centre wondering just what you can break first.

Though Grand Theft Auto may have done something similar over a decade ago, the childlike glee I find in watching these Lego folks stroll about town is unrivalled. It may be because I’m so used to branded experiences that seeing a “normal” Lego game is a novelty, but the charm that exudes from a city made of Lego can be seen built into every corner. Be it the tiny shop window displays, the snippets of dialogue you catch as you walk past others, or the comedy posters pasted onto billboards, each has a huge amount of care and attention lavish upon them truly flesh out the world.

This is helped further by the inclusion of some very large personalities. Until now the humour has always come from parodies on specific films, often giving sombre or dramatic moments a flippant retelling. Here there’s nowhere to hide as they tell their own tale of how you, Chase McCain, track down master criminal Rex Fury, but even before the end of the opening titles you know it’s going to be ok. Pulling in references from countless movies and mixing it with their own comedic writing they had me chortling before I even took control of Chase.

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It’s a theme that continues throughout and takes full advantage of being unshackled from a specific IP. Undercover plunders the archives of cop shows and cult films for sneaky references and gags, liberally sprinkling them about whilst managing not to alienate anyone who isn’t old enough to have seen the likes of Dirty Harry or Starsky & Hutch. It walks that fine Pixar-esque line, throwing in as much for adults as it does for kids and rarely fails. Where it does falter however is when its patently trying too hard, as a very tired Arnie homage proves later in the game.

Away from the cutscenes, it’s traditional Lego platforming fare, though split between the open world and the tighter, more controlled levels synonymous with the series. The latter unfold as you progress through the main story charting Chase’s pursuit of Rex, and it’s not long before circumstances have you swapping your police badge for miner’s overalls, fireman’s helmets, and an astronaut space suit as Traveller’s Tales take full advantage of all the Lego sets they can find. Whilst they fall into the usual Lego trope of each offering a unique talent, such as using dynamite or hacking down doors with a fire axe, the greatest relief is they’ve finally moved away from sending small children through hatchways.

However, although polished and up to their usual high standard, these self-contained levels do little to excite me as their formula is exceedingly well rehearsed. To a certain extent I feel I know exactly what’s coming and am going through the motions. Instead, where Undercover begins to sing is when you’re out in the open.

The city isn’t just well built but also chocked full of secrets. Stroll down any street and you’ll see ladders or disguise-specific actions trying to tempt you off of your current course. Some may be as simple as donning your thief outfit to break into a garage to steal a car, triggering a race back to the hideout before the police get you. Others may see you chain through most of Chase’s alter egos, taking you high above the streets collecting extra disguises, unlockable vehicles or mega-bricks. These rooftop detours are probably the most interesting as they lead you up and away from the city streets and allow you take in just how large and well laid out the city is. They’re a lovely piece of design too as one unlockable might lead onto the path of another, and another, and before you know it you’re a mile away from where you started.

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Embracing this unrestricted sense of platforming, free running is introduced to the series for the first time. Indicated by a smattering of blue and white blocks, they regularly appear on walls and fences across the land and encourage you to see where they might lead. Though effectively a rooftop time-trial, they show off some very slick animations, and if timed right you’ll be forgiven to thinking it’s Lego Mirror’s Edge as you fly around the city, bouncing off walls and sliding down zip wires.

With such a plethora of options – each disguise has a number of unique collectibles or activities on top of the car chases and foot races – it would be easy to miss things, but here the Wii U’s gamepad comes to the fore. Lego City’s police force are also issued a pad and holding it up in scanner mode will see Chase scan the area for secrets, marking them on the map for further investigation. Though not crucial to proceedings, it’s a nice added extra alongside the traditional map view that makes Undercover feel at home on Nintendo’s dual screen platform.

With so much going in its favour it’s a shame that I still have one large complaint. The Lego games are famous for their consistently well-executed co-op experience but here I’m left wanting. The technical pressures of rendering a full metropolis is far too much to have another viewport lobbed into the mix, and so whilst understandable it is a comparatively lonely experience.

Nevertheless, that shouldn’t detract from what has been achieved. For a long time, though amused by their takes on pop-culture, the formula was getting too stale for my liking. What Lego City does is blow that wide open. For the purists there are still the core missions, but away from those there’s whole world to explore. Take a sports car for a drive down to the harbour, run over rooftops in search of treasure, or just walk the streets and admire the mini-architecture on show.

There was a risk that such a venture would be style over substance but this is no lazy façade. The only thing lacking when compared to Grand Theft Auto are the guns. Yet what it has in spades over its more mature counterpart is so much charm that you’d wish Liberty City was made out of studs.

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Lego City Undercover ::: Hands On

We’ve all seen the Lego games. We know what Traveller’s Tales can do when given a tight, controlled level to fill out with their own brand of stud-based entertainment. But how are they with an open world?

Join us as we delve into the life of an undercover Lego cop, pushed to the edge, willing to dish out his own brand of justice… dressed as a gladiator and continually distracted by a festoon of collectibles.

Complete with Wii U gamepad picture-in-picture.

Lego Lord of the Rings

Once more in to Mmmmmmorrrrrrrrdorrrrrrrrrrr we go… Traveller’s Tales return with another in their highly blocky franchise, this time based around Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy. Some may say it’s just another Lego game but we pull in our resident Lego experts to see if that really is the case.

Lego Rock Band – Review

A few years ago, of all the licenses that could have been signed by a music game, a child’s set of building blocks must have been quite near the bottom of a rather lengthy list. We’ve seen Metallica, The Beatles and even Van Halen all attach their names to the current craze of plastic instruments and yet here we are with the oddity of Lego Rock Band. Cue gags about Bloc Party, Another Brick in the Wall and Block Rockin’ Beats.

A few years ago, however, we didn’t have Lego Star Wars, Batman or Indiana Jones. Each of which has slowly built the Lego brand into more than a Danish ambassador. The Lego world has developed a character all of its own with an unerring knack in distilling film plots into amusing cutscenes. It has taken three franchises and made them into family friendly experiences where prior knowledge is in no way a prerequisite. And it is this identity that EA have coveted in order to take Rock Band to a broader audience.

Traveller’s Tales have done a superb job in taking the traditional Rock Band experience and encasing it in a Lego bricks. Everything from the opening car chase cinematic to the menu’s background has been tweaked to incorporate blocks whilst still keeping the original’s essence. The biggest change, for it is still Rock Band 2 under this veneer, is in the story mode and its outlandish venues. Rather than clubs and stadiums it starts you off busking at the railway station and moves on to zoos, prehistoric caves, pirate ships, haunted mansions and palaces.

The Lego theme isn’t just limited to scenery however, and as you rise to stardom special gigs will become available. Some offer the opportunity to embody the likes of Blur, Queen and Bowie, all perfectly recreated in minifig form. Others will get your band to turn their hand to some rather specialist tasks. Were you aware that the power of rock can be used to banish ghosts, bring down buildings and even defrost explorers who became lost in the Arctic? No?

Although silly, the accompanying videos are packed with all the charm that you expect from the Lego series; the only negative being that you have to watch your stream of notes and not the unfolding shenanigans. Everyone in your band and management team can be seen capering about the stage with each and every one of them customisable. Currently my band has a peg-legged pirate on vocals, a ticket conductor on bass whilst a deep sea diver plays lead guitar on a par with Hendrix himself. As for me, the least said about my giant vegetable drum kit the better.

This is Blur. The one on the right is Coxen but I think he has just a touch of Harry Potter about him.

Despite all that, disappointment creeps in as Lego Rock Band is a twelve-month old product hiding behind a new wardrobe and it shows little sign of progression. Although tuned for accessibility – you can’t fail a song, there’s a super easy move, and drummers can ignore the foot pedal entirely – it still lacks basic features. There’s no option to jump in mid-song, or even mid-tour, and the Thomas brothers will once again have to fight over the drum sticks as the opportunity for two people to play the same instrument remains absent. These omissions are made worse by rival Guitar Hero having addressed them both.

Whether Lego Rock Band is for you will be down to an individual’s position. Those previously put off by the brand’s rocker image should put worries aside and start clearing space for your plastic band now. For Rock Band veterans, it’s a harder sell. Treating it as a bonus song pack will be dictated by personal taste but the clincher should be whether the enticement of having a band made completely out of minifigs can be resisted. Either way, what it does well is add a much needed sense of humour to what is becoming a formulaic experience.

Now do excuse me, I need to go and chase away an octopus from my lead singer’s ship.

8/10

Lego Rock Band

This week’s announcement of Lego Rock Band’s track listings and the option of exporting it out into older versions of Rock Band reinforced my faith in human nature; there are publishers developers out there who aren’t just trying to extract every possible penny from your wallet for minimal effort. Compared to Guitar Hero’s dozen or so releases in the last three years, each major Rock Band release has seen Harmonix jump through technical hoops in order to keep their brand as a platform rather than a batch of stand alone releases.

In a world where certain companies are willing to sell you unlock codes for items that used to be available through a simple button combination, or extra money in games you’re too lazy to earn it, it’s a refreshing gesture. Naturally there is a fee involved but considering when exporting Rock Band 1′s tracks to Rock Band 2 it cost less than a fiver for 60 songs it can well be considered one of the best value transactions in this digital age.

I gave up on Guitar Hero after, for the second game in a row, they wouldn’t let me import my old DLC into the newer game. It hardly makes for a fun social event swapping discs after each track, nor does paying for content that becomes defunct so quickly. Guitar Hero do seem to be sensing the error of their ways and are making efforts to amend the lack of song sharing, but it seems quite laboured by comparison.

Rock Band, Sing Star and even Hasbro Game Night are the direction social gaming should be going. Give me lots of releases, keep the content flowing, but also allow me to access it all from a single hub. Games that do so may suffer a hit from not featuring in retailer’s New Release section so frequently but as distribution turns more and more towards digital downloads that should become less of an issue.

Lego What Now?

After months of rumour and speculation Lego Rock Band has been confirmed. If there was one thing I thought those angular toys wouldn’t be able to turn their hand it would be the world of rawk but here they are strumming away on their pieced together instruments.

My first reaction was that this was a shocking cash in, a step down the Guitar Hero route that signalled the end of the franchise’s moral high ground. All they’ve done up until this point has seemingly put the fans first but was the temptation of the Lego cheque book too great? Maybe not, as on closer inspection it appears they are just reaching for a younger market. “Lego Rock Band combines the multiplayer music experience of Rock Band with the fun, customization and humour of the Lego videogame franchise packed with brilliant chart-topping songs and classic favourites suitable for younger audiences” claims the press release.

If this is true then it could be a master stroke by Harmonix. The Rock Band and Guitar Hero brands are both well known in the medium but from personal experience they can also be quite daunting. Whether it be the image they exude, the pricing or the perceived target age range, some are put off from grabbing a plastic guitar and strumming along. Over the last few years, though, Lego videogames have built up a reputation of being accessible and welcoming which could be exactly what is needed to bridge the gap. I’m not saying that everyone who bought Lego Indy is going to drop over a hundred pounds to join in but I can see more than a few of those currently on the fence finally deciding to do so.

My biggest disappointment, however, is the track listing. When the title initially surfaced I had visions of a playlist featuring Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall, The Judd’s Love Can Build a Bridge and anything from New Kids on the Block. What a missed opportunity.

Feel free to leave your own Lego based song suggestions.

Moving in with Rashberry

During my time at Rare I believe I’ve called six seperate offices my own, and am on the verge of claiming a seventh. During the development cycle, teams will grow and grow until the point of completition and then rapidly shrink as other projects plunder the resources that all of a sudden have a distinctly lighter workload post-launch. The Viva Pinata team are in that phase now, having launched before the Christmas rush we’re now of a size where we can consolidate ourselves in the top layer of one of our barns. On the up-side, I now get a penthouse view. On the downside, I have an awful lot of stuff.

When I was moving house twelve months ago, I made the mistake of bringing all my retro consoles and games into work to keep them safe during the transition. Since then they have made themselves very comfortable under my desk, embedding themselves to the point where I simply looked at them as part of the furniture rather than something I should return home.

What makes this scenario worse is that I’m now going to be sharing an office with our Team Lead, Rashberry. If there was anyone on our team who could rival them amount of bits and pieces I possess it is Rashberry. His collection tastefully takes in not only the usual gaming related paraphanallia but also a large selection of Lego Technic and Lego Train. Quite how how we are to compress all our belongings into a single office is not entirely obvious, although the thought of blending my assorted Halo tat with Lego does bring a smile to my face.

Wish me luck, I’m off to get a trolley.

Thunderous

One thing I never like doing is waxing lyrical about Rare’s own products. I obviously do do it on occassions, but I always worry that as I am in their employment it may either seem that I sound like a marketing bot. This, of course, is never my intention.

That said, my game of the moment is Banjo & Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts. This is basically the game Lego should have made as it allows you to take a handful of blocks and throw together some bizarre working machines and vehicles. I’ve already seen Eikzilla make fairground rides and Kindling recreate the Star Trek space crafts, whereas I have gone down a childhood route.

First up with have the Thundertank; my first stab at an interesting vehicle. Based off the tank from Thundercats I was tremendously excited when I found out I could actually get the arms to raise to reveal the weaponry underneath.

Next, may I introduce Thunderbird 2. This is my finest work. Not only does this aerial vehicle have the necessary drop pod in the centre, but that drop pod itself contains a detachable car that Banjo can ride out on once it has touched down.

In my head I’m already planning out exactly how many of the Halo vehicles I can make and just how the Indianna Jones boulder could be made. The workshop area of this game is currently sucking my life away. I love it and am now praying that one of my younger cousins suddenly gets Lego next week.

Edit: All screenshots can be found here.

Bricking it

Throughout Microsoft there are a lot of what I term “guff email rings.” Groups of people all subscribe to an email alias with the sole aim of talking crap on a variety of topics whilst inserting as many lolcats as possible into a single, off-topic thread.

Mostly they contain nothing but whittering noise but occasionally, just occasionally, an utter gem appears.

Ladies and gentlemen, in honour of this weekend’s Halopalooza, may I present to you the LH3FFK: The Lego Halo 3 Foundry Forge Kit.

Hats off to this man who has spent over $300 creating this fine piece of geekery where he is able to mock up his Forge creations on his dining room table before jumping into the map maker itself.