The triumphant nakedness of Lego City Undercover

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All this time I was thinking it was the Indy, the Darth Vader, the Batman, the Aragorn and the Legolas. You’d think I would have wised up when I found myself enjoying a Lego Harry Potter. I don’t know a Hogwarts from a quidditch and yet there I was Harry Pottering it up, collecting spells, hoovering up studs, and exploring some sort of kid wizard academy.

And now here I am supergrooving on Lego Undercover City, a game divorced entirely from unLego licensing. I’m tapped into the gameplay 100%, without any preloaded disposition towards the setting or characters. Not that the setting and characters don’t matter. They do. The setting matters because it’s so inventive and varied. The characters matter because they’re well written and enthusiastically acted. Furthermore, this is a funny game, with clever riffs on pop culture and charmingly awful wordplay. “That’s one small step, foreman,” a NASA technician says to another worker when he stumbles. I laughed.

But there’s no licensing hook for me here and the big revelation is that I don’t need it.

After the jump, maybe I never needed it

Lego City Undercover is ample proof that Lego wasn’t good because it had R2D2 or Gollum or Jack Sparrow, but because it was good. And it’s never been as good as it is here, stripped of anyone else’s universe. The UK branch of Traveler’s Tales, formerly the guys who made handheld ports of so many of those licensed Lego games, has taken an unlabeled bag of Lego gameplay and created a imaginative, generous, marvelous flight of fancy with its own sense of identity and a steadfast confidence in the laidback appeal of exploring and collecting.

This city is sometimes San Francisco, sometimes Miami, sometimes Venice, but almost always interesting. Who ever thought a generically colorful Everycity would rival Lego Gotham for personality and explorability? Lego City is dotted with slots for aptly named superbuilds. These are constructed from a new resource that will ease stud inflation (mithril served a similar function in Lego Lord of the Rings). Superbuilds change the shape of the city and sometime even fold in meaningful gameplay changes. They almost always end up looking cool enough that you’re glad you built them.

Actually, there’s no reason to single out superbuilds. If you’ve played a Lego game, you know the long shallow gratifying progression curve, richly adorned with collectable unlockables and unlockable collectables. Oh, and gamebreaking red bricks, of course. And now vehicles with physics far more varied than they need to be for a game this lite. Some of the vehicles aren’t even vehicles. You’ll see.

The core gameplay is about alternating among different types of disguises — you’re undercover in Lego City, after all — which interact with the world in different ways. These disguises are doled out over the course of the storyline, introduced with missions that teach you the different puzzle pieces you’ve already seen around the city. “Oh, so that’s what that thing does,” you’ll say to yourself several times. Then you’ll go back to find it, and the several others you saw like it. Some of these puzzle pieces are exactly what you’d expect. The robber, for instance, uses a crowbar to pry open locked doors. But don’t assume you know what’s coming. There are some welcome surprises here. You know you’re going to eventually glide jump in an open-world game with tall buildings. But you don’t know, and you can’t possibly expect, and you’re really going to enjoy how you glide jump in Lego City Undercover, shot through as it is with creativity, style, and humor.

The WiiU gimmicks are pretty slick and unfortunately indispensible, which means you probably won’t be playing this on another system. You mostly have a map in your lap as you play, but sometimes you use the gamepad to peer into the city. You can even take screenshots and post them to the Miiverse, where they’re slightly less trapped than they would be if they were only on your WiiU. I should probably resent the WiiU gimmickry, because this is another rare game that’s far too good to be trapped on a Nintendo system.

5 stars