When Lego City Undercover hit the Wii U earlier this year, it was notable for multiple reasons: it was the first major Wii U release in a long time, or at least, the first major Wii U release with any retail potential.
It was the first Nintendo published Wii U game since the system’s launch back in November. But perhaps most importantly, it was a fun and charming game, the kind that would appeal to all audiences across all demographics, exactly the kind of game that Nintendo is known so well for.
Now the promised 3DS edition hits the market: Lego City Undercover: The Chase Begins is a 3DS companion game to the Wii U title. It is not a port of that game; instead, it acts as a prequel to the story told in the Wii U game, set two years before, and showing us cheeky protagonist Chase McCain’s rise to power. However, the game is a victim of its own ambition: in trying to faithfully recreate the living, breathing sandbox of the Wii U game, it flies too close to the sun and pushes Nintendo’s much less powered 3DS to its limits.
There’s just a whole lot going on, and it’s clear the 3DS cannot handle it all: NPCs and cars disappear and reappear as you move away or towards them respectively, a fog effect reminiscent of similarly ambitious N64 games is used to cloud a horrible draw distance, pop ins and bad textures are common; adding insult to injury is the fact that the otherwise faithfully recreated Lego City is rather sparsely populated to begin with.
There is no voice acting outside of a few cutscenes, and this perhaps hurts the game the most, because the voice acting on the Wii U game is what gave it so much of its charm, personality, and humor. Here, the lack of voice acting really hurts the otherwise tight script, and the game’s humor seems juvenile without the expert delivery of the Wii U game.
In addition to all of this, The Chase Begins commits the cardinal sin of a Nintendo published game on a Nintendo system, most importantly, a Nintendo handheld: loading times. Players of the Wii U game will probably remember the well publicized long loading times that characterized the game (and pretty well summarized the system the game was on in a nutshell), and they’re back here. The loading times can often be several minutes long, and this is inexcusable.
On a system that uses cartridges (and the older players among us will remember how cartridges aren’t supposed to have loading times… right Nintendo?), this is unacceptable. On a handheld, this is unacceptable. From a player’s perspective, being forced to wait for a new area or building to load really dampens the impetus to actually explore the lovingly crafted Lego City that has been realized here.
To the game’s credit, it does do certain things really well. The 3D effect in particular, is beautiful: it acts like a window into a fully realized game world, and you peek into this diorama, a city that seems to be truly alive (or well, would be if the 3DS could actually support it); in addition, for all the other faults of this game, the frame rate seems to hold steady.
Perhaps even more impressively, this is truly a free roaming game, not segmenting the player to specific sections for specific missions. There is no hub anymore: Lego City is your playground, and you activate missions from there.
That might actually be the reason the game has so many concessions and compromises. The 3DS is a powerful little handheld, much more powerful than many people give it credit for, especially as games like Resident Evil Revelations and Kid Icarus Uprising prove. However, there are certainly limits to what it can achieve, and those limits are apparent here.
Maybe a different approach to making the 3DS game, maybe a more segmented approach, maybe setting it in an island suburb of Lego City that wasn’t quite as big, and therefore wouldn’t have taxed the system as much, would have been preferable here.
The Chase Begins’ shortcomings aren’t just limited to the technical side of things, however. They manifest themselves im other ways too. As mentioned above, the game’s humor and writing feel a bit flat.
This is a feeling that pervades the entire story of the game, which feels a whole lot more limited in scope and ambition than the Wii U game (an understandably frustrating feeling, considering that the justification for all the compromises the game makes is its ambition to be every bit equal to its Wii U sibling); and while this is a largely unfair accusation, the fact that the game’s first couple of hours, characterized by tutorial missions that have you performing such banal tasks as getting donuts, really further the illusion.
It’s a shame, because I really wanted to like this game. It’s beautiful when it works, it’s charming when the 3DS allows it to be, and it’s fun once it gets down to the meat of the matter. However, for once, a Nintendo funded game is a complete compromise on its handheld compared to its console sibling; the 3DS’s power has so far been enough to suffice for almost every kind of game that has been on it.
However, now, for the first time, two years into the system’s lifespan, this game may be the first indication that Nintendo needs a hardware refresh if it really wants its handheld to be a companion to its console.
Get Lego City Undercover: The Chase Begins for really young kids who don’t have access to the Wii U version. Otherwise there are multiple other, much better games on the 3DS for you to feasibly invest in.
This game was reviewed on Nintendo 3DS.