A policeman pokes his school-bus-yellow head from the side of a Hummer, waving a pair of handcuffs like a cowboy winding up a lariat. A Snidely Whiplash-mustachioed bandit in domino mask and knit hat races a red convertible down a highway, smashing through a police barricade as hundred-dollar bills go flying like confetti. No, I’m not playing a LEGO video game; I’m actually describing the cover shot of LEGO’s official tie-in play kit for LEGO City Undercover, a medium-sized cardboard box harboring 283 tiny discrete pieces of colorful, LEGO-ized plastic.
It’s a reminder of just how broad-reaching the LEGO-verse is, and the LEGO City series is just the latest incarnation of one of LEGO’s oldest, most popular building-block sets — one that dates back to the 1970s. It’s also the inspiration behind both upcoming Nintendo-exclusive games LEGO City Undercover for Wii U (out March 18) and LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins for 3DS (out April 21). I spoke with TT Games executive producer Loz Doyle about both games last week.
For those who’ve never played a LEGO game, tell us a little about LEGO City Undercover and how it’s being utilized uniquely on the Wii U.
This is by far the biggest LEGO game we’ve done, and while it’s quite easy to say that, it’s also completely packed with gameplay. With our last two games we had quite a big hub area. In LEGO Batman 2 we had a big city, and then LEGO Lord of the Rings obviously had Middle-earth, but they were both very much hub-based as a means to access the levels and go after unlocks. With LEGO City Undercover, the game takes place in the city, so it’s all about the city itself. We have some levels as well, 15 in all, but the majority of the gameplay and story takes place in the city itself. That’s a big departure for us, to basically do it the other way around.
It’s also our first open-world game as well as our first non-IP game, which meant that we had a lot of freedom with the story. We could create lots of cool characters from scratch without worrying about sticking to what other people were telling us to do, so that was quite nice. Obviously with the other IPs you have very strict guidelines on what characters are like, what they sound like, how they behave, how they interact with other characters, so it was really cool to be able to create a new story with these characters as well.
Your last game, LEGO Lord of the Rings, felt a little weightier mood-wise, which made sense given the subject matter. Should we expect more of a sandbox-gaming roast with LEGO City Undercover?
Yeah, there’s definitely a bit of that going on. We do a lot of parody in the story that you might not expect. For example, we parody The Shawshank Redemption, The Matrix, Goodfellas, Titanic, Starsky & Hutch and that’s just to name a few of them. We really, really go to town on the parody side.
That said, it’s a proper story with quite a lot of depth to it, and it took us a long time to write. There’s essentially an overall evil bad guy and a hero cop and a lot of fun characters you meet along the way. But it’s definitely got a lot of humor in it. Our scriptwriter [Graham Goring] used to be a standup comedian so he’s got loads of one-liners in the game as well as puns and gags. There’s humor in the game for both children and adults, very much like The Simpsons, so that sort of difference in comedy levels I think both sets of audiences will appreciate.
How off the rails can you go in the game? I mean, technically you’re a cop, not one of these seedier Grand Theft Auto type antiheroes, so what happens in LEGO City Undercover if you start crashing into stuff and running people over?
The great thing is that since everything’s made of LEGOs, it all just gets rebuilt again. If you drive down the road, it’s got lamp posts, bus stops and everything’s made of LEGOs, so yeah, you can just drive into it all. Then when you leave the area and come back, it’s all been rebuilt. The citizens of LEGO City have put it all back together again, because, well, they don’t mind.
It’s the same with the vehicles. You can smash into other vehicles and bits of LEGO fall off them until it’s just down to the shafting with the engine and a seat and a steering wheel, and the person that’s driving doesn’t really mind, they just carry on about their business. It’s also the same when it comes to getting into other people’s vehicles, because you’re a cop and you’re kind of famous. They don’t mind, they just jump out and say “Hey, that’s my car!” It’s very friendly in LEGO City.
The LEGO video games haven’t veered much from the series’ staple “smash-up, collect stuff, unlock stuff” gameplay over the years. What other types of gameplay can we look forward to in LEGO City Undercover that we might not have seen in the older games?
It’s kind of a bit of everything, really. There’s stuff that you’ll find familiar, so definitely smashing LEGOs, because people just love doing that. But yeah, we’ve definitely put in lots of different types of gameplay. We knew from the beginning that we wanted collectibles to be a major focus, and with the city being so large and so many different places you can hide collectibles, it seemed like a really obvious thing to do. To give you some idea for the scope of it, there’s 290 collectible character tokens, 110 collectible vehicle tokens, 40 red bricks and in total, there’s 450 gold bricks, which is way more than anything we’ve done before.
It’s when you say “I’m just going to stop the story for a minute and explore this area” that you really start to uncover what the game has to offer: lots of different types of gameplay for the different character abilities, lots of different collectibles, and not only do we have character abilities, we have things like free-running challenges where you use your skills to get across the rooftops against the clock. We’ve got races with around 20 different cars placed around the city and when you jump in those cars, the game says “Do you want to start a race now?” And you can race through the checkpoints to beat the clock there as well.
You can also dress up as different character types, so say you dress up as a robber, one of your city objectives is to steal 20 cars. Those cars are hidden in lockups, and when you find them, you have to get them to another lockup in the city, but you’ll have the police on your tail and they’re trying to smash into you and destroy the car before you get there. On the other side of that, as a policeman, you get to chase down vehicles escaping from you, sort of Chase H.Q. style.
Given that you’re Wii U-exclusive at this point, how are you using the Wii U Gamepad in the game?
Obviously there are lots of possibilities for the GamePad and we came up with loads of ideas, but in the end, we decided to use it as a police communicator. Near the start of the game, playing as Chase McCain, you receive a LEGO version of the Wii U GamePad in the police station. So whenever he’s using it, you’re using it as well to make the connection. We then broke it down into four separate modes.
The first fairly obvious one is the map where you can see the game world, scroll around the city, set waypoints for your sat nav and look up information about collectibles and challenges. The second thing is a communicator, so this is where you’ll interact with different characters like police dispatch, who’ll contact you to say such-and-such crime’s occurring down on the docks, you know, get down there, and various characters throughout the story will contact you on it to advance the story — if you forget, you can call them up to remind you what you’re supposed to do next.
The third thing is a police scanner, which you can use to not only find criminals in the city, but all the collectibles as well. So you might go down an alleyway, there doesn’t seem to be anything down there, you use the scanner and see there’s a token hidden in a bin or maybe a clue that you can use the police detective ability to kickstart a mission. And the last thing is a camera, which you can use to take photos of criminals to use as evidence against them, or just for fun, like taking photos of doing a really cool jump in a car or a really amazing crash where you smash up loads of vehicles. You can take those photos and upload them to Miiverse to share with friends as well.
You’re also designing the 3DS prequel game, LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins. What’s that been like?
It’s also a full 3D city, which is the first time that’s been done on the 3DS. To give credit to the team, they’re really pushing the 3DS hardware as hard and as far as it’s possible to go. Having a full 3D city on the 3DS is really quite an achievement, you know, a full traffic system with pedestrians, lots of gameplay, lots of free-play when you unlock different abilities. It’s a pretty incredible experience on a handheld.
How big of a city are we talking in the 3DS version? How, for all the open-world game wonks reading this, would you say it compares to a city like the one in Grand Theft Auto IV?
It’s hard to quantify, but it’ll take about 10 minutes to drive around the perimeter of the city, so it’s quite big. It’s not as big as GTA, but the difference is that we not only have a lot of gameplay at ground-level, we have a ton of gameplay on the rooftops as well. When you learn your free-running abilities, you can climb on top of pretty much all the rooftops and there’s loads of gameplay up there, so we have that dual layer approach going on. Not only that, we’ve got 15 levels as well, so it’s like a whole LEGO game on top of a city.
Where did the idea for an open-world LEGO game come from and how long have you been working on it?
We’d wanted to do a LEGO City game for quite a few years, even back when we were doing LEGO Star Wars. That’s when we started looking at what we could do with LEGO City, because the city range is LEGO’s biggest selling range. It was always something we were keen on doing, we just weren’t sure what the game would be. Initially I think we thought it would be a construction game or maybe like a SimCity game where you could build a city yourself. We were kicking those ideas around for a few years, and obviously we had the IP games rolling in and out, so considering that we didn’t have a solid idea, we didn’t really want to commit a team to it at that point.
It was in 2010 that we started to prototype something, where we had a development team free and we started messing around. We built a small city, we put some cars in with some pedestrians and started to play around with the camera, but we still didn’t really know where it was going.
So when Nintendo came in and showed us the Wii U GamePad, that’s when it really started to come together. When Nintendo revealed the specs of the console and how much RAM it would have, it meant that we were able to say, “You know what, we could do a full open-world city game here.” From there, especially with all the ideas we had for the GamePad, everything just fit into place.