My previous experiences with Undercover were more focused - have Chase McCain track down this person or head to a specific location. Build this. Break that. There's nothing wrong with any of that, but it was when I really started to explore a brand new city - one free from all the licenses and brands of the past - that this Wii U exclusive started to click.
I've always been a fan of the Lego adaptations, but Traveller's Tales clearly was chained by the needs of each license. A Pirates of the Caribbean Lego game, no matter how clever, would never exceed the ideas we'd already seen in those movies. The same applies to Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings or anything else TT has attempted. Even the DC-related games, despite being free to create original storylines for Batman and his super hero friends, had to operate within certain constraints. That is the secret behind why Undercover feels so fresh, despite being the latest in a long line of Lego games. And that freedom is mirrored in the gameplay.
It helps that moving around the world is incredibly intuitive and flexible. Just about all of your world movement, which includes a wide variety of free-running maneuvers like wall-jumps, wall-running and vaulting, is done by pressing the same button in context-sensitive situations. That simplicity allowed me to focus on exploration. I could wander along rooftops or down alleys, and if I saw the signature white-and-blue blocks, I knew more was just around the corner. Likewise anything clearly made of Lego bricks could clearly be smashed - and if it couldn't be rebuilt, I could count on acquiring Super Bricks, which contribute to building other things, such as pads capable of summoning vehicles for Chase, elsewhere.
Much of this isn't new to the Lego franchise. And Undercover isn't even the first Lego game to create a larger overworld to explore. But with Undercover, the possibilities are endless. This is the same humor and creativity of past Lego games, but now with the freedom to do anything and everything. All this time, Traveller's Tales has been waiting to showcase the full range of its talents, and just needed a reason to put that on display. And here we are.
Joining the bad guys would mean finding them, however. I did this by scaling a building, and using my police audio scanner when finally on the roof. I control the scanner through the GamePad directly, moving the tablet around the room, watching its screen to see a wireframe version of Lego City, detecting nearby conversations. By locking onto a signal and listening in, I could assess whether I needed to hear more - though even random civilian conversations proved incredibly funny. No surprise considering the developer and franchise.
My quest to join a manic, bi-polar mobster named Chan eventually had me distracting guards by finding the necessary items to start a nearby party, stealing an expensive car and eventually escorting a VIP to a nearby event. Some of this included the Lego franchise's patented 'break it and build it' gameplay, but each segment of the larger mission didn't overstay its welcome, and the diversity of tasks (fetching one minute, speeding through town the next) helped. Granted, this was but a small selection of content over the span of an hour, but between my assigned responsibilities and the larger scope of the city, which is more or less open more exploration from the beginning, I had plenty to do and never once found myself bored.
Towards the end of of my time in Lego City, I asked how much of the game I had completed. No doubt I had 'wasted' plenty of time with my tendency to smash into cars and chase civilians on the sidewalk, but I had focused enough to complete what seemed to be a lengthy segment of storyline. The answer? Approximately one percent of the game. Clearly there's quite a bit packed in here, including a vast array of collectibles and secrets spread throughout a giant city. (And if you're wondering, yes, there is a quick travel system via Lego City's subways.) That might almost seem excessive, but this Lego game has yet to overstay its welcome, and given the fact that it's not shackled by an existing story or property means it will likely continue to surprise me every step of the way.