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game review

While McCain often has to break the law to perform his duty, this is still very much a kid-friendly, goody-two-shoes game. When he steals a truck, for example, McCain radios his bosses and requests that they compensate the owners. He’s a good guy through and through

Everything you need to know about Lego City Undercover can be found in one line of dialogue, delivered by its hero, Chase McCain, while rooting around inside the jail cell of Rex Fury, his arch-nemesis. The con has escaped from prison and McCain, a tough-as-plastic cop, is investigating his old digs, which are mysterious in their luxuriousness. It seems Fury had something over on the warden, if all the amenities are any indication. There are comfy couches, a hot tub and even a juke box. McCain is taken off guard, but the ever-smirking lawman always has a quip at hand. "A jukebox in a jail cell? I guess that means it's full of… criminal records."

It's the sort of one-liner that might go over poorly at a comedy club or on a TV show, but in the absurdist world of Lego games – where little yellow men build spaceships out of virtual plastic bricks and shoot pigs out of cannons – it's hilarious. On hearing it, I'm ashamed to admit I did a spit-take all over my coffee table.

It's just one example of the type of zinger-driven humour that Lego City Undercover brims with. A girl steps off an ocean liner and is asked, "What brings you to Lego City?" She replies: "Uh, this boat?" Meanwhile, McCain – having just rescued a damsel in distress – lands a chopper on a rooftop and proudly proclaims, "I guess now we know that I can fly a helicopter." When it then takes off by itself and crashes into a nearby building, he sheepishly adds, "And I guess now I know that you have to turn it off after landing."

Traveller's Tales Lego games, with their goofy comedy and clever puzzle solving, have for years been a breath of fresh air in a medium dominated by violent shooters and slashers. While the games have been aimed at kids, they've also appealed to adults who like their games to be a little lighter on the testosterone.

Lego City Undercover is all of that, writ large. It's also ironically a spoof of one of the most violent and adult-themed of game franchises, Grand Theft Auto. There's no doubt about it – this is Grand Theft Lego, minus the hookers and drugs.

McCain patrols the streets of Lego City, a large, open-world sandbox based on the toy franchise and, more or less, real world San Francisco. Traveller's Tales made strides toward this sort of open-world concept with its previous two games, Lego Batman 2 and Lego Lord of the Rings, but Undercover sets a new level of grandiosity.

Official statements from Nintendo say it'll take an experienced virtual driver at least 10 minutes to get around the city, but in reality that's impossible – there's just too much to see and do. From Chinatown to Albatross Island (more word play, this time on Alcatraz) to the nearby forest and farm lands, the environments are varied, colourful and easy to get lost in while searching for the vast multitude of hidden puzzles and treasures.

Helicopters and speed boats also open up new areas both above and below Lego City. Like any good open-world game, it's easy and worthwhile to get distracted from your main objectives with all the side missions and collectables.

One big difference in this game is that many of those side missions are actually inaccessible until the main story has been completed. That's because, as the game's title implies, McCain must go undercover in his pursuit of Fury, which leads to a closet-full of disguises that would make the Village People proud. Through the course of the story, McCain dresses up as a construction worker, miner, fireman, farmer, astronaut and burglar.

Each disguise confers different special abilities. The astronaut outfit, for example, lets him use teleport pads, while the farmer get-up lets him grab a chicken to glide long distances. Yup, more wacky humour.

As in other Lego games, the puzzles are based around figuring out how to use these various abilities in conjunction with each other to reach new sections of a level or to acquire certain items. The story is carved into chapters, which are the more linear-type levels seen in previous Lego games. McCain must traverse the open city to get to these self-contained chapter levels.

There's a lot of driving challenges and some cartoonish fisticuffs, neither of which is particularly hard or exciting. Instead, Lego City Undercover draws on puzzles and some exhilarating platforming – McCain often has to scale tall buildings – for its thrills.

The humour-packed story is a big draw. Aside from the one-liners, there are also laugh-out-loud spoofs of numerous movies, including The Matrix, Goodfellas and Shawshank Redemption, complete with a voice actor who sounds eerily like Morgan Freeman. Speaking of which, the game features fantastic voice acting in general, with some further great sound-alike performances in specific.

A William Shatner impression-as-voice-over provides updates on the snack situation aboard the Lego space shuttle as McCain explores Apollo Island, while an uncanny double for Arnold Schwarzenegger guides the hero through his training as a construction worker. He does so while spouting goofy lines referencing his movies: "I know, it sounds like you got a raw deal… it's because you're expendable." I was laughing myself silly.

While McCain often has to break the law to perform his duty, this is still very much a kid-friendly, goody-two-shoes game. When he steals a truck, for example, McCain radios his bosses and requests that they compensate the owners. He's a good guy through and through – I kept waiting for him to question his loyalties, like the cop protagonist did in last year's similarly plotted Sleeping Dogs, but it never happens.

The story's finale, which follows another spoof – this time of Aliens – is strangely beautiful. I won't give away any details, other than to say that the visuals and music combine in a dramatic and moving way. I wasn't expecting anything like this to show up in a humour-driven game.

Just like its predecessors, the end of the main story is really only the beginning of the game in Lego City Undercover, since it's only then that players have full access to McCain's abilities. From there, they can delve back into individual chapters to unlock all the previously inaccessible sections, or solve all the other puzzles scattered around the open world.

The story took me about 14 hours to complete, and the progress meter showed I was only 24 per cent done. I'm a completionist when it comes to Lego games, which means I've got many, many more hours to go. We're talking Skyrim hours.

Lego City Undercover is, at least for now, a Wii U exclusive. So far in the early life cycle of the new console, we've seen a number of pre-existing games re-released for it with added features that make use of its advanced controller. In many cases, however, these additions have felt tacked on – they were just extraneous features stretched out to make the gamepad's many abilities feel relevant.

This game feels a little different, with the gamepad incorporated in several interesting ways. For one, McCain gets video calls from his superiors and allies on it. Rather than popping up on the TV screen, communications take place on the controller – there's a slight element of immersion by having the audio come out of it.

The gamepad also doubles as a map of Lego City, which saves you from having to pause the action; a quick glance down tells you where you need to go. It also acts as an augmented reality scanner – hidden secrets can be found by holding the controller up and moving it around.

It may be because there's no other console version to compare against, but the extra abilities here feel natural. While all of those tasks could be accomplished through other means on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360, this is one of the better justifications and implementations of the gamepad I've seen yet on the Wii U.

That said, is Lego City Undercover a system seller? It certainly should be for kids, but that question depends more on what other games are available. So far, the Wii U has been slow in that regard. More games like this would certainly move Nintendo's console towards hit status.

In the meantime, I'm glad I can still enjoy games like this. I love aggressive and gritty adventures as much the next guy, but being able to laugh at silly cartoon characters while figuring out addictive and clever puzzles assures me that I haven't completely become a crotchety old cynic. At least not yet, I haven't.