As its title implies, Lego City Undercover: The Chase Begins is not a 3DS port of the one-month-old Lego City: Undercover on Wii U. It is instead a prequel that captures some (but not all) of the family-friendly charm of the Wii U crime-fighting adventure. It also ambitiously recreates the open world of Lego City--no easy feat on a handheld platform not known for an abundance of open-world games.
Lego City Undercover: The Chase Begins sheds light on the events that hero Chase McCain alludes to at the beginning of last month's game. The 3DS installment chronicles Chase’s rookie days, though you’re spared any sort of cliched training missions or montages. Mayor Gleeson and Chief Dunby haven’t yet been promoted; this also marks Chase’s first encounters with future love interest Natalia and soon-to-be nemesis Rex Fury.
Seeing younger versions of these characters works well in evoking nostalgia for those who picked up the Wii U game, although playing the sequel is not essential to enjoying this story. That said, The Chase Begins’ exposition is text-based, and those who played the Wii U game will be pining for the often earnest, often comedic voice work on hand in that version. It also doesn’t help that there is significantly less of the humor and pop culture reference to be found here.
The gameplay of The Chase Begins places a huge emphasis on urban crime with a lot of thug brawls. One throw move is all it takes to take down lesser foes while a strong arm maneuver handles bosses with eases. This kind of simplicity works in making The Chase Begins accessible to younger gamers. Conversely, the game relies too much on these fights to extend its playtime. Fighting feels that much more repetitive since there are much fewer chases, puzzles, and cutscenes. The chases are particularly disappointing especially when the car you’re pursuing often drives in a predictable loop.
Despite the gameplay being nearly identical to its sequel, the camera in The Chase Begins is difficult to rotate, limiting your options when trying to scale buildings or pull off parkour-style moves. Depending on the camera position, seemingly simple moves like climbing a ladder requires more than just pointing up on the analog stick. It’s annoying that you’ll often have to point up and slightly to the left or slightly to the right. None of the sections are severe enough to make you stop playing, but you should expect several unwanted falls and frustrating retries.
Chase’s main qualification as a video game protagonist is his ability to take on occupations beyond law enforcement. This occupation mechanic gives The Chase Begins a positive sense of variety albeit with very little challenge. Every obstacle comes with an image denoting which guise Chase should use, whether it’s the crowbar icon that warrants a robber outfit or the jackhammer icon that shows it’s a job for the construction worker. This makes it easy for novices to steadily progress with a mild sense of accomplishment. More experienced players should look to other Lego games for more rewarding challenges.
If you've explored the Wii U version of Lego City, you might be pleasantly surprised how The Chase Begins retains much of the city’s geography. Any visible vehicle can be commandeered, and city navigation is assisted through waypoints. It's a city heavily influenced by San Francisco and New York with some rural getaways nearby. To pull off this portable open world, buildings have been stripped of detail and persistent fog helps negate the need to render objects in the distance. The one notable drawback are the minute-long loading times, which are triggered whenever you enter an adjacent district. This also wouldn’t be a Lego game without OCD-satisfying collectibles. If you’ve always wanted to get 100% in a Lego game but never had the time, The Chase Begins’ relatively modest list of red bricks, aliens, and other optional items makes collecting manageable.
For an open world crime fighting game with about 50 missions, The Chase Begins is well-paced. In contrast to the 30-45 minute assignments of the sequel, the shorter missions of The Chase Begins work well for its handheld platform, fitting for brief play sessions on the go. A mission can be as long as 10 minutes, especially if you’re trying to capture runaway pigs, or as short as a 30-second drive back to police headquarters. Going from one objective to another this briskly works because of the wide variety of goals, whether it’s putting out a fire, building a space shuttle, or fetching donuts. Furthermore, the game often makes the next mission waypoint very visible on the map, which keeps the pacing fast and fluid.
On top of being a decently executed open world game, Lego City Undercover: The Chase Begins is also impressive for not being a mere port of Lego console game. While the story lacks the humor and extensive narrative of the Wii U sequel, Chase and the rest of the cast are still an endearing bunch. If you’re a Lego fan, consider picking up both the Wii U and 3DS Lego City Undercover games. Just play The Chase Begins first so you can save the best for last.