Tuesday, July 01, 2014

LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins. Where is THE LEGO game we all want?

Sorry reader, the 3DS onslaught continues. Whist this gen struggles to find its feet and to distinguish itself enough from last generation, Nintendo's little handheld is just hitting it out of the park and Richie and I are both exclusively playing 3DS games (well excluding a dabble with Diablo 3 and Hearthstone).


I picked up LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins (LCU:TCB), the correct position of the colons in the title completely elude me. I'm a pretty big LEGO fan (I guess you could say I was an AFOL) and both Richie and I have picked up most of Traveller's Tales LEGO games over the years, enjoying the gentle but colourfully fun action and the official license tie-ins. By all accounts LCU:TCB is inferior to the Wii-U original but it's fun enough nonetheless. Think, a sand box city with a smidgen of a 'story mode' but by far the thrust and fun of the game comes from finding, collecting, riding, unlocking and buying a cornucopia of widgets, MacGuffins, costumes, gizmos and other unlocks. But this isn't a collectible hunt a la GTA's horseshoes, pigeons and seashells. It's way easier than that. The in-game scanner, Wii-U gamepad in the original, helps you to scan the nearby environment for collectibles and then all that remains is working out how to go and get it, some requiring action-specific costumes which are unlocked in story mode, others requiring tracing zip lines, climbing drain pipes and scaling rooftops to collect. As ever, the rub with this kind of gameplay is that by the time you've achieved slogging to get that ultimately empty 100% there's no reason or opportunity to use the last 20 costumes, vehicles and cheats you've unlocked because aside from cruising around everything has, in essence, been done. 

The draw distance and the loading times between sections of the city let the game down somewhat as does needing to go all the way back to the police station hub to buy and customise your character, meaning you end up running around collecting vehicles, costumes and red bricks, until you have collected enough studs to make a dent in buying everything for use in the game. On the other hand it is LEGO and a decent enough sandbox in your pocket to keep you going. I'll undoubtedly play it to 100% but then I have deep psychological problems when it comes to '100%ing' these types of games. But why do we keep getting these games which are essentially open environments with the odd pile of LEGO bricks here and there marking the interactable bits of the world?

Where's THE LEGO game?

At any given time, there are hundreds of LEGO games on the market. There's the TT series with licenses such as Batman, Marvel, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings which have the same gentle but not challenging gameplay geared around character specific actions to progress. Then there's the LEGO franchise games themselves such as the LEGO City games, the incestuous LEGO Movie game (game of the movie of the toy),  Legends of CHIMA MMO currently available and FunCom's LEGO Minifigures Online MMO currently in beta. On top of that there's the odd DS license spin-off game (Ninjago, LEGO Battles) and hundreds of web games on LEGO's official website. I don't think there's been a console since the PlayStation without a LEGO game, the LEGO Racers and LEGO Island franchises sticking out as fair-enough games before the TT stabdard came along. The company also tried its hand at a proper MMO with the short lived LEGO Universe, by all accounts an okay game hamstrung by a prohibitively expensive subscription model.


But the problem with all of these different games for me has been, where is the LEGO game to rule them all? The fun and potential of LEGO is a little bit playing with characters you know from licenses you enjoy but it's the building side of things which is what sets LEGO aside and sees it often topping polls for best toy of all time. Some of you may be thinking that Minecraft got in where LEGO really should have done (LEGO then bizarrely releasing a set of Minecraft sets seemingly acknowledging that Minecraft had, digitally at least, beat them at their own game) but there's still a model I think LEGO could made work.

One LEGO Game to Rule Them All

I'm imagining a LEGO game that combines all of what they've experimented with before. Imagine an online LEGO game combining the diversity of LEGO bricks with the business opportunities of Second Life and the imagination and creativity of Minecraft. Offline, there seems to be a problem or a business model with LEGO's production of physical sets. Sets are produced in seasons and routinely discontinued after a number of months on release in stores meaning every brick and minifigure is essentially limited edition. However, because LEGO don't officially run a print-on-demand series for their bricks, I wouldn't be surprised if the secondary market doesn't collectively make as much as LEGO does off of their products. Enterprising collectors bulk buy sets (perhaps a reason why LEGO have a limit on the number of sets any customer can purchase, a limit that merely inconveniences but hardly stops the hardcore buyer and seller) spotting bricks and minifigures which have had a limited availability and then through a myriad of websites break down the sets and sell them on for a profit. Okay so it's only the LEGO supernut that's going to shell out tens and hundreds of pounds on that limited release minifigure or limited colour of brick (I kid you not a lot of AFOL video reviewers will praise a new set for it's inclusion of a light tan wedge piece or two) but it's something that LEGO has never seemed to have tried to tackle. For a while they did offer a service called Design byME and/or LEGO Factory which let you virtually create sets online (from an extremely limited set of parts) and then order the physical product and even design the box. This service was discontinued due to quality of service issues.


I'm imagining a completely brick built world where every building and vehicle is built by the community in virtual real estate (similar to Second Life's model). Virtual parts are sold in store or you can claim codes found with real LEGO sets to unlock that set online ( a la the Pokemon trading card game which gives you virtual cards with every physical booster and deck set bought). LEGO could release it's entire back catalog of figures and instructions which can also be bought should you wish and parts and instructions for custom sets can be bought, sold and traded between players. Combine this with the ability to then order your own creations to be made into a physical product and, with the possibilities of what can be built with LEGO from brick portraits, 'pixel art' and your own custom minifigures it becomes part game, part creative community and part virtual sandbox (without taking up space). Throw in Little Big Planet's editor mode and all of a sudden you've got a LEGO game maker in there too. Years ago I would have seen that technically this would have been impossible coding and programming how the dizzying array of how LEGO bricks go together but PlayStation game LEGO Racers let you build your own cars, PC game LEGO Island was an entirely brick built world, there's not a device in the world that can't run Minecraft sandboxes and there's an entire indie industry in printing out physical versions of your Mii/avatar/custom LEGO figures. Chuck in some great image sharing, video editing and social tools too and this mythical LEGO game become the virtual equivalent of the already massive network of AFOL community sites.

Maybe LEGO already have something like this in the pipeline however judging from initial impressions of the LEGO Minifigures online game, the focus seems to be on free-to-play, two slowly accruing currencies that can be sped up with cash and collecting and playing with the characters from the lucrative LEGO Minifigures booster packs series. The characters can't be taken apart and mixed up. You can't build anything with LEGO bricks, instead wading through pre-built environments (cynically including a LEGO store complete with LEGO box kits as backdrop) to earn diamonds and studs to fill out the character roster. The emphasis on building and constructing has fallen by the wayside which is the main reason, in my opinion, why LEGO endures in popularity with children and adults alike. 

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