Version tested: 3DS
It would be wrong to consider The Chase Begins a prequel to the Wii U exclusive Lego City Undercover. While the game's story is set two years prior to cool cop Chase McCain's return to Lego City, and follows his first encounter with the villainous Rex Fury, in gameplay terms it's more of a remix.
Rather than simply port the game across, developer TT Fusion has taken the same core concept - a free-roaming Lego metropolis where McCain can use different disguises to unlock new abilities as he tracks down a criminal syndicate - and shuffled it around to create a game that offers a fresh take on familiar material.
You'll start your adventure from pretty much the same point, with McCain arriving in town and being introduced to the brusque Officer Dunby. In the Wii U game, Dunby is the city's blustering police chief, but here he's still an opportunistic bully, looking to advance his career at the expense of rookie McCain. So your first task is to fetch some donuts. Then it's off to track down a missing dog. Very quickly, you find yourself on the trail of local gangs, which in turn lead to crime bosses pulling the strings. And behind them? Rex Fury, the true villain of the piece.
The game paces this escalation well, helped along by ditching the level hub concept from the other Lego titles. Missions in the 3DS game take place in the city, not as separate self-contained stages, so there's a more fluid structure as you progress naturally from one incident to another. They're also shorter and simpler, making them ideal for bite-sized play but at the cost of the interlocking puzzles and replay depth that give the Lego series its longevity.
The story missions are instead designed to lead you through the city, starting from the downtown police headquarters and taking in a prison, construction sites, docks, farms and even a rocket facility complete with space shuttle. In each new location, Chase gains a new disguise, bringing with it some new ability that increases your interaction options.
Dress as a robber and you can jimmy open certain doors. Construction workers can fix things. The farmer can perform a "chicken jump" to glide across wide spaces. Wear a spacesuit and you get to launch yourself on a jetpack. Each new costume is fun enough in its own right that you'll look forward to finding them, and they're introduced in a different order - and offer new features - so while the basics are repeated from the Wii U game, it plays differently.
The main quests are always clearly marked on your touch-screen map, but there are plenty of other distractions should you choose to wander. The super bricks return, spilled by destroyed scenery and used to build landmarks, ramps and vehicle spawn points. Character and vehicle tokens are sprinkled generously across the landscape, while dozens of cheat-enabling and race-unlocking red power bricks can also be found by eagle-eyed players. All can be found using McCain's scanner, which operates much as it did on the Wii U game pad: fire it up, look around and tag the glowing orange points of interest amongst the dark blue wireframes.
One of the things we lose as adults is that child's perspective, that ability to put your head on the floor, squint at your toys and transform a lawn into a forest. That's what The Chase Begins taps into
There are also ambient tasks to perform, such as rescuing harassed civilians from Lego thugs or using your disguises to perform specific acts like fixing fuse boxes. It would be nice if there were a more attractive payoff for doing these beyond ticking the percentage counter a tiny fraction closer to 100 per cent, but for kids lost in the Lego world, they offer ample busywork.
That immersion, that sense of place, is what any open-world game is all about - and The Chase Begins has at least one advantage on that front. Played in 3D, the effect of simply walking or driving around a city made of Lego is utterly beguiling. One of the things we lose as adults is that child's perspective, that ability to put your head on the floor, squint at your toys and transform a lawn into a forest. That's what The Chase Begins taps into, offering a window into a miniature world that feels charmingly alive.
Or at least, it does when the 3DS lets it. This is a game straining at the very limits of what Nintendo's handheld can cope with, and it's the hardware limitations that end up holding it back. The city itself is sparsely populated and prone to distracting graphical pop-in. Sometimes the streets can be eerily deserted, and then suddenly a stream of cars or pedestrians will fade into existence.
The Chase Begins has also inherited the egregious loading times of its Wii U sibling, but they're compounded here by the need to slice the city up into more convenient chunks. Transitioning from one area to another requires a lengthy loading time - sometimes almost a minute in length - and it can't help but impinge on the game's free-roaming ambition. The lack of voice acting outside of key cut-scenes also gnaws away at the game's appeal, making it noticeably less funny than the often laugh-out-loud Wii U version.
To its credit, The Chase Begins has clearly been designed to minimise the impact of these technical limitations, so while they're distracting, they're rarely damaging to the gameplay. No task is carried out across loading boundaries and the game wisely avoids any missions that rely on time limits, so you're never stuck looking for a vehicle in a pinch.
Just like the Wii U game, The Chase Begins has big ambitions - but it suffers for being crammed into a smaller footprint. Compared to its partner, it's undeniably compromised. Taken on its own merits, however, there's still enough charm and fun to be found in this smaller toybox to make it a worthy second best choice.
7 / 10