"LEGO City Undercover" is on track to be the biggest game that TT Games has ever released as part of the LEGO franchise. "Undercover" will be the first game to break the pattern of licensed games which already extend to almost every corner of nerdom - from "Star Wars" to Batman to "Lord of the Rings." This time around, TT Games are creating two entirely new games, one for the Wii U and one for the 3DS, that are inspired by the LEGO City brand. The games will both center on police officer Chase McCain as he does whatever it takes to clean up the streets of LEGO City. To celebrate the upcoming launch of both games, we had a chance to sit down with TT Games' Executive Producer, Loz Doyle, who took us through some of the exciting changes that fans can expect when they step into the first open world LEGO game later this month.
Multiplayer: What makes working on this LEGO game different from working on the franchise-based LEGO games that you have worked on in the past?
Loz Doyle: I guess the main difference is that it allowed us to experiment quite a bit more, and it allowed us to create an original story, which meant creating lots of original, cool characters for it. It meant that we weren't restricted in locations, and it gave us a blank canvas to do what we wanted to do. All the different abilities that we had for all of the characters, and all the different character types, it was just a massive amount of freedom. It was actually kind of daunting at the beginning, and we weren’t really sure what game we were going to make. The first twelve months were spent experimenting with what the game was going to be like, what it was going to look like, and what the city was going to be like, and kind of messing around with the story and the different characters. It was really cool to have that freedom.
Multiplayer: Along with that freedom, did the process have to change for this game because you were doing more original creation?
Doyle: Yeah, it definitely had to change, and not just on the creative side, but on the technical side as well. Our game engine wasn’t set up to deal with a large city like we've got now. Not only did we have freedom on that side, but also the tech guys in our office had to create a whole new set of features and game engine updates in order to get "City" to work.
Multiplayer: Did that all take place in that first twelve-month period, or has the game been evolving since then?
Doyle: That was evolving over the whole course of the project. We'd never created a "City" game before, so you don’t really know how to make one. You just try lots of new things, and the tech guys at Travelers Tales really had to rewrite everything they had in order to support the game - from streaming technology, to the physics engine which was rebuilt, to the whole way that the LEGO is build and put in the game. There was even an AI traffic system that was written for the game with pedestrians. As soon as they solved one thing, there was another problem that came up that needed doing. Basically everything is new for this game.
Multiplayer: Since everything is new, did you guys look at the past games that you've worked on as prototypes or test cases for this? What kinds of lessons did you learn coming from them that you carried over into this?
Doyle: To be fair, there are core things that we've kept the same, in that the control system which we got right from "LEGO Star Wars," to the way the characters move and are responsive to the controller. We have things like character switching that has stayed; it's on the shoulder buttons, you just flick through the characters. We have all the stuff like the collectable studs, and True Hero Meter. All that kind of stuff has stayed, along with the building with LEGOs, which we had in all the other games as well - matching LEGOs and building with LEGOs. So yeah, we did keep all of those things, because those were all the things you couldn’t lose.
Multiplayer: In those first twelve months of prototyping did you know you were going to stick with the LEGO City brand or were you just building a LEGO game that morphed into the City brand?
Doyle: Well no, for a few years beforehand we'd been talking to LEGO about doing a LEGO City game, and we didn’t really know what that game was going to be. We were sort of going down the road of it being a construction game, where it was more about building, like a "SimCity" style game. We weren't really sure what it was going to be, but we knew we wanted to make a game based on the LEGO City franchise from the beginning; it was definitely always about LEGO City. It was only really as we started to prototype it that it turned into a full, open world game.
Multiplayer: You mentioned that you had the freedom to create characters; how do you give Chase McCain a level of depth that will get people invested in caring about him as a character?
Doyle: We knew we didn’t want an overly simplistic story, even though the game is designed to be accessible by children. We know that a lot of adults play our games as well - it's a pretty even split actually. There is a backstory in there for him, so he's not just a new kid on the block sort of thing. He does have a history with Rex Fury, and he's got a history with the police chief as well, and he's got a love interest that he's snubbed in the past that he meets up with again. So he's definitely got some depth to him, and he's got a bit of attitude as well.
Multiplayer: At the same time, how did you create Rex Fury to be an "evil" character in a game that's both created for kids and adults?
Doyle: Well, I guess he's a bit of a criminal mastermind, but he's not really, really clever. He's more of a thug. He goes around with no top on. He's got a few scars from fights gone by. He's lost an eye. So, he's a pretty tough guy, and he was pretty fun to create. He's got a really thuggish voice as well, the way he's acted. He's a really cool character. He's got these über-vehicles that you unlock that are special and stand out as well.
Multiplayer: You mentioned that he's got a cool voice, based on the trailers the voice acting in the game seems to be exceptionally good. How were the actors selected and slotted in for the characters?
Doyle: It was quite interesting for us, because when we started doing "LEGO City," it was the first talking LEGO game. I know there's been a couple since, but that's because it's taken so long to make. Obviously, we involved a company called Side UK, and they've done a lot of video game casting and recording. We had a big casting session, and that was really important. In addition to those guys, we had a few comedians come in, because we had a funny script, and we know that comedians are the best at delivering funny lines. We had a couple of U.K. comedians that did some of the more interesting roles, and we got a guy, Josh Robert Thompson, and he does Arnold and Morgan Freeman impressions here in the U.S., because we do a lot of parodies in the story as well, and we have an Arnie character, and a character from the "Shawshank Redemption" as well - it's the Morgan Freeman character from there that we send up.
Multiplayer: How did you go about working the parodies in? Do they all have a common theme of being related to cop or prison-oriented movies?
Doyle: Not really. We sort of took influences and inspirations from all over the place. We've got a lot of parodies that you might not expect in a LEGO game. Like I said there's "Shawshank Redemption," we've also got a bit of a "Goodfellas" parody in there, "Titanic," "Starsky and Hutch," "The Matrix." So there are really a lot of films that adults will have seen but children won't have. We're trying to appeal on that "Simpsons" level of having a lot of comedy in there for adults as well as the children.
Multiplayer: How did the idea come about to include the real world toys as downloadable content?
Doyle: Well it's actually a code system, so the codes that you get in the playing materials, you enter into the game that unlocks that content in the game - it's not DLC as such. The LEGO company really, really bought into the game and they said that they would do a set based on Chase McCain, so they produced the Chase McCain mini figure and designed these two models specifically for "LEGO City." That's the first time that they've ever done that - to create a model of a character based on one of our games, so we were really pleased. I think it's a bit of a departure, because the LEGO City models, especially the cars, are not really super cool sports cars, which is what they've done for this set, and I think that they've taken a lot of inspiration from the models that we've got in our game.
Multiplayer: Both the Wii U and the 3DS are very unique platforms, what was the appeal to sticking to those platforms, as opposed to going multiplatform, like some of the other games that you had done in the past?
Doyle: When we saw Nintendo in 2011, and, we had been prototyping the "City" game for what might have been a year before, and they showed us an early version of the Wii U Game Pad, we were all really blown away by it. We could immediately see lots of possibilities for the game, with the Pad. Our designers came up with loads and loads of ideas. We had to scale them back; otherwise we would have never finished the game. The game is just so built up around the GamePad, that you just can't imagine it being on any other console. We'd always wanted to work exclusively with Nintendo on a game, and this one just fit in perfectly with the new console.
Multiplayer: What were some of the ideas that you had to scale back?
Doyle: Well in the game you have lots of different character abilities, so not only do you play as a policeman, but you go, as the title suggests, undercover, as different characters, such as a robber, a farmer, and a fireman. We had different gameplay for each one. For example, if there was a safe to crack in the game, you'd hold the Wii U GamePad up towards the screen, and you'd get an x-ray of the safe, and there would be cogs displayed on the screen that you could turn them until you cracked the safe. We had lots of different ideas for the different characters to use the GamePad, but in the end we decided to make it into a police device, because it was getting a bit confusing as to what it was. It was sort of an all-encompassing device that sort of did everything, but we felt that it was getting to be too much. So, we scaled that back to be purely a police communicator that gets given to you in the game. So when Chase goes to the police station for the first time, one of the other characters says, "here is your new police communicator." So you really feel tied into it.
Multiplayer: As part of the open world, there's a lot of different places that you could go with that - are there any that ended up in the final game that surprised you?
Doyle: I wouldn’t say that any of it surprised me. We knew that we wanted to make a city that was diverse, and in terms of the visuals of the different locations. Sometimes in city games you get a bit lost, and you're not sure where you are, so we wanted to make sure each area felt very different, and had a different visual style to it. We have a San Francisco looking area, a farmland, a forest - like a national park, like a Times Square area, and a downtown looking area. We've got the Albatross Island Prison, which is based on Alcatraz. We've got a Liberty Island. There are a lot of references to places in American cities that will be familiar. I wouldn’t say that there's anything too surprising.
Multiplayer: How did you go about balancing the combat in the game, since Chase has a lot of hand-to-hand and action based combat, for a title that isn’t necessarily aimed at younger gamers, but you know they are going to be playing it?
Doyle: This is actually one of the challenges we faced at the beginning, because you're playing as a cop. So, we couldn’t really have you dusting people up like in the other games. Batman can beat people up, and no one bats an eye, but you cant have a police officer that's going around punching people in the face. So, we went for more of a defensive style. We looked at the way police are actually supposed to take people down, and even people such as Steven Segal who just kind of throws people a lot, or twists their arm, and they kind of fall over. It's fairly simple initially. When you start the game you can only use one button to take people down, and Chase will throw them to the ground, and you can arrest them, and you just put handcuffs on them. So your aim is to get them into an arrestable state. As you go through the game you meet a character called Barry Smith and this is where we have the Dojo sequence from "The Matrix" where you learn additional moves - grabs, you learn to be able throw people into objects and other characters. We do develop the combat as you go through the game.
There are some weapons in the game, but they're not your traditional open world weapons. We've got a grapple gun, and you can use that not only for grappling up the side of buildings, but you can shoot people with the grapple gun and it fires them up. We have a farmer character, and he's got a chicken gun. He holds the chicken under his arm, and pulls its neck, and it fires out an egg, which you can use to slow people down and knock them over as well.
Everyone can load up their chicken guns when "LEGO City Undercover" hits the streets on March 18. It will be followed shortly by the 3DS adventure "LEGO City Undercover: The Chase Begins" on April 21.