By Matt Cabral
April 14, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

Parents of videogame-playing youngsters have no doubt spent hours helping them break bricks, collect studs, and bust blocky bad guys in any number of LEGO titles. Based on popular film franchises, the games have invited armchair adventurers of all ages to journey through toy-inspired takes on Middle-earth, Hogwarts, Gotham City, and a galaxy far, far away. Telltale Games latest, LEGO City Undercover, forgoes this tried-and-true formula, though, for a fresh approach to the minifig fun.

Inspired by actual play sets, LEGO City Undercover borrows more from Toys ‘R’ Us’ retail shelves than it does the silver screen. For players, this means exploring a sprawling, sandbox world filled with familiar toy structures, plastic people, and 100-plus pilotable vehicles. As Chase McCain, a do-gooding police officer on the hunt for his nemesis Rex Fury, they’ll search for clues, solve puzzles, fight minifigure foes, and, of course, scoop up collectibles aplenty. Progressing through the campy crime drama will also see players utilizing a variety of skill-based disguises; they can bust down blocked doors as a fireman, repair path-blocking obstacles as a construction worker, and even crack safes as a crowbar-wielding crook.

While pre-teens will love tooling around in everything from race cars to helicopters, donning disguises, scoring collectible goodies, and completing missions, parents will dig the series’ signature wit. Like previous series’ entries, LEGO City Undercover is a sharply written affair, packed with pop-culture-skewering references, colorful characters, and hilarious cut scenes. From its spot-on The Shawshank Redemption send-up to its sly references to the Starsky and Hutch era, its script continuously winks at adults even as its more slapstick-y moments keep the kids in stitches.

As a Wii U exclusive, it also makes good use of the console’s touch-based gamepad. Players will leverage the clever device to scan for clues, navigate the open-world map, and snap pictures. Despite offering a fresh take on the familiar LEGO game formula, though, the fun’s occasionally sullied by lengthy load times, frustrating platforming sections, and a lack of co-op gameplay options. This latter omission will be especially disappointing to parents accustomed to playing LEGO titles side-by-side with their little ones. That said, they can still have fun — and be helpful — coaching from the sidelines while their kids do all the thumb-blistering dirty work.

LEGO City Undercover isn’t perfect, but it does refreshingly build on its predecessors’ core gameplay concepts, while also retaining the series’ signature personality. It’s one of the best LEGO games to date and a must-play for Wii U owners craving an experience exclusive to Nintendo’s new console. B+