Remember when you had to raise your hand and ask for permission whenever you wanted to speak? That's how Lego Universe makes you feel at times, and it’s a helpful reminder that feeling like a kid again isn't always such a great thing. From the very moment we had to wait for approval for our avatar’s name to those occasions when we were trying to talk smack while using a severely limited word set, we were nervously looking for a plastic yellow hall monitor ready to whack our ass into detention. (And these monitors exist, in a manner of speaking). Still, this joyful though tightly-controlled MMO offers much for children and geezers alike, even if the hardcore crowd should keep in mind that this game isn’t designed with them in mind. And you can abandon all thoughts of building a gigantic Lego penis. With Lego, after all, someone has to think of the children.
Above: Not the way to cure your kid's bedwetting issues
Fortunately, NetDevil thought really hard about the design. Taking only a dose of World of Warcraft and a sprinkle of Super Mario Galaxy, Lego Universe becomes something all its own in a world where most MMO developers act like creepy teenagers trying to dress like Blizzard’s prom king. Here, players can quest through a currently tightly limited number of brightly colored worlds that feature the Danish company’s most celebrated traditional themes such as pirates and astronauts. It’s all very nostalgic, and NetDevil even built every single item in the game with real Legos to ensure authenticity. Its story is refreshingly cute, too, featuring four factions who unite to overcome the evil maelstrom that has shattered imagination into several different mini-worlds. World-shattering cataclysms are the hot thing right now, after all, and the move allows for future expansions that may be wildly different than Lego Universe's current offerings.
Above: The simple user interface gives Farmville a run for its money
Of course, the quests themselves will usually ask you to kill ten of these, ten of those, and to deliver some letter to some little dude over on the other side of the zone. The usual MMO fare, in other words, and veterans may find themselves rolling their eyes at starting the same old grind all over again, although these shouldn't pose much of an issue for the targeted younger players looking to grind their first mobs. Elsewhere, Lego Universe attempts some originality with the "quick-build" quests that will be familiar to anyone who’s played in Lego’s previous outings with Harry Potter, Batman, and buds. There are also some fairly uncommon racing and obstacle course-style quests, and almost all quests and enemies yield Legos for use on your own virtual property.
And that’s the core of the game: not the cute quests, not the endearing zones, but the use of Legos to build and create time-honored castles, scale models of a Star Trek shuttlecraft, or even a towering statue of Master Chief. Using "behavior blocks" you can even program challenging minigames into your creations. Within only a few hours you’ll amass a collection of Legos that far exceeds anything you might have stashed in the attic - complicated only by a rather cumbersome inventory - and you can use them to build almost anything, provided it’s approved by the kid-friendly monitors. Most of the fun comes from visiting other players’ creations, but the load times for the best ones can take so long that at least once we wrongly thought that the game had locked up.
As we mentioned before, socially the game can be a bit of a drag thanks to the draconian approval measures the game enforces, which kind of misses the point of an MMO. For instance, becoming "best friends" with a person so you can speak freely requires entering ridiculously personal information such as your passport number, and Lego Universe consequently ends up seeming like a standard single-player Lego game since most players seem to avoid the effort. Hardcore players will miss the raiding structure of most MMOS, the lack of any rare phat lootz, and the fact that it doesn’t even really mean much when you die. All it means is a loss of coins, and if you’re fast enough, you can sometimes haul ass back over to the spot where you died and grab the lost coins anyway.
There’s not even a proper leveling system, and advancement is simply based on obtaining better gear and weapons. Considering the stupidly high cost of many of the faction items, this in itself can be a challenge. In addition, there’s currently very little content, but Lego Universe is likely designed for the children of parents who place strict limits on playtime out of fear that their little geniuses will become Mountain Dew-swigging lunatics who play entire MMOs in one epic sitting. Taken in such moderation, the content could possibly be stretched out over a month or two, but even then it will be tough to justify the $10 per month subscription that follows your first free month unless content is frequently added.
Above: It's a small universe, after all
Keep in mind that this all means that Lego Universe is specifically designed for kids, even if it's a kid's game with some grownup appeal. Creative fun, not challenge, is the key concept here, and in that regard it excels. While this means you won’t be able to hang around your Anal Thunderfuries like some of you do in World of Warcraft’s trade channel, it also means that ever-concerned parents can introduce their kids to MMOs without worry about that same garbage. Lego Universe is undoubtedly off to a good start, and its landscapes are beautiful and its music is fantastic. Combat is simple but fun, the user interface is fairly intuitive, and a little old lady in Dubuque could understand the controls. Until more content is released and other expected options such as a form of PVP are implemented, however, it may be a while before Lego Universe "clicks" with the larger MMO community, if ever. For gamers seeking to initiate their offspring into massively multiplayer gaming, though, it's certainly worth a look.
Nov 9, 2010