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First Impressions: LEGO Universe's Forbidden Valley

Welcome back to our series of First Impressions on the upcoming title, LEGO Universe. Before we get started, I must note very clearly that the experiences chronicled here are in the current beta client of the game. The reason for this note is that while my previous experience in the Gnarled Forest was largely bug-free and polished, the Forbidden Valley zone is a microcosm of the bugs that still reside within the game currently. But even with the bugs clearly showing themselves, the zone also has some of the more ambitious art, design, and amusing (if not punnier) quest writing currently in the game.

Curious about how this new area in LEGO Universe stacks up? Join me after the break as we navigate the dangerous lands of the Forbidden Valley.

Gallery: First Impressions: LEGO Universe | 23 Photos

Upon first touching down in this zone, you'll find yourself on a narrow, rocky path leading up to a gate. Mind you, unless you've already managed to nab a maelstrom-infected ninja hood from this particular zone, you're not getting through the towering gate ahead. The very large fellow in the screenshot above combined with the thick barrier of maelstrom energy pretty well ensures this. Why would you want to get past that? The first NPC tells you that you'll have to find a way into the ninja's complex if you seek training in all the super-sneaky ninja ways -- after all, ninjas are masters at finding ways around tough locations.

Thankfully, for the mere non-ninja mortals amongst us, this first challenge is very simple: there are a series of moving rock platforms to the left of the main path. A handful of well-timed jumps later, and you're faced with another imposing gate. Unlike the other one, this one is smashable -- definitely a fun thing to do with LEGO structures. A couple of swipes, and you're in the ninja stronghold.

From there, you're sent to the Great Tree -- an enormous tree that plays the centerpiece of this zone -- which houses the mightiest ninja trainers of the area. On the way there you'll find that the armor of the ninja ancestors has been infused with more of the evil maelstrom force that permeates the world of LEGO Universe, and said suits of armor have gained a mindlessly wicked sapience. These dark ronin are overrunning the area and present a serious threat to the ninja training grounds.

The first bundles are fairly easy to fight your way through, assuming you don't manage to catch the mobs on the edge of the area's surface, which makes them never quite die. Instead they fade away, but they don't drop any form of loot or LEGO bricks as other mobs normally do when smashed, nor do they count toward quest completion. Instead, a few seconds later, they'll respawn with a sliver of health and then fade back out after being attacked, stuck in some strange loop. Thankfully, even in their current bugged state, you can get past this area with a minimum of fuss and head on to the awaiting trainers ahead.

The trickiest bit after that is simply navigating the paths up the tree or taking leaps of faith off into windy areas that are meant to blow player's minifigs across chasms. For those on weaker connections or older machines, the overall design will likely prove to be a test in patience as there is absolutely nothing to stop you from lagging off the edges and plummeting down into the vertiginous abyss yawning below. Mind you, those on higher-middle-end machines and wired connections will encounter very few issues with the paths -- only the odd problem with not getting the wind-to-jump ratio just right. Whether this will be toned down or left as-is remains to be seen. It is, as I originally said, still beta after all.

Along the way, you're given a chance to do some speed-running, but at first you may find it well worth your time to complete the trainers' tasks. The ninja masters offer some marvelous gear, and the challenges are certainly tricky enough for the most adventurous minifigs to enjoy.

Challenges run the gamut from searching out (and smashing) different bell shrines to obtain special LEGO bricks to performing a number of quick-builds and other mechanics similar to what we saw in the Gnarled Forest First Impressions. Thankfully, while the mechanics are all very familiar, the stories are fun, and the distance between quests isn't too terribly great, so the action moves along fairly rapidly.

Unfortunately, this is also where another glaring issue crops up. As before, the ghostly ronin LEGO creatures seem to be prone to clipping into the cliffs and walkways, and as such, they become invisible. Unlike the earlier ones, these later ronin appear to be able to attack you from their invisible positions. Add to the fact that the ghostly ronin horsemen have a nasty ranged attack and are highly social, preferring to attack in packs, and you'll very often find yourself in over your head. The mobs also appear to have a near immediate respawn, so unless you're in a group (or in gear more powerful than the gear the ninjas will give you, anyway) this area, as it is currently tuned, combined with the glitchy invisible aggro mobs, is a study in frustration.

Thankfully, even with the bugs in the game as it stands now, players can eventually get past these challenges and complete their ninja training. From there, the master ninja (his name is "Numb Chuck," which should give you an inkling of some of the writing in the area) will send players -- advisedly in a group -- towards a giant maelstrom dragon. I won't give away the ending, but hardy adventurers will very likely enjoy the challenge of taking on a dragon and uncovering the remainder of this zone's secrets.

Overall, the Forbidden Valley offers interesting and fun challenges, and in my opinion, some really lovely Asian-themed graphical touches. The potential is there at this point -- the game simply needs to have the handful of bugs I encountered fixed before release. Once those are out of the way, this area, much like the Gnarled Forest, will undoubtedly be a challenging yet fun corner of LEGO Universe.

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