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First Impressions: LEGO Universe

Playing. It's one of our earliest lessons from childhood, and one that we as gamers hold on to with gusto. Let's face it -- in just about every gamer out there is a kid who, at least in some small way, refuses to grow up entirely. We love to play. It's that love, coupled with childhood memories of clicking tons of brightly colored LEGO blocks together, that has made the idea of LEGO videogames a huge hit. Now have a new contender to the LEGO gaming play-space: LEGO Universe. It's a game that has the potential to offer all the things we as MMO gamers would love: an open-ended world, a great known IP that reminds us of youthful days, and the social aspects many of us enjoy.

Aside from this, LEGO Universe also offers many things that parents of young gamers will value. As someone I spoke with recently asked: "What's stopping people from building offensive adult-themed content with LEGO bricks that my child might see?" The answer lies in LEGO Universe's moderation team, known as the Mythran (a shadowy group actually written into the lore of the game), which personally reviews personal free-build areas for compliance. The Mythrans also oversee character and pet names. When combined with a speedchat and whitelisted word chat system, it makes for a very workable solution to keeping kids safe online.

Curious about a look into LEGO Universe? Join me behind the break as I take a more detailed look at this colorful game, and be sure to check out the extensive gallery below!

Gallery: First Impressions: LEGO Universe | 131 Photos

The story so far

If you've ever purchased LEGO bricks, then you know that with enough LEGOs, time, and patience, just about anything is possible. The same holds true for LEGO Universe. According to the storyline, four minifigs found the pure source of imagination on the planet Crux. While three used this force for (good) creative play, one sought to thwart imagination and made it do his (evil) bidding, which in turn created a malevolent anti-imagination force called maelstrom energy. The world shattered and became a series of floating islands, many of which remain unexplored. In terms of overall potential, this is an absolutely brilliant move on the developer's part, as Netdevil is not limited to a single terrestrial map; instead, it can (much as with LEGO bricks) build just about anything it wants to. From fantasy to steampunk to sci-fi, the opportunities are myriad and legion, limited only by the creators' imaginations.

Your place in the scheme of things

Each player starts in customization, which gives you a handful of basic options. Sadly, as you travel through the story, your original customization dwindles to only your facial expression choices, as you'll switch in gear, hats, and everything else to replace your starting clothing and hair. While you do have the option to create a custom name, you will be required to choose from pre-selected words to create a temporary name while the Mythran review your custom one.

A little later on, you're given the chance to join one of the game's four factions: Assembly, Sentinels, Venture League, and Paradox. While no faction is restricted in terms of what its members can or can't do (and all appear to follow the same storyline), the gear each group gets is cosmetically different from the others. Assembly, as one might suspect, is made up of people who really enjoy building and creating, and they get Summoner and Engineer gear. Sentinels are for those who love nothing better than to get in there and smash things up, and they get Samurai and Knight gear. Venture League consists of explorer-types, who will enjoy hunting all around the world in exchange for Buccaneer and Daredevil gear. Finally, Paradox is the faction interested in learning the secrets of the maelstrom and its chaotic energy; its members get Sorcerer and Space Marauder armor.

I'd also note that while you are locked into your overall factional choice, you can purchase books to "train" the alternate style of armor for your faction. For example, if you start as a Sentinel Samurai, you can save up and purchase the Knight book as well. There are set bonuses for the faction-specific armors as well, which require you to find both coins and factional tokens.

Open your eyes to a brightly colored world

Currently, the game features a handful of floating landmasses: the starting Venture Explorer spaceship (not an island, though, and one you can't get back to once you leave it), Avant Gardens, Nimbus Station, Pet Cove, Gnarled Forest, and Forbidden Valley. There are also two gateways currently locked off in-game: the LEGO club door, and another gateway on Nimbus Station for Starbase 3001. The passport (your book to track in-game achievements) also notes some achievements for Starbase 3001, hinting at their plans for the area. Each of the existing spaces is polished to a mirror shine, creating what is quite possibly one of the most bug-free launches of an MMO I've seen in some time (at least in terms of a game that wasn't already extant in another market and ported here). That's not to say there aren't bugs -- there are still a few last ones running around. However, they're very minor (such as the odd graphic not showing up in my bag), and they haven't really hampered my playtime in any serious fashion.

If there's one knock I could make against the game, it's that the areas are currently very limited, which -- depending on your gameplay style -- might be a bad thing. If you're the type who loves nothing more than spending entire weekends blasting through the main storyline in new games, then LEGO Universe will likely get old for you very quickly. If you're more the type who logs in a few times a week and spends time on lateral content like minigames and various achievements as opposed to powering through the storyline, then you'll enjoy all that LEGO Universe has to offer -- even in its currently limited space. For busy parents and kids, though, I feel this hits a sweet spot of bite-sized play opportunities, lateral content offerings, and overarching, engaging storylines wrapped in fun.

What makes it go

There's one thing that makes the world work in LEGO Universe: imagination. In game, imagination is characterized by small, bright blue orbs you'll find by smashing apart enemies, completing quick-builds, and destroying certain structures. At first you start with a small six-point reserve of imagination. As you travel, you will uncover special dark blue imagination bricks, scavenge for flags, upgrade your gear, and unlock achievements which will add to your imagination capacity. If you are doing all of this that you can, you generally will have more than enough imagination for the tasks you'll undertake. (I'd say "as you level," but there is no true leveling system in the game, only an overall LEGO Universe score and a series of achievements that confer greater benefits as they're unlocked.)

The nuts and bolts

Controls and systems are certainly a mishmash. While the game has WASD or arrow key control, there is no mouse-controlled movement for anything beyond the camera. You also interact with NPCs either via right-click or by hitting the shift button, which takes some getting used to. Interaction between players is handled via the ctrl key; attacks are via the left mouse button or the alt key; and you're limited to only five action bar buttons, which are tied to specific item and gear slot bonuses and powers. What's perhaps even more strange about this is that the keymap doesn't seem to allow for modification, although the esc-key context menu indicates (via the presence of a reset keybinding button) that it was either planned and not implemented or is perhaps still to come. Platforming elements are also present, both in world design and as quick-build items -- and you can even create them on your own property using models, loose blocks, and behaviors your LEGO creations can perform.

Regular MMO mechanics are also present: kill-ten-rats, fed-ex quests, and so on. However, it would be a mistake to dismiss it at that. Various minigames exist in LEGO Universe, such as a car racing game, the pirate ship game mentioned in my prior impression posting, foot races, pets to collect and play with, and more. There are also some MMO staples that are glaringly absent, but I'll get to that in a bit.

Where's the LEGO, then?

There are a few unique things that really fit the LEGO concept in terms of mechanics -- quick-builds, modular building, and free-form building. Quick-builds are items you'll find while adventuring. Normally these are things like bounce plates and fans, although you'll also assemble other items like bridges and even electric guitars. They're on a tightly scripted setup, however. Modular is building using pre-assembled chunks picked up in the world. And finally there are at least three property parcels in-game that offer free-form building, although as mentioned before, your property must be checked over by the moderation team known as Mythran before it is clear to share with others.

You also have the ability to give your models "behaviors" which allow models to do certain things when players interact with them. A basic example is a door in a kit you'll likely get as you level up. When you place the wall with the door in it, you'll notice the door is closed. This is because you need to assign a behavior to the door, telling it to open when a character interacts with it. Collecting more properties unlocks more behaviors, so it's worth it to clear each area's property of maelstrom energy and get them all, even if only for behavior unlocks.

And now, the opinion part

I can definitely say that I found LEGO Universe to be a great deal of fun. The graphics are slick without being overkill, the story is engaging, and building (or checking out other people's creations) is definitely cool. However, there are several things I personally didn't care for in terms of the overall design.

  • Character customization options: Yes, it's LEGO. In the real world you can only do so much with minifigs. However, we're in a virtual setting, and having more options for character customization just seems like a no-brainer to me. It's one of the strengths of the platform vs. playing in meatspace. That said, LEGO may have said ixnay on this based on retaining the universal look of their minifigs, which is one of the problems with known-IP-type MMOs. Still, it certainly would be nice to look at least a little different from every other minifig in patchwork (or high-end set) gear. A set of cosmetic slots on the character sheet to cover up ugly mismatched armor wouldn't be unwelcome either.
  • More inventory space in the main section: I'm a collector. (Read: packrat.) I own it. I love to collect little things that say I achieved something. For example, I have a beta tester t-shirt on my primary character. However, due to the dearth of inventory space in the game currently, I'm not sure I can justify keeping it much longer. I've already gotten rid of several other items I would have liked to keep (including what appeared to be a three wolf moon t-shirt) due to bag space. (There seems to be unlimited, sortable space for loose LEGO bricks, so a better inventory option with more space is already extant in game -- just not for your character's torso/leg/etc. or items.)

    I would also note that I have unlocked bag space through achievements and have gone so far as to purchase five additional inventory spaces at a cost of 15,000 in-game gold. (Mind you, that's not "spots to put a bag in" -- that's single-item spaces in the bag you get.) Overall, inventory needs to be cheaper, more plentiful, and easier to attain. A bank, storage on your personal space (perhaps a LEGO treasure chest you can get early on?), or simply more bag slots in a less expensive fashion would all be welcome choices.
Family race night. How awesome would that be?
Family race night. How cool would that be?

  • Consider a family plan price model: Yes, at $10 or less for a multi-month subscription, it is cheaper than many other MMOs out there. However, with other quality games in the kids space like Free Realms, Wizard 101, and so on that offer alternate pricing models (or free-to-play models), a family subscription offering a discount for additional accounts might help draw in more people who are on the fence about shelling out for multiple box copies and multiple monthly subscriptions.
  • The best stuff is a grind: If you're the type who will want to get both sets of faction gear all the way to level 3 (the highest level currently available in game), you'd better be prepared to grind for it. Faction tokens are a rather stingy drop, and you'll need hundreds (if not thousands) of faction coins per set.
Ultimately, LEGO Universe offers a solid amount of fun, despite its currently limited geographic areas. For parents, kids, and those of a more casual playstyle, I can see this being enjoyable for a good long while, especially with the developer potential to add on to the game and the players' potential to go crazy building their own virtual LEGO creations. Devoted LEGO maniacs won't give a flying rodent's 4th point of contact as to what I say and will also likely have a brick-filled ball. Add in minigames, achievement-chasing, and a solid storyline, and the potential grows. However, whether or not MMO gamers will be as crazy for LEGO Universe as they are for LEGO bricks will remain to be seen.

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