Ah, LEGO. Who in this world was unfortunate enough to grow up without the wonderful plastic bits of imagination? I remember specific types of LEGO, from the hinged legs of the minifigs to the more advanced gears and pistons of the Technic sets. We used to build great long space battleships, similar to the ones you might see in Star Blazers, and we would run down the hall at each other, smashing them into hundreds of wonderful hard plastic pieces. LEGO built my childhood and was as important to me as destroying wasp's nests and building forts. Of course, girls moved to the top of the list pretty soon after that.
So when I heard about LEGO Universe, I was as excited as any normal person would be. I imagined building anything possible, sort of like a child-friendly Second Life, and spending hours in gleeful, plastic bliss. What I found during the beta greatly disappointed me.
Flash forward to now, and I have to say that my opinion has changed quite a bit. Let me tell you what I found, OK? Click past the cut... but leave the massive battleships behind for now.
It turns out that LEGO Universe is more of a linear quest- and story-driven experience than I would have expected. In the beta, I barely made it past the first few levels. I was so disappointed with the controls and immediate feeling of grind that I just gave up. The fact that it had no free-to-play after launch turned me off even more. Nowadays it just feels dated to play a game that offers no trial or asks for a subscription.
Still, I wanted to give it a second chance since the game has gone free-to-play. If you watch the embedded video of my livestream event, you will see how quickly I ran out of the "free" content. The free-to-play in this game refers to a few levels of basic, introductory content, access to an instanced building area, and that's it. Now, there is nothing wrong with the amount of content the game allows you to experience... but let's not call it free-to-play. My columns have been plagued by comments from readers who do not trust that term, mainly because of games like LEGO Universe claiming to be free-to-play when, in fact, they are not. Just call it a trial and we'll be good.
Don't let the lack of free detract from the game, though. It truly is a lot of fun. Of course, it took me a while to realize this, and I really noticed it as soon as I was forced to subscribe in order to move forward, but the world did open up and impressed me with its beauty and depth. For a world made of shiny plastic bricks, this one sure is pretty. There are nice lighting effects, wonderful atmospheric outdoor areas, razor sharp and sterile alien environments, and scary, purplish haunted caves. The designers for this MMO deserve a lot of credit, especially since they put so much into a game made for "kids."
Character creation is adorable but limited at first. Fortunately, soon enough it becomes obvious that characters can look any number of ways. In fact, it was hard to find two players who looked similar at all. I was simply thrilled to see all of the cool backpacks stuffed with dinosaurs, shiny swords, fancy robot arms and other detailed character items. Within a few hours of playing the game, I had a cool-looking wizard sort of character, one who created pets out of thin air. I also had an owl on my shoulder, one that was animated and full of personality. I have to say that this MMO version of the popular LEGO action games is probably even more detailed and fanciful than the console versions. I can see how anyone of almost any age could get into the game.
But you know there has to be bad news, and there is. My biggest gripe with the game has to be the odd controls. Yes, the game features standard WASD movement, sort of, but for some reason my character kept facing enemies as he was attacking them, pulling the camera with him. It made me feel slightly nauseated and definitely confused. I would zoom out in the hopes that my character would just continue to turn and attack the nearest enemy, but suddenly the camera would zip around and it would take me a second to get my bearings. The controls felt cheap.
Combat and movement is also very sluggish in general. I noticed that in some areas, the developers had placed little speed buff markers or areas on the ground to help players run faster as they went between quests. I thought that the presence of these airport-style moving sidewalks only shined light on the fact that there is way too much sluggish, bloated movement in the game. My little plastic figure was going to fall apart due to all of the running. It was awfully boring. Why do developers insist on making character slosh their way through miles of the same areas? Yes, I understand and am a huge fan of immersive, realistic travel, but LEGO isn't exactly going for realism. Give us a mount, for the love of those miniature plastic legs!
It's important to note that building is not nearly as free as you would expect from anything with the word LEGO in the title. As you destroy enemies and objects, you will gain familiar LEGO pieces to build with later. I often received packs of pieces as quests rewards, as well. From what I can tell, the only place that you can build freely is in certain marked, instanced zones. It's fun to finally be able to lay down some bricks, but it's a little strange to have so many restrictions on when and where you can do it. Then again, it is a game made for younger players, players who might not be able to follow the rules when it comes to griefing with plastic.
Once you get used to the layout of a certain area and realize that most of the map is color-coded or features helpful signs, it becomes more enjoyable to move around. After all, the areas truly are some of the most unique-looking I have seen in any MMO. They invite players to explore, and the animations and emotes of the NPCs and player characters are downright fun to watch. I would love to see anti-aliasing support for the game, though.
In the end, I had a ton of fun playing LEGO Universe. I felt a little duped into subscribing (watch the video), but the game is still worth the tiny entry fee of 10 dollars per month. I was glad to see the optional download and free client, and the community is fun to be around. I'll definitely be exploring it some more over this next month. Color me pleasantly surprised.
Next week I am going to revisit Face of Mankind. The new management claims that there is a newer and better tutorial system in place, and it seems as though the team might be forcing roleplay more. I hope so!
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Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email! You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Raptr!