Lego Universe: Review

Game Review: Lego Universe

Release: October 26, 2010

Genre: Massive Multi-player Online

Developer: NetDevil

Available Platforms: PC

MSRP: $39.99 US + Subscription
$9.99/Month or $89.99/Year

ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+


Lego has just released their most ambitious project to date; Lego Universe.  Targeted at the eight and over Lego fan crowd, this game is an attempt to inject the charm and sparkle of the Lego video game formula into a subscription based massive multi-player online game that is based on Lego’s own original intellectual properties.  While this is a bit like breeding canaries with alligators, the development team at  NetDevil is off to a relatively good launch, although not bug or frustration free.  Want to know what to expect from this “canary-gator”?  Read on.

A Return to Lego’s Original Characters
This shift to use their own IP instead of licensed characters (Batman, Harry Potter, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, etc.) makes perfect financial sense.  Not only does this keep their costs, and subscription costs down, it also helps in cross marketing their own characters and themes.  This is not to say we will not see the licensed characters as part of Lego Universe in the future.  In March,  NetDevil told GameInformer the licensed properties would not be included in Lego Universe “at launch,” which in my opinion, leaves the door wide open.

The Storyline
Four explorers searching the galaxy for a rare resource come upon the cube-shaped planet Crux where they find the last source of pure imagination.  Three of the explorers want to use the imagination to create wonderful new things of their dreams, but the fourth sets out to show the others how dangerous imagination can be.  In the process, he is pulled into the vortex of imagination and corrupts it, creating turning it into the Maelstrom.  The Maelstrom became so powerful that it shattered Crux into many smaller worlds that we can explore in the game.

The remaining three explorers create the Nexus Force, dedicated to preserving imagination from extinction.  Unable to agree on how to best accomplish their mission, three separate factions were created, each with their own specialty; The Assembly (building), The Sentinels (battling)  and The Venture League (exploring).  A fourth faction to study the Maelstrom and use its own dark powers against it was also created and named The Paradox.

You, the player, are tasked with choosing a faction to align with and help Nexus Force spread imagination to all of the fragments of Crux.

Getting Started
When starting the game you will have four available “slots” to create Lego mini-figures which will be your character(s) during your adventures.  Since there are four alliances that can be made, it’s logical that a player would want four characters since a mini-figure can only be alligned with one faction.

Creating the figure is straight forward since there are limited options for clothing in the beginning.  Lego has come up with a nice – kid friendly – way to name your characters.  Three words can be chosen from a predefined list of words – eliminating rude, offensive or suggestive monikers.  I’ve grown to like my Lego alter-ego name, Jet Fried Potato.

The freshly assembled are dropped into a simple tutorial level named The Venture Explorer.  Here you get some of the basic tools that will be used throughout the game; a Thinking Hat that allows you to construct with Lego bricks among them.  Controlling the character, jumping, building, etc. are covered here as you construct a rocket to be used to transport you to the next stop, Avant Gardens,  where more preparation is undergone before joining the Nexus Force.  Once leaving The Venture Explorer, there is no return.

Basics of Gameplay
The gameplay found in Lego Universe is about what one would expect of a Lego MMO.  There is lots of exploring and scavaging, lots of enemies in the larger worlds, and a ton of fetch / delivery missions.

The inventory system, or back pack, keeps your items you collect divided into sections for parts, models, bricks and behaviors.  While the bricks area will hold a massive amount of bricks, the parts area is very limited when compared to the number of “collectible” earned items that get dropped on you.  Very soon that Steam Punk Rocket T-shirt that you intended to keep will go the way of the local merchant in want of more backpack space.

While there are vehicles and racing,  the vehicles are not used off the raceways so all of the commuting is done by foot – or in the case of going from one world to another – by rocket, but you will need to walk to the rocket platform in order to make the journey.  No fast-travel here.

A wide variety of pets can be found wandering the various areas, and once tamed, they will follow and assist by digging up treasures for you.

While there is a certain amount of grinding to get coins for purchases, there will be no grinding to level characters – since there technically is no leveling system in the game.

The “mana” of the game is imagination, which oddly looks like a small glowing orb, or a radioactive tribble.  Building items cost imagination and nearly everything that gets smashed drops some imagination.  It’s a clever fit into the story line – since imagination literally powers your ability to build and create in the game.  In the beginning, running out of imagination limits how often mini-games can be played (they cost imagination also) and what can be built, but your imagination storage will expand as blue imagination bricks are found.
The personal play area, or Block Yard, is reminiscent of the Lego Creator games.  Here you can use your collected models and individual bricks to build whatever your like.  In addition, this area can be made public so others can come and see your creations.  As the video below will show, the area is a bit small, but a lot can be done with it.  Many missions reward you with models such as modular castle walls, or house components that make building here fun instead of tedious.

Current World Areas
The world of this “massive” multi-player online game is not all that massive, yet.  Here are all of the areas currently available in the game:

The Venture Explorer – The tutorial level is very small area.

The Gnarled Forest is full of Pirates

Avant Gardens – This is the port of entry to the Lego Universe World.  Here you will get your first weapon and shield, do battle with some Stromlings and begin to take on gaming missions.  This is also a fairly small area.

Block Yard Properties – This is where players have private (or public) property to build their own creations and store their models.  Each area is very small.

Nimbus Station – This could be considered the “hub world” of Lego Universe as it is currently laid out.  This is a medium sized area with access via rocket to each of the other areas.  Each faction is represented here and operates a shop to purchase alliance specific items such as clothing, armor and helmets.  Access to areas beyond Nimbus Station require you to be affiliated with one of the four factions.  Of course there is work to do before being allowed to choose.

From Nimus Station all of the following areas can be accessed once a faction alliance has been selected.:

Nimbus Raceway – A small racetrack where cars can be assembles and you learn to race them.

Pet Cove – Another small area.  This is dedicated to learning how to tame pets – yes, there are pets wandering all over the place.  Pets are needed in order to dig up treasure chests and the like.

Lego Club Area – A world restricted to Lego Club members.  Items and videos are available here that are offered nowhere else in the Lego Universe.

Dragons await you in The Forbidden Valley

Dragons await in The Forbidden Valley

Gnarled Forest – This is one of only two large worlds that are currently open.  Themed around the Pirate and Jungle Lego kits.  This is a major area with platforming, racing, battles, mini-games and more.

Forbidden Valley – The second or only two worlds, a Ninja themed world,  that is as dark as it is large.  This is also a major world with a huge variety of activities for the aspiring Lego Ninja.

Currently this is all that Lego Universe has to offer, which by feel, seems smaller than a typical Lego console game release – say Lego Indiana Jones 2 for example.  Keep in mind, this game will continue to expand, and several additional worlds are already on the way.

Additional Worlds Coming
The Nexus Tower – The gate for this area is already in Nimbus Station but is not open as of this writing.  In the distance beyond the gate, a large starship can be seen docked at a tower.

Information debuted / leaked at Brickcon 2010 implies that there are several more worlds in development including Robot World, Snow World / Deep Freeze, and MoonBase.  (Wikipedia)

Doesn’t Quite Hit The Mark
While I’m no stranger to PC gaming, I found the controls a little awkward and more complicated than necessary.  For example, to travel from any world to another world you must first find the launch pad that goes to your destination, walk to it, open the inventory backpack, drag your rocket to the launch pad… Once I’ve launched the rocket once or twice, let me just click on through.

This is coming from a writer who has played all the other Lego games on a console with a gamepad – so there was some level of expectation here.  Movement is not smooth and predictable like it is on the console games and the camera, for the most part, stays directly behind your character in Lego Universe.  I ended up mapping many of the controls to a gamepad using Pinnacle Game Profiler since there is no in-game support for gamepads.  I found this to be a fair compromise for basic movement, hacking, slashing and jumping.

Platforming and racing are both difficult only because of the controls.  This game has the ability to shine, but it still needs some polish – and I have no doubt that it will get it.  I had two occasions to send tech support information on issues I had come across.  Both were already documented issues, they were already being addressed, and I had a reply in less that two hours.  For ANY tech support – that’s damn good.  During the first week of release – that’s amazing.

Will Indy have to save this game?

Part of the sparkle that is missing may be the licensed properties.  Seeing a character like Hans Solo or Indiana Jones translated into the Lego world has a charm all of it’s own because we already have some emotional investment in those characters.  There are inside jokes and references that make the licensed properties adorable and fun, familiar worlds to be submersed in.  Fine tuning the mechanics and adding the licensed worlds to Lego Universe may be what is necessary to make this yellow feathered gator fly.

The Bottom Line
The target audience for Lego Universe is somewhere between eight and ten up through adult.  It only requires that you be a Lego fan or want a relatively child-friendly MMO for your kids.  But at a retail shelf price of $39.99 US plus subscription fees of $9.99 US per month or $89.99 US per year, I have to ask myself if the current amount of content is worth that continuing investment.  I continue to play the game and it has grown on me since I started playing it back in Beta.  I really want to love this game, but so far, it’s only a crush – but there’s still hope.

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