Lego Universe is a kid-friendly MMORPG for the Mac. Combining a full Lego adventure with the ability to design and build one's own Lego creations, Lego Universe generated considerable buzz from the legions of Lego fans that hoped to translate the popular building blocks into equally an addictive digital format.
For the first time ever, Lego fans hoped to be able to build their own Lego creations, test them out and then let them run free in a fully-realised Lego-themed MMO.
Unfortunately, Lego Universe is an ambitious and epic title that is saddled with expectations that no game could deliver on. Kids will love jumping around to the various Lego-themed worlds, but adults and long time Lego maniacs will find the Universe to be far too small, and the tools far too clunky to replace the real life blocks. Lego Universe is a fun diversion for a few hours, but until new worlds and new activities are added, this universe should remain only populated by kids and diehard fans.
Lego Universe resembles many other Lego games. Like Lego Star Wars, Harry Potter and Indiana Jones, you control a minifigure in a largely breakable world where you can earn points, weapons and health. You'll come upon "quick build" areas that will let your character to build interactive models in the Lego world.
Lego Universe begins like many MMORPGs: you must learn to fight. It seems that the Lego world has been torn apart by an evil Maelstrom, and now you must help your Lego brethren fight back the corrupted forces of the Maelstrom including evil pirates, samurai and spiders. So like when you were a kid, Lego Universe ignores the civilian model sets and instead focuses on militarising the little smiling brick people.
The Lego Universe is currently a handful of worlds and several hundred missions. The worlds are divided up loosely by the four militarised factions of the Lego people: you choose between joining up with the knights and samurai of The Sentinels, the high-tech builders of Assembly, the ninjas and dark wizards of Paradox, and the Venture League's pirates. It'll take you about 10 to 20 hours to complete most of the missions, but it'll take you much longer to max out your character. Earning faction-specific gear requires acquiring faction tokens, in-game currency usually found after defeating Maelstrom foes.
Some of the larger set pieces, like Paradox's Forbidden Valley, demonstrate an imagination and creativity that is worthy of the franchise. Advancing up the huge tree and earning the respect of the various ninja masters is one of the cooler segments of the game and even surpasses some of the moments in Lego Indiana Jones on my personal favorite Lego game moments.
The fruits of your labour are equally compelling, Ninja mask, gi, sword and skills are all pretty fun to play with. Seeing your little brick Ninja unleash throwing stars is also a really geeky and adorable moment.
But unfortunately there aren't more areas like it. The pirate/jungle environments are also very well realised, with some especially fun instances involving monkeys and jailers, but they all seem quite brief. I expected to be jumping up Lego crows' nests, engaging in battles with Lego ships of the line and even maybe fighting some Lego sea life. No such luck.
The biggest problem with Lego universe is that while the areas it has available are fun to bounce around, they don't seem nearly as vast and detailed as they could be. After playing for over 10 hours, I had already seen most of the areas I could. The additional missions that required me to travel back to the already well worn areas were just retreads of missions I'd already played through.
The other activities in the game vary in terms of how much attention you'll pay to them. Collecting and training your pet is a fun distraction (with nearly 20 different adorable pets to find, there has to be at least one that a child will find adorable), but the pets are only really useful for certain puzzles and for digging up treasure. Race courses are scattered throughout the game and feature some memorable settings. After playing Mario Kart though, you or your child will find the only real thrill in seeing their own customised racer on the course, and even that doesn't really affect their performance.
As Lego Universe's target audience is kids, I didn't expect Lego Universe's missions to be complicated mindbenders or bloody hack-and-slash fests. Instead, they're fairly standard MMORPG fare, retrieve this, talk to this person, find this, defeat that. Yet, some of the missions are so obtuse that even this 26-year-old gaming veteran had to go to the forums and figure out where the heck I was supposed to go. The hint system either makes things way too easy or doesn't help at all. I'm still searching for a replacement for an NPC's "ugly mug," for example.
Where Lego Universe starts to branch out and get creative is often where it falls right on its face. Some missions, like "do a dance routine" are adorable and only require a quick mouse click or two. But others, like the "repair three pipes" mission are... well, broken. As in, they cannot be beaten. Forum posters have suggested that there's been an update that fixes this rather large bug, but I've yet to see anyone complete it, the third quick build simply doesn't appear.
The other main issue with Lego Universe is the pure limitation the game places on your imagination. You can customise your racing car, rocket ship and character. You can even build large creations on the real estate you can "purchase" from in-game real estate agents. The variety of pieces you can customise for your character with is worthy of any MMORPG and kids will quickly enjoy dressing their little smiling Lego person with swords, helmets and shirts.
But for those who hoped to walk around Lego Island's main street in your custom Lego robot deathwalker, don't hold your breath. You can visit your neighbor's sandbox, but it was perhaps unrealistic to expect that you can bring your creations to the bigger play area.
Now, when I was a kid, I was a Lego artist. I don't mean I was one of those cute kids who threw on a couple of wheels to some bricks and loudly exclaimed: "Mommy, I made a car." I mean I made scale replicas of F-14s and a working Lego elevator. Those little green and blue plastic bricks were my clay, and I made beauty.
So you can imagine my frustration when I couldn't build a decent house in Lego Universe's build system. My pieces of Lego real estate in Lego universe is littered with pre-built models that I unlocked, but my own brick-by-brick creations are a frustrated mess. I visit other people's creations and they have built some impressive mountains, space stations, statues, etc. But the controls you use take some major patience to use, and even then you shouldn't expect the kind of intricacy you'd find in real-world brick building.
I can't imagine kids will want to put in the required hours to master the building aspect of the game, and it's my opinion adults won't wade through hours of gameplay to unlock the blocks to then have to deal with some clunky controls.
One final note I should make here is in regards to the child safety measures inherit in the game. Any questions you ask the group have to be approved by the administrators and there's plenty of auto completes to prevent curse words. You can't even name your animal anything offensive (not that I'm trying to be evil, but I was trying to test the limits of the game's censoring abilities). As far as MMOs go that are kid-friendly, I'll gladly take this over the larger, more convoluted FusionFall.
With nearly 30 years of models to use and endless possibilities for new ones, you'd think that Lego Universe would have an epically scaled, diverse world. After several delays, it doesn't seem that Universe has arrived yet. New worlds like Frostburgh help round out the universe, but the developers seem to be struggling to tie the whole package together neatly.
The hardcore Lego fanatic in me wanted to see under-sea worlds, appearances by old factions like Blacktron and the ability to make your own spacefighter. But the kid in me is too busy playing with the Lego katana and hoping to unlock that new pirate mask. Adults may find Lego Universe small and unsatisfying, but you'll be hard-pressed to find a more adorable (and safe) world for a kid to get lost in. Like a kid, this game is prone to beginner mistakes and incoherence, but you'll cut it some slack because it's still developing.