LEGO Universe has been officially out for a few days now, but for many, the launch was mostly symbolic. Players who pre-ordered the game had access as early as the 8th of October, more than a fortnight before launch. I started playing about halfway between the early starter date and the official launch, and as I said in my impressions piece about a week ago, I managed to finish about half of the structured content in just a couple of days.
LEGO Universe is extremely faithful to its source material. In every single area of the game, wherever there is something living or something man-(or minifigure-)made, it is made entirely out of LEGO blocks. It’s effective at portraying a world of plastic, and many of the non-LEGO set pieces, such as the giant tree in the Forbidden Valley, are just as visually enticing.
Like previous LEGO games, smashing an enemy results in a shower of blocks. Enemies drop money, health, armor, which functions as a second health bar, and imagination, which functions as the main resource for pretty much every ability, combat related or otherwise, in the game. They also occasionally drop items and blocks which can be used in the build mode.
The build mode is LEGO Universe’s second biggest strength. As it stands right now, I have over 720 different kinds of blocks. That’s different kinds. I have well over three thousand blocks in total — probably closer to four. The blocks can be used on your claimed property to build literally whatever you want. There are also pre-made models that can be used as-is, or broken down into their base blocks. Building is a pretty simple task of choosing the block and slapping it wherever it fits. They can be moved and colored after they’re placed if need be, and once you’ve crafted a model, you can move it as a whole or break it back down. Models and bricks can have behaviors placed on them, such as exploding on contact, moving when activated, or spawning health, armor, imagination or enemies. It’s all isolated to the confines of your property, but you can allow other players to walk in and inspect your creations.
If you love the creative aspects of real LEGO, then LEGO Universe does quite a good job of recreating that sensation without ruining your fingers on the sharp corners. It also does an excellent job of recreating the frustration of sifting through a bucket of blocks in search of something specific. Although there is a method for sorting your bricks, it can be extremely unintuitive, especially given the audience Universe is aiming for. For one thing, the button buried in the menus and is extremely small. It also sorts in a kind of strange way — blocks fall into categories, like basic, space, architectural, tiles etc… and you can choose up to three to narrow the collection down. What the search doesn’t include is a means of searching by the size of the block, so if you’re just looking for something that will fill in a 3-by-3 gap in your model, you’ll have to work out whether you’re looking for something sloped, grated, hollow or from one of the very vaguely named sets, and then just sift through the remaining blocks that are automatically placed in the order you found them. It’s better than nothing, but by no means as flexible as it could or should be, given the quantity of blocks.
I said that the brick build was the second strongest aspect in LEGO because the music takes the cake. In every area of every zone, there is a new, usually orchestral, track that completely sets the mood for the area. Even better, each piece of music plays for a good long while before it loops. Whenever you think it can’t go anywhere, it surprises you and takes a turn. Even the pirate theme, which could have easily been an annoying little ditty, is melodious and a joy to listen to. The entire soundtrack is a really great blend of fun, atmospheric and catchy, and I can’t say a negative thing about it. Even the musical snippets like playing the organ at the Pirate camp, or using the boom box item ooze with quality.
Blocks. Lots and lots of blocks.
The writing, from the opening cinematic, to the quest info, to the little bits of dialogue characters say as you walk past, is of a fairly high quality and occasionally very witty. The story, which involves the player characters trying to "save imagination" from the malevolent Maelstrom is cute.
Barring glitches, the mini-games are also pretty solid although far too limited. The racing mini-game has two cleverly designed tracks which are let down a little bit by the average racing mechanics. The shooting gallery mini-game is pretty standard but includes a combo system and the opportunity to win models to spice things up.
But they, like the rest of the game, suffer from potentially ruinous bugs. While in the shooting gallery, for example, my aiming reticule vanished entirely, meaning I had no way to tell where I was aiming. In the broader world, the bugs are worse. One bug involved a Quick Build — a structure that players whip together at the cost of some imagination to affect the world; bridging a gap, for example. This one was a trampoline perched atop a stone spire that players had to jump down to from a ledge. Once there, they were meant to take the trampoline to the next spire and travel onwards, except the trampoline vanished entirely. Players were blindly jumping onto the spire and, finding nowhere else to go, plummeting to their doom. There was no way to progress further than about 50 feet into the level because of this bug.
Another had one of my quest objectives — a giant imagination orb — never appear where it was meant to, meaning I couldn’t claim one of my properties until I re-logged. A separate one caused blocks and models to vanish from my inventory permanently for being too hasty with the shift key (which picked up blocks) during build mode. A further one had me repeatedly running around with zero health, meaning I was meant to be dead. Enemy attack animations frequently don’t appear or appear to not hit you, even though you still take damage, and wind-pits which are meant to carry players across gaps often stop you from moving forward midway through and let you sink slowly to your death.
None of these compare to the constant frustration of the pets, though. Taming a pet involves a mini-game where you guess which blocks are in a model they show you. The problem is, the models are sometimes very difficult to distinguish, and you could fail multiple times simply because one part is two smaller blocks stuck together instead of the single (identical looking) larger block you chose. It also sometimes requires a surprisingly intimate knowledge of real LEGO blocks which many players may not have. Once you’ve got your pet, things go rapidly downhill.
Oh, did you want to LEAVE that stone spire of doom? Well you can’t.
Pet AI is awful, and they float all over the map, twitching and writhing like a possessed dog with fleas. They are unresponsive when you ask them to dig up chests (instead preferring to twitch back and forth), and get stuck behind really simple hills when you take a slight shortcut. There are 18 different pets, and no way to perceive what makes them different other than their appearance. They are different, though, not that the difference seems to make a whole lot of impact anywhere. Also, some of the pets — like the crab — just look kind of dumb.
Questing is a very mixed bag. A lot of the quests are fine; go kill this, go collect that etc… but then you get quests that are like "Go talk to Mr. LEGO over in an area that takes ten minutes to get to." You go there, and — no joke, I had a quest that did this to me — they will tell you they have no idea what that character is talking about and you should go talk to someone in the same zone you just freakin’ came from. There are also far too many quests with diminishing returns; "Go find me ten infected blocks." And then, "Great! Now go find me twenty five." The racing quests also don’t look at you
r previous runs. If one wants you to win a race and the next wants you do a lap in under a minute, you have to do another run even if you did your minute-lap in the first race.
Inventory management is pointlessly overcomplicated. A lot of actions require that you equip a certain item. The Maelstrom Hammer, for example, breaks red-glowing objects, while the Water Sprayer waters flowers and washes skunks, and the Pirate Hook builds special structures. They all fit in the weapon slot and you have to switch between them and whatever weapon you use to attack with regularly. The items also sit scattered in your single item bag with the dozens of different restorative items you pick up, and it becomes a chore to hunt through and find what you need. Then there are different hats that you need to wear if you want fly to one of the mid-level hub areas. This is instead of saving you an inventory slot and just giving you the option to fly there as a button before you fly. If it sounds a little confusing and unnecessary, that is because it is.
There’s only one location where grouping and working together is encouraged, and beyond that, it feels detrimental to see other players near you. Combat-based quests are infrequent and don’t have you kill that many monsters, so it comes as a shock that purchasing items from your faction is prohibitively expensive and you are unlikely to get a single tier-3 piece of armor (the highest tier of armor at the moment) before you’ve completed almost every quest in the game. The combat itself is simple but clunky, as the auto-targeting (which you have no control over) often targets something you’re not trying to hit.
And that is LEGO Universe’s biggest flaw; there is simply too little structured content. I estimate there is maybe fifteen hours worth of questing. As a one-off purchase, the length is fine, but this game comes with a subscription. Chances are most players will complete the quests in the game well before their complementary month of game time is up though, so what reason is there to subscribe? Ten dollars a month to maintain a virtual LEGO trophy room simply won’t cut it for most players who are averse to paying a little more for the thousands of hours of content that other MMOs offer.
LEGO Universe is what people in the real-estate industry would call a fixer-upper. There are a lot of issues that mask the elements that sets Universe apart from other MMOs, including bugs, strange gameplay choices and a general lack of content. If all you want to do is build, LEGO Universe might provide the perfect outlet for your creative juices at a fraction of the cost of actual LEGO, but you will have to contend with the multitude of issues that plague the wider game.