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First Look: Lego Minifigures Online

Massively Multiplayer Minifigs

Lego Minifigures Online is a functional title. This is a game in which tiny Lego humanoids have adventures together, in colourful worlds full of loot, quests and monsters. Funcom have a great deal of experience in the genre, but there will almost certainly be less decapitations and horrific conspiracies than in their previous massively multiplayer efforts. At a crowded and explosion-happy Gamescom, the sight of Lego was soothing and somehow reassuring. But what of the game itself? What is it doing with all of that lovely Lego*?

Didn’t Lego used to be about building things? Traveller’s Tales enjoyable series has found its own rhythm, humorous action adventures in which even the most complex constructions only require the prolonged push of a button and the secondary license trumps the primary one. That is to say, the idea of playing with Marvel characters in Lego form is more enticing than the idea of actually playing with Lego. The bricks are little more than an aesthetic and even that is increasingly diluted as voice acting and lavish backdrops vie for attention.

Enter Funcom. Back when the continuation of Dreamfall was still the hot topic down in the comments section, the Norwegian developer announced that they were working on a game based on Lego Minifigs, specifically the current sets, which are regularly released as collectable series. Like the ill-fated Lego Universe, the game would be an MMO, but details were thin on the ground. At Gamescom, the company showed their work for the first time. During that first look at the game, I was hoping for more construction options and, while that aspect of the game isn’t the focal point, between the cooperative exploration and combat, something else stood out. This is a game about collecting things.

Tapping into the variety of the figures, which range from ancient mythology to roller derby, Funcom’s game is an attempt to capture the pleasure of playing with toys. There will be more than a hundred figures at launch, drawing from the series that have already been released and launching to coincide with a new set, all of which will be included in the game. As new series are released, in physical form, codes in their containers will unlock them for use in the game, although it’s not yet clear whether that will be the only way to discover them.

Each figure has two attacks – some, like the roller derby girl’s team summon can be used for crowd control, others are direct assaults. As for the things you’ll be assaulting, they’ll have almost as much variety as the protagonists. The demo showed creatures from classical mythology and troll-laden fantasy lands, many of the larger ones designed as sculpted figures rather than minifigures. Like the minifigures themselves, and the majority of the game’s structures, the sculpted creatures follow the rules of Lego creation.

For the brick-building aficionado, that adherence to the logic of Lego architecture will be a key part of the game’s appeal. Even on the last afternoon of an exceptionally busy and noisy convention, the sight of constructed clouds drifting above a volcanic mountain managed to carve out a smile into my previously dormant face. If it achieves nothing else, the game will at the very least exude charm like a particularly careless or flatulent hedge wizard.

I assume that everybody imagined powers and abilities for their toys. My first Lego kit was a castle and attacking forces would lay siege, launching boulders (marbles) or removing blocks with a pick axe. Defenders could pull out bricks and drop lob them, exposing themselves to arrow (match stick) attacks, but possibly clobbering an attacker. Occasionally Boba Fett would jet across the parapets, dropping plasma grenades (marbles again – an early failure of imagination).

Particularly when played with a group of friends or friendly family, Lego Minifgures Online could hark back to those days. Each player can have three figures loaded as a ‘build’ at any one time, ensuring they have a range of powers to tackle any chosen level. As well as the codes packed in with the physical figures, new characters can also be unlocked by collecting bags, dropped by bosses. The figure inside is random, which should provide a degree of ‘I simply must catch them all’ mentality to take hold, particularly when a friend chances across the deadly groove of the disco figure that you so crave.

Funcom aren’t discussing the business model yet, apart from stating that the game is free to play, so it’s unclear whether some figures will only be available to paying customers. That would seem the obvious route toward the money tree but it would also impinge on the excitement of random discovery. Maybe areas will be locked behind a pay wall instead, or entire groups of figures, rather than individuals, will become available for a fee, added to the pool of possibilities. Time will tell, presumably by coughing up a press release at some point before next year’s launch. Press releases are the hairballs in the gullet of the future.

Describing how the whole thing plays out, level by level, enemy by enemy, is simple. Straightforward environmental puzzles and mobs of enemies punctuate the journey through an area, which contains one or two smaller bosses, and one large one that has some unique abilities or modes of attack. There is freedom to explore within each world, doing standard MMO jobs, such as killing x number of baddies, but the areas on show did direct the party. One was a dungeon, so that’s to be expected, but even the overland area seemed more linear than might be expected.

That may be a good fit for the game. Funcom are keen for Lego Minifigures to be accessible to players of any experience level. Every enemy shown, even Hades, put up less of a fight than a frog in a thresher, but when I quizzed the developers, they claimed that later dungeons would offer a challenge. It’s a game, with tasks and objectives, not just a tour through Lego worlds with a huge cast of characters.

I had to keep reminding myself that I was watching an MMO. It doesn’t look like one. Characters plod about in a way that suits their plastic origins, dodging and launching attacks. During combat, the screen can become too busy, with every special attack filling an area with shiny graphics, which become confused with one another when everybody strikes at the same time. I suppose the intention is to make me go ‘coo’ rather than making me crave better communication of cause and effect, but I tend toward the latter at all times. And there aren’t enough graphics in those attacks to really impress anyhow.

There is loot to collect, even though the minifigures can’t change their appearance or skills. Instead, they collect plates, which provide bonuses, acting as equipment but without compromising the design of the character. It’d actually be quite fun to mix or match, I reckon, popping a head off one chap and attaching it to the arm socket of another. That’s probably not how Lego works. I’ve been thinking about XCOM: Enemy Within too much.

In keeping with the cheerful cooperative nature of the game, loot is unique to each player, appearing only on their screen to avoid inter-party conflict. All experience is shared between players as well, so if Old Grandpappy Smith joins in and spends three hours playing as a man in a chicken suit and mumbling obscenities, he’ll still level up.

The more I think about it, the more I imagine I’d enjoy playing for a while, although I can’t help but wish it was a split person action adventure for me and a friend rather than an MMO. In this first showing, it was hard to see the advantages that a massive online world will offer, but I reckon Funcom might have a few tricks left in the bag. Give every player an area to build in, Lego Universe style, and there’s a reason to visit, and to carry on collecting.

Based on the current details, Lego Minifigures Online is closer to the Traveller’s Tales games than it first appears. An action game, best played with friends, that uses Lego as an effective and pleasing aesthetic. There is construction, but only of predesigned structures, which do admittedly slot together beautifully, in keeping with the rules of their physical counterparts. Hopefully there’ll be some freeform building hidden somewhere though. I don’t just want the look, I want the whole package.

*I choose not to write 'all of those lovely Legos'. Apologise if this offends your sensibilities. I also consistently fail to capitalise every sodding letter in the word.

Lego Minifigures Online is out in the second half of 2014.

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