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Wot I Think: Lego Universe

I've spent rather a lot of time of late in the lands of Lego Universe, the kid-friendly MMO from Auto Assault creators, NetDevil. It's been out for a couple of weeks now, so how does the brick-built world fare? Read on to find out Wot I Think.

The very cutest moment in Lego Universe occurs before you've even logged in. At the menu screen you're asked, by a friendly Lego man, to insert a username and password. As you start to type in the password field the Lego guy covers his eyes. It's utterly adorable. It's demonstrative of the breezy, sweet attitude that permeates throughout. It also seems like the same posture everyone involved in balancing the game must have adopted.

This really is the most peculiar thing. Apparently designed for a family audience, it's a combination of cute, light-hearted challenges, and some brain-numbing grinding that I cannot imagine any child, nor indeed adult, feeling thrilled about pursuing. It's the joy of watching your little figure manically building bridges out of Lego, and the disappointment of realising you have to trudge across the entire width of the game yet again at the character's snail pace. It’s colourful and friendly, but ridden with bugs and irritations.

It's also a very, very small MMO. At this point, in the first few weeks of launch, there are only four small-ish locations to explore, along with a few teeny-tiny extra areas. They're all densely packed with missions, over 40 in a couple of zones, along with a kerbillion collectables, 18 pets to tame, and a few minigames to compete in. If it were a single-player RPG, it would be a decent length, and perhaps worth a one-off payment. But as an MMO, with a monthly subscription, it feels like just when you've gotten established, you run out of things to do.

So the lands of Lego are in a spot of trouble. Something called the Maelstrom is causing Lego creatures, and the bricks themselves, to become corrupted. The central story is your attempt to fight back against this evil, all players on the side of good.

What you do involves a lot of smashing bricks, which is clearly a good thing. Combat is extremely simple – you generally have one attack, on the left mouse button, and you hit stuff. Bonus abilities, linked to equipped items, are fired off with a number key, but unless you’re sneaking ahead of your skills aren’t really crucial. When things are hit they explode into their constituent Lego blocks, and that’s always a satisfying sight. Much as it’s a satisfying sight in Lego Star Wars, and any number of that series. However, what you don’t have here is the excellent plaforming to surround it. (You do, however, have a double-jump, which wins it a lot of points.)

It’s not fair to say that it follows the traditions of MMOs. There’s an awful lot more arcade gaming going on here. But you’re still trudging about, completing chains of quests, driven only by the desire to get the better equipment in order to survive in the more dangerous areas.

To do almost anything in the game you need Imagination. This exists in the form of blue orbs that are generated by hitting most things. So smash a park bench, a rock, or a baddy, and you’ll gather a few. These are then used for building things out of Lego piles you find, or taming pets, or using rockets, or getting pets out of your inventory, or… anything, really. For no discernable reason. And early on, when the game only gives you a maximum of 3, it’s infuriating. I’m up to 20 now, and it’s still a pain in the arse. Can’t I just, you know, do stuff?

There are no levels here at all, and no stats for your character. Instead it’s all about the items you’re equipped with. The only equivalent to levels are the limitations of which faction items you can use, and these are unlocked not by XP but rather by collected tokens. Which I’ll now explain.

In one of the most spectacularly awful decisions I’ve seen an MMO make, in order to purchase the specialist clothes and weapons you’ll need, you are forced to gather faction tokens. About a third of the way through the existing content your character can choose to follow one of the game’s four factions. The Sentinels are warriors, charged with protecting the mini-figures of the Lego universe. The Assembly are engineers, who can build mechanisms and creatures to aid them. The Venture League are pirates and daredevils, who progress through puzzle solving and discovery. And Paradox are those who take the “darker path”, using the evil of the Maelstrom against it, “tapping into darkness.”

What difference this makes is a little unclear. I picked Venture League, despite the obvious appeal of Paradox, because I fancied seeing what puzzles it would offer. I can’t remember encountering any at all. But it does allow you access to one of the four faction shops in the main hub world, Nimbus Station. Here you can buy items specific to your class, with bonuses for getting complete sets. But to get these you not only need thousands of the in-game currency (not generally a huge problem, coins are exploding all over the place), but also faction tokens. And not just a few. To get any Rank 2 item you’ll need 80 for each. So to get the four you need for a complete set, with the guns costing twice as many, that’s 400 tokens. The most any enemy will drop is 2. So you can enjoy the maths of that for yourself.

Don’t get all four items and you may as well stick with the Rank 1 stuff, as the loss of bonus for a complete set is too punishing. Worse, those enemies that drop tokens are able to kill you in one hit. There’s techniques you can use to avoid their attacks, but sadly the game’s glitchy combat will frequently make that impossible. For mystifying reasons your character will auto-target, and it’s rarely on the thing you’re facing. Which means rather than hitting the evil pirate you’re fighting, you’ll instead rotate 90 degrees to punch the deadly exploding chest, killing yourself. Great.

Um, right, great.

Fortunately death is a very minor event in Lego Universe. You regenerate a few steps from where you fell, and the coins you drop in death are quickly gathered back up. This doesn’t making it any less frustrating, however, when you’re farming for tokens and getting mobbed by literally ten one-hit-kill enemies at once. The mobbing is horrendous, baddies charging from the other side of areas if they see you on your own. (See the pic above.)

And in the couple of weeks I’ve been playing, either side of the official launch, I’ve spent an awful lot of time on my own. It’s a very, very empty world. Saturday afternoons have been the only time I’ve found it noticeably populated, the rest of the time, even weekday evenings, I can trudge huge distances without running into another player.

That’s not an enormous issue for much of the game. You can single-player your way through most of the content, but for a few of the larger challenges toward the end of what’s in there at the moment. I’ve yet to figure out how to taken down a dragon on my own, for instance. But this is certainly an enormous issue when it comes to the racing games.

There are a couple of tracks – not an impressive number – on which you can race up to six other players. But in all the time I’ve played I’ve only twice managed to find a race with three. Otherwise I’ve had to race against one other, or give up and wander off to do something else. And rather ingeniously, the game does not recognise a two-player race as counting toward any of the race-related quests. “Now win a race!” I was told, having won about six already. But no, when I reported the bug that my subsequent wins against another player weren’t being recorded, I was informed that I needed to beat at least two others. Which wasn’t really possible. The racing is pretty crappy, as it happens, with some dreadfully clunky handling.

The pets are one of the nicest ideas, but horribly executed. Around each area you’ll find tameable animals in groups, which can be added to your inventory if you can complete a challenge. As long as you’ve got enough Imagination to start it, of course. You’ll see a rotating Lego construction, and you have to pick three to six blocks from a selection on the right that are parts of it. But this is idiotically obscure, forcing you to guess wildly on many of them. Succeed and the pet is yours, and will trot alongside you, and let you use certain launch pads that require a pet to press the button.

The trouble is, their AI is non-existent, mostly spinning on the spot rather than going anywhere you need them, popping in and out of existence, and then randomly vanishing away completely. They’re buggy beyond belief, and mostly infuriating.

Almost as useless as the real version.

What’s great, however, is the collecting. Every area is littered with things to find, encouraging exploration and the obvious satisfaction that comes with ticking off the attached achievements. Often these are cunningly hidden, or put seemingly out of reach, and here you can enjoy solving those challenges. Here there’s a decent amount of potential fun, double-jumping your way about, scooping up bonuses.

But for a game that’s supposed to be friendly to children, the interface is a jumbled mess. The inventories especially are just inaccessible clutter. There’s four pages to it, Items, Models, Bricks and Behaviours. The first is your weapons, armour, bonus items, clothes and tokens, and has limited space. The second contains all the various modelling pieces you may have for building Lego homes (more on that in a bit), along with your pets, rockets you’ve built for travelling between areas, and cars you’ve built for racing. It has infinite space, and jumbles everything together, with no useful means of separating your pets from your walls from your rockets. It’s awful. The Bricks tab contains the literally thousands of Lego blocks and pieces you gather as you play, which can be filtered, but in a bewildering fashion. And finally, the behaviours are so few that they don’t cause as much trouble.

MMO basics are missing, such as being able to easily compare your current weapon to a potential new one, and the information screen about your character is so massively complicated that I think it would require a team of scientists to decipher. This is mostly, but not necessarily only, achievements, which represent one of the many, many collectibles the game tries to busy you with.

The other way to keep you busy is the Lego brick building. Each area has a rocket site that takes you to a space where (once cleared of Maelstrom enemies) you can build from the bits and bobs you’ve collected.

These take the form of models - larger complete sections, such as a wall with a window, a doorway, or castle turrets, pirate ship sections, etc. And there’s the option to build with the pure Lego bricks that you gather in vast numbers throughout. These are given to you randomly, so getting useful things like a six-by-two brick is a rare treat. However, you can buy them directly from Brick Vendors around the place.

To build with the models your little Lego guy lugs them about, and you walk them into place. However, for the bricks it’s a floating camera. And it’s just horrible to use. Trying to line bricks up, then wrestling with the awful muddle of multiple controls to remember how to rotate, then to change the colour of, etc, for every single brick becomes agony. After struggling with it for a while I threw up my arms and shouted, “I COULD JUST PLAY WITH SOME LEGO!”

If you’re more patient and willing to persist, you can do some impressive stuff. The Behaviours let you tell the models how to behave in response to a player. So a door can swing open, or a tower of bricks can explode then rebuild, and so on. Making your area public you can let others come explore and experience your creations. If they came to mine they’d find two walls of a house surrounded by some chunks of castle, a strange piece of “art”, and a shark wiggling about on its belly. It’s quite a place.

The trouble is, that’s no end-game. It’s a fraction of the fun of playing with real Lego, and the bemusing inventories and icons make it so much hassle.

There’s obvious room for the game to expand. Various areas refuse to let you in at the moment, and there’s always the possibility of simply adding more floating worlds to fly to. But to launch with such a miniature world seems a huge mistake. It’s hard to imagine how anyone couldn’t finish off all the content in the 30 days of subscription that comes with a purchase. And more likely in four or five. Why you’d pay for a subscription at this point I can’t imagine.

But it is tremendously cute, and a huge amount of effort has gone in to making sure kids are protected. It restricts the words you can use, both in describing your constructions and during chat, to those that appear in its allowed dictionary. Names you give your pets are checked before they’re public, and your creations you make public are vetted by humans before they’re open to other players. Sorry – no willy towers.

There’s no doubt this is a safe MMO world to let kids into. And fears of over-playing will be quickly quelled when they rapidly run out of content. But I think it far more frustrating that they, much as I, keep hitting the game’s tiresome walls. By the time my missions were telling me to visit the last world, the Forbidden Valley, I was nowhere near equipped for the enemies, forcing me into spending many hours harvesting tokens in a frustrating, boring grind. And now, once again, I find myself unable to progress because I’m not a part of a larger team to take out a dragon. But I’ve been everywhere multiple times, and see what it has to offer.

Which is a bright, vibrant world, amusing and cute, with a very deep understanding of the fun and mythos of Lego. Unfortunately it’s also a buggy, poorly fronted experience, and one that’s far too brief for an MMO. It's more Lego Village than Universe.

If NetDevil start adding considerable new content to the world, and I’m talking about doubling what’s currently there at least, then I can see this taking off. Hopefully updates will sort out the awful inventory and confusing menus for brick building, and fix the utterly broken pet AI. And the damned mobbing. As it is, I can’t see how it will be worth anyone’s ongoing subscription.

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