There's not much content, but what's there is highly-polished and tight controls mean your children can safely explore this virtual world.
Kid-friendly online games are rarely as glossy as their grown-up counterparts, but Lego Universe is anything but a poor replica of an adult game. Instead, it’s a distinctive combination of action, puzzle solving and role-playing elements, with a strong emphasis on co-operative rather than competitive gaming. The plot combines Lego creativity with MMORPG tradition: the Universe has been torn apart by chaotic Maelstrom energy and it’s the adventurers’ job to help rebuild it.
Like Lego’s massively popular single-player games, Universe is designed for wide appeal. The puzzles and gameplay are beautifully balanced, as are the themes of the different game worlds. Younger kids will enjoy dressing their Lego avatar (or Minifigure in official parlance) as heroic pirates or martial artists, while teens and adults will enjoy the sly pop culture references – including Lego’s nod to the eternal pirates vs. ninjas vs. zombies debate.
The world your Minifigure roams is art in plastic brick form. Even cut-scenes, such as when you zip to another region in your rocket ship, show your character and your custom rocket exactly as you built them. Areas like the ominous Forbidden Valley, plagued by dragons and zombie samurai infested with Maelstorm energy are lovingly rendered in dark, menacing colours. Elsewhere, you’ll find lush forests and herds of wild animals waiting to be tamed.
There are three core elements to the game: adventuring, building and interaction with other players. It’s the adventure that’s the real hook here, and it’s obvious how much attention has been lavished on every aspect, from plot to puzzles and environments. There’s plenty of running, jumping and slashing at enemies, who disintegrate into piles of bricks and bonuses, but there are also tranquil secret areas, mini-games to win items or tame pets and some epic questing.
Throughout the game, you’re showered with items, rewards and Xbox-style achievements. The downside to this is that, although you can carry infinite building blocks to play with on your own in-game property, you get very limited inventory space for weapons and armour. This means you end up discarding a lot of cool-looking items because they’re just not useful enough. Secondary inventories for Lego bricks and ready-made scenery blocks suffer from the opposite problem – you end up with thousands, with few options to sort them. We still had fun constructing castles and gardens in our personal building zones, but it requires some painstaking sifting and positioning and still isn’t as much fun as real Lego bricks.
Once you’ve finished building spaceships and fighting against robots in the introductory areas, you’ll have to join one of four in-game factions, divided into construction, exploration, combat and the chaotic Paradox faction, which seeks use Maelstrom energy itself to restore the world. This being an MMO, there’s naturally some levelling-up to be done. Although you can earn health and energy upgrades by completing certain quests, there’s no traditional levelling system. Your stats are instead largely determined by your equipment. Much of the best equipment early in the game can only be bought from specialist faction vendors, where, in addition to large amounts of gold, you’ll need faction tokens to buy gear. Faction tokens can only be earned by smashing enemies. Lots of enemies.
We had to invest a couple of hours’ solid combat time to earn enough to buy Level 2 gear – there are currently only three levels of equipment available, although we expect to see more as the game expands. Acquiring faction tokens gets easier as your equipment improves enough for you to face tougher foes, who drop more tokens. However, in typical RPG fashion, better equipment costs more, too.