Lego blocks are a toy that have been capturing imaginations for many years, leading the toy industry in many ways and on many levels. Unique product lines and stories work in conjunction with movie tie-ins and model replicas, forming a creative fanbase that ranges from children to adults. It's also one of the few brands out there to have made a relatively successful mark on the videogames industry, taking successful books and movies and adding a unique spin on them. But for all of Lego's success, they've yet to actually create any kind game (in a digital format) that captures the real spirit of building with Lego. One that encompasses the best of all of their unique worlds, with no franchise intervention. That is, until Lego Universe came along.
Lego Universe proudly claims to be an MMO, just like most online games these days, but I would hesitate to label it as such. It's played online, yes, and there can often times be a lot of players involved in what you're doing; but to simply slap on the MMO title leaves the stigma often attached to grind-oriented RPG's such as World of Warcraft, where the goal is to play as often as possible with no breaks to be considered a success. Instead Lego Universe takes aspects of popular RPGs, such as questing and equipment, and carefully weaves those qualities into one of the best platforming experiences to date.
The storyline is relatively simple, and provides just enough background for players to understand what the 'point' of the game is. The beacon of all creativity, the Imagination Nexus, has been corrupted and the resulting dark chaotic energies have shattered the universe. Adventurers must band together to stop the chaos powers from causing anymore damage to the universe, and thus enters your character. Players get to design a Lego character just like they would any other piece in the real world. Legs, chest, head, and hair are all selectable, and there are even a few face options that can be customized as an extra bonus.
What makes Lego Universe so fantastic is the fact it takes all the best aspects from two very different genres, and mashes them together so well. Players go on quests which involve destroying enemy chaos beings, but can also keep an eye out for flags to collect, hidden around each level in places that require a little bit of creativity to find. Completing quests earns equipment which has special effects and may possibly even increase damage, but attacks are very simply handled with a click of the mouse and items can be equipped in any fashion the player chooses (such as using a two-handed scythe with a tower shield). All the elements of the standard RPG are there, but players are too busy looking forward to the next wacky item or unique ability to really notice.
In addition to equipment effects that range from damage absorbing shields, hats that increase run speed or even shirts (chest pieces) that will let players perform a shoryuken, there are plenty of unique items and scenarios that will capture the 'Lego Spirit' for players of all ages. As each level is broken down into the individual worlds that encompass the Lego franchise (such as Pirates, Ninjas, or Space). There's a very different feel spread across the game, depending on the zone. Puzzles however, remain largely the same. Players will have to defeat enemies and smash objects to build up Imagination, which replaces what most RPGs would typically consider levels.
Imagination fuels just about everything in the game, from platforming puzzles, quest objectives, special item uses and even some boss fights. For example, players may find a bridge that needs to be crossed and a pile of Lego bricks before that requires 5 Imagination to build. Once players collect enough Imagination (which is easily obtained from just about anything that can be broken) they simply hold down shift, and it breaks into the character assembling a bridge as fast as possible, which can then be used by any other player for a short amount of time.
Another noteworthy point of Lego Universe would be the mini-games, which are very well detailed and creatively employed. Foot-race games exist in every level, and are a fun challenge for any player who is looking to mix things up while questing. There are also racing mini-games which let players build their own race cars and compete against other players on a pretty solidly designed race track. Lego Universe also gives players quite a few different means to express themselves as well, offering zones in which players can create their own homes with bricks earned/found throughout each world.
For all the great work that Lego Universe does in meshing the RPG and platform game, there are still a few bugs present that may annoy even the most persistent builders. Minor notes such as imagination blocks not appearing, or objectives items not spawning, are typical issues for any MMO currently in their launch phase. However not being able to build a bridge in Lego Universe, simply means not being able to continue with the level in many cases. While that example naturally doesn't apply for every facet of the game, it's certainly shows how a few bugs can more than ruin a single level.
Additionally, some areas seem to scale in difficulty due some poorly planned NPC spawning. Zones that aren't completely filled with players are often at times overwhelmingly populated with enemies; and while in some instances being able to beat back five or six bad guys is more than possible, there are plenty of circumstances where knockback will simply make being able to do a quest anywhere from insanely difficult to near impossible. Lego Universe's non-commitment to player grouping makes this all the more difficult to handle, as some zones can be completely traversed solo while others require a group effort almost without warning.
Thankfully, many areas in Lego Universe will naturally warn players if it feels their equipment isn't quite up to par with the zone's difficulty. More adamant players can definitely give it a shot anyway, and can find themselves succeeding against the odds. But for the younger audience that may not particularly understand the nature of these warnings, they may be in for a rough surprise. The only penalty for death is a loss of coins (in game currency) though, which should be pretty familiar to anyone who enjoys platform games as a whole.
Though the level design and graphics are extremely well done, the sound in Lego Universe deserves particular merit. The general soundtrack encompasses some extremely enjoyable music that never once began to grate on the ears. It's a pretty impressive feat considering most MMOs only have music that will show up for the start of an area, or for when no other actions are being taken.
So is Lego Universe a true MMO? To some extent yes, but I think it would be much more accurate to call it the world's first truly enjoyable Massively Multiplayer Online Platformer. There are RPG elements here to be sure, as much as there is a racing game, a pet collection game, a house building game, and even achievements (as most games these days have). Net Devil succeeds fantastically in building a Lego game that actually feels like a digital format of what a block-based adventure should feel like. Anyone who enjoys platforming may want to give Lego Universe a shot, and certainly if that same person enjoys Lego they'll not find themselves disappointed.