Arriving in LEGO Universe's charming, chunky, sparkling world, the game's message is pretty heartening. Here, it says, you are as powerful as your own imagination! It is your imagination that will protect you, your imagination which will take you on an adventure – and with enough imagination, you might just save the galaxy.
It's true, you know. That's because "Imagination" is, in fact, what LEGO Universe calls mana. Your character has an imagination bar, and your paltry supply of imagination is used whenever your character reaches something they can build in the world. You see a jumble of bricks, hold down a button, and your character flicks it all into a bridge, or a turret, or a launchpad, and it disintegrates after you've used it.
No actual imagination is required. If LEGO Universe teaches kids a lesson, it's that imagination is something to be hoarded while you steadily try to max it out, which is no kind of a lesson at all. I maxed out my imagination once in Amsterdam and it was unpleasant for all involved.
Outside of this one-button object assembly, LEGO Universe is a fairly standard lite MMO. You explore, batter monsters, operate out of a big hub city (here called Nimbus Station), complete missions, eventually pick a class and sometimes mess around with mini-games, and all of it earns you precious collectible collectibles.
Being an MMO, LEGO Universe needs a world on the brink of chaos, and this is handled deftly. The story goes that years ago, a team of LEGO explorers located a source of pure Imagination (manifested in the opening cut-scene as a stream of mystical blue light). Whatever the explorers imagined would pop into existence.
But one of the team was evil! Yes he was, and he imagined an army that would let him conquer the galaxy, but was unable to control the subsequent surge of evil into the universe. Now, alas, the LEGO dimension has become an unstable and dangerous place. Aggressive purple creatures called Stromlings roam, waiting to be battered into their component loot, and a legion of little NPCs wave tiny claw hands in the air, eager to clog up your quest log.
One of LEGO Universe's bigger departures from the formula is that it doesn't actually have levels, and its character progression is so slow and basic that you could compare it to sitting on a broken Stannah Stairlift. Instead, the game lets you devote yourself to ticking off achievements, collecting thousands of different types of bricks and finding all kinds of secrets and cubbyholes. Like most of LEGO Universe, progression is stripped down to as basic a framework as developer NetDevil dares in order to make the game accessible to anyone, and it makes up for it with charisma and brightness.
But it's not all smiles. Where LEGO Universe first becomes tear-jerkingly disappointing is whenever it lets you actually play with LEGO and create something.
One of the first missions in the game has you building your own custom rocket, a vehicle you then use to travel from place to place by dragging it from your inventory onto various launchpads. You build the rocket out of three segments – the nose, cockpit and engine – of which there are only a few categories (classic, steampunk, space-age). So your options are as follows: (1) Find and use a complete set of segments, or (2) Mix starkly different segments from different categories and ride about on a little LEGO tragedy.
My point is that there's no option to actually design or tinker with your rocket, to actually play with LEGO – presumably because then you'd get people travelling everywhere on giant cocks. LEGO Universe is a game so concerned with censorship that your character doesn't even get a name until your suggestion's been approved by a moderator. In trying to make a game that won't offend anyone, NetDevil has made a LEGO game where nobody can play with LEGO.