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.
At least, not with anybody else around. Where you do have total freedom is on the small plots of private land the game offers you, which is also when the hoard of bricks you've accidentally amassed comes out (as well as your collection of "behaviours", attributes you can apply to bricks to make them react to your touch, useful for making elevators or surreal forests of rotating trees).
But even here there's disappointment, because it's just no fun. It is anti-fun. The thrill of LEGO is in that tactile compression of two pieces fitting snugly together, and in how fast you can turn a jumble of bricks into a helicopter, or a fort, or a giant cock. Here, building anything is just a pain. The interface makes laying bricks about as fun as being an actual bricklayer. Neither selecting pieces nor placing them is either smooth or satisfying. You could build something faster with actual LEGO, and might even have fun.
But there's a much bigger problem here than a wanting build mode; NetDevil itself is wanting builders.
The content that's actually here is fine. Quests and characters are routinely charming, always bright and cheery. The game is digital Ribena. But despite this being a subscription-based MMO, in a single lazy Saturday you could happily blitz more than half of LEGO Universe's quests, which takes you worryingly close to the almost non-existent endgame. The whole "universe" consists of a small questing area before you reach the town of Nimbus Station, then that leads off into one minuscule area called Pet Cove and a couple of mid-sized questing areas called the Gnarled Forest and Forbidden Valley, and that's it.
LEGO Universe tries to sidestep this problem with some grinding, and during that sidestep the game trips over its feet, falls off a precarious catwalk and into a vat of poison. It's astonishing. After you've cased everywhere you can reach in the Gnarled Forest (perhaps nine hours into LEGO Universe), you need a set of Tier 2 gear before you hit the Japanese-themed Forbidden Valley, otherwise you'll get your ass handed to you.
A full set of Tier 2 gear (hat, pants, shirt, weapon and book that lets you use the sodding stuff) will set you back 475 faction tokens. Faction tokens are dropped by mobs of Stromlings. If you hammer the crap out of Stromlings wearing Tier 1 gear for a solid hour, you can expect to earn about 86 tokens. That's what I earned in the hour that I spent hitting Stromlings. That entire hour of my life that I'll never get back.
All told, you can look forward to 5 hours of mindless grinding if you want a set of Tier 2 gear and the extra few hours of quests you'll find in the Forbidden Valley. And it is mindless. The game's combat being lightweight and uninvolved is great when tumbling through a quest arc, but less good at holding your attention all by itself.
What then? Well, there's Tier 3 gear, of course! Not that you'll have anywhere to use it, except perhaps on the Dragon that represents the game's single boss. Tier 3 gear is also much more expensive, so that's another 8 hours of grinding, right there.
According to LEGO Universe's Wikipedia page there are a whole range of worlds currently in development, and assuming these worlds end up being substantial additions with plenty of quests and some new enemy types, then they cannot get here soon enough.
With triple the worlds to explore and a more robust and social building mode, this game could be a perfectly acceptable way for a LEGO fan to lose a weekend or two. As it is now, LEGO Universe starts as a pleasant distraction but promptly ferries you straight into a fierce, ludicrous grind that leads nowhere. That's one brick wall I could do without.
5 / 10