It opens, not with a whimper, but with a big bang. After designing your avatar using LEGO Universe's extensive character creator, you're thrust on to the bridge of a starship that's disintegrating in the maw of a gaping black hole. As your hull slowly peels off into the infinite, you have mere minutes to escape your fate, platforming your way around the ship to find enough rocket parts to build your escape vehicle.
It could be seen as a metaphor for developers NetDevil, who launched LEGO Universe as an escape vehicle when their last MMO, Auto Assault, began to implode. Ryan Seabury, the studio's battle-scarred creative director, reckons the experience made them more determined than ever to make LEGO Universe great. "After Auto Assault," he confides, "we'd rather go out of business than make another compromised game."
If the release of LEGO Universe in 2010 represents a new beginning for NetDevil, then, it's certainly an ambitious one. Building on the success of Traveller's Tales' licensed LEGO outings - Star Wars, Indiana Jones and Batman - LEGO Universe promises to be the world's first cross-generational MMO, appealing to both kids and adults equally. Of course, this is the sort of thing that gets the Daily Mail frothing furiously with predator paranoia, but more on that later.
The starship bridge noob area introduces most of the play mechanics you'll be using throughout the game. After leaping your way to the front of the ship, Captain Sky Lane activates your 'imagination spark' – the creative impulse that lives within us all. Your imagination level functions like mana in most MMOs, although instead of using it to cast spells, it's used to build objects.
Quick-building will be familiar to anyone who's played a Traveller's Tales LEGO game: simply run up to a pile of bobbling bricks and assemble them into their pre-determined model. However, now you'll sometimes have the option to turn them into more than one type of structure, adding a simple strategic element. Imagination levels are boosted by collecting imagination icons that spill from broken models; either enemies, structures or treasure chests. Chests also contain collectable loot in the shape of LEGO bricks and accessories.
It's in one of these first chests that you'll discover your Thinking Hat. Like America, LEGO Universe doesn't believe in a class system, and all abilities are linked to accessories. So if you want to be a tank, you equip armour; if you want to train animals you equip a whip, and so on. The Thinking Hat allows you to construct more complex models using pieces from your backpack. These can either be large sections of a model, or, for the extremely patient, individual bricks. Fans of Banjo Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts will be instantly at home here, although if anything, the mouse control makes for much easier construction of objects. While you've got your hat on, the background and music fade out, leaving you in a safe, peaceful, calm environment to create your masterpiece.
After making planetfall to the game's first real area, the picturesque Avant Gardens, the game's true scope is revealed. The world is a series of seemingly infinite floating islands, with each covering a different LEGO theme: pirates, castles, space, city and so on. Travel between islands is achieved by rocket ship. Seabury assures us that the game is based solely on the LEGO System bricks though, so don't expect to see any TECHNIC or Bionicle blocks any time soon. ("Actually, Duplo blocks would be pretty cool," he muses. "They'd be like gigantic Godzilla monsters!") The black hole has wreaked chaos on the world below, and it's up to the players to restore order. All players are on the side of 'good', although Seabury hints that there are different factions that players can align themselves to later in the game.
Your first mission is to acquire a weapon. After choosing either a spear, sword or hammer, you must coral a bunch of chaos-infected mechs. Awesomely, once the mechs are destroyed, they can be rebuilt into Aliens-style sentry guns (just try doing that to a World of Warcraft Murloc). As soon as you begin playing, you start working towards a host of frequently unlocked achievements, which are stored in your Passport. Every area in the game has 10 hidden flags, and one super-hard-to-reach Golden Brick, which will appeal to the more OCD players out there.