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.
In addition to fighting, missions include plenty of building too, and some impressive physics. An early mission sees you navigating your way to the top of a mountain while being pushed back by a series of fans. You can build switches to stop them, build around them, or break through walls to avoid them completely. "We want to offer multiple paths through every mission," says Seabury. Completed missions can be replayed as racecourses, with completion times being recorded on searchable leaderboards.
Interestingly, the game's levelling system is less WOW and more Zelda. There are no RPG levels as such, and progress is instead marked by your health and items. Like the Zelda games, it will make exploration less about juicing your stat porn, and more about, well, exploring.
In the last, pirate-infested area we see, the spooky Gnarled Forest, we get a glimpse of the pets system. Animals like dogs, elephants and buffaloes are all trainable, and can be summoned from your backpack once trained. Pets can dig up buried treasure chests, step on switches, and ward off enemies, as Seabury demonstrates by gifting a banana to a gun-toting monkey, just in time for it to deal with a bunch of scurvy-riddled zombie pirates. You can even mix and match animal parts to create your own deadly Croco-lion mash-ups.
The action is chaotically exciting, and the silent pantomime humour now synonymous with the LEGO titles is in full effect. Extinguish a flaming Tiki head for example, and the it will spit the water back in your face. Environments feel extremely interactive: organs can be played, pirate cannons launch shooting gallery mini-games, and binoculars can be used to spy out hidden areas.
Plenty of effort has gone into the baddies too. We liked the Pirates who had an anchor for one arm and a cannon for the other, firing the anchor into the ground to steady themselves from the cannon's recoil. Much of the laughter is generated by the incongruity of some of the weapons - one character who looked suspiciously like Anchorman Ron Burgundy brandished a fish on a stick menacingly.
If it all gets too much, you can always retreat to your own patch of land and build to your heart's content. NetDevil has modelled well over 2000 unique bricks, which is a lot when you consider that from six identical eight-studded LEGO bricks you can get 915,103,765 possible combinations. All MMORPGs suffer from a lack of content in the early days, and these Second Life-style building areas may go some way to extending the game's longevity during this teething period. While you will be able to show off your creations to the public, all models will have to be vetted first, using a complex series of algorithms and human moderation. Communication freedom can be tweaked by parents, and NetDevil is confident that these tools will minimise any potential risk to children.
Your patch of land can be expanded by completing certain missions, and NetDevil has already stated that it won't be charging extra for larger chunks of land, preferring to keep everything included in the basic subscription. While Seabury hints that some objects will be transferable between the private spaces and the game space, the two will remain largely separate. "We don't want people suddenly plonking huge castles in the middle of our carefully designed areas," he says. NetDevil has already enlisted a team of expert LEGO builders, who have been busy creating some exceptionally cool-sounding non-game areas for players to explore, including… well, we swore we wouldn't tell. But let's just say that fans of seventies Space LEGO are in for a treat.
LEGO Universe has a great deal of potential as the game that could bridge the gap between Club Penguin and World of Warcraft. It's slick, clean presentation is unlike anything else out there, and all signs point to an extremely polished title. There are still questions of course: NetDevil is being cagey about the inclusion of MMO tropes like player economies and raiding parties. But there's still time for them to build on what they already have – a cracking good start.
LEGO Universe will be released for PC and Mac in 2010.