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LEGO Universe

If they build it, you will come.

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

"What is life like as a minifigure?" It's not a question many of us will have posed ourselves. Little plastic men with interchangeable body parts are normally our subjects, there to be manipulated and puppeteered by the all-too-visible hand of the play-god. Even in Traveller's Tales' phenomenally successful LEGO Star Wars, Batman and Indiana Jones, the minifigures exist only as a comedic vehicle for someone else's characters and stories. We don't generally try and empathise with them.

But that's just the question that NetDevil's Ryan Seabury asks himself every day. It's the question he's trying to answer with LEGO Universe, the studio's ambitious project in collaboration with the Danish toymaker; nothing less than a full-scale adventure MMO set in the unlicensed, unrestricted world of LEGO itself.

To make his point, Seabury's done something we didn't expect him to do. He's brought an actual, working build of LEGO Universe along to our meeting at the Game Developers Conference. We know that the game's not out this year, and that LEGO is keeping gameplay details substantially under wraps for now, so our eyebrows rise.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, it turns out that the only things he wants to show us are the login screen and the character creator. But this being an MMO, this being LEGO - and Seabury's mission being what it is - these are worth paying attention to all the same.

The bright white background, the liveliness and colour and polish of it take you aback. Minifigures scamper and gesticulate and frolic in the background behind the proud red logo, while another looms in the foreground, beckoning you into the game. In this and the in-game footage and screens we're shown (but can't show you yet), they are tremendously expressive, with more elastic and fluid bodies than in the TT adventures.

This in-game model is the closest we can currently show you to an actual screenshot.

Perhaps too much so, since they seem just that little bit less like the tiny, socket-footed playthings of your childhood; they have a little bit too much... attitude. But you can't blame NetDevil's animators for getting carried away - having realised that they only needed to animate one body type for the entire game, they've gone to town, and Seabury promises the widest range of emote animations in any MMO to date.

In the character selector, we flick between three character slots - two occupied by bold, posing characters, one (empty) by a ghostly figure with a glowing core. This is his "creative spark", best described as the "soul" of a minifigure in the game's universe. A LEGO character can't die, but can be smashed apart and rebuilt quite differently from how it was before.

Then we're into an extremely swift and slick character-creation screen, Seabury using the mousewheel to spin through rotating racks of outfit-printed body parts, facial customisations and shiny modular hair. He's piecing me together - it's kind of him to pretend that I have hair, but I let him off the hook and tell him I think the naked yellow nubbin would be most appropriate. It's a surprisingly unmistakeable likeness, in the end.

You don't have to be yourself in the game, of course - but the idea is that your base starting character will be a fairly normal, contemporary type of miniature plastic person. But if that sounds dull, don't worry. LEGO Universe uses the "you are what you wear" philosophy adopted by its close competitor, Sony Online Entertainment's Free Realms, as well as that same company's spy MMO The Agency. Your abilities are determined by your kit.