Lego Worlds lays solid foundations but currently lacks any structure
Everyone remembers their first night in Minecraft: the race to build shelter, the hurried scramble for resources, the need to quickly deploy skills learned during the game's brief tutorial. Lego Worlds - a new take on the Minecraft formula from the largest toy company in the world - does not have a tutorial yet. It doesn't require you to build shelter, gather resources or really do much of anything at all. It is a framework for a game, a blueprint for a future experience.
Lego Worlds has launched via an alpha build, just like Mojang's sandbox, and currently contains a feature-set that sounds identical to Minecraft's own: procedurally-generated customisable worlds, ridable creatures and a day/night cycle. You can even fight troops of skeletons after dark. Developer TT Games' to-do list sounds just as familiar: online multiplayer, subterranean cave networks, AI creatures and underwater gameplay are all on the cards. That said, it is already possible to see how Lego Worlds may end up diverging from Minecraft in its eventual focus - how Lego's vision for the game is already taking it a different place.
Right now, and with only a single-player mode present, Lego Worlds has shades of Proteus - the procedurally-generated exploration game where you wander landscapes making discoveries. Perhaps due to Lego Worlds' limited feature set, I've spent most of time with the game so far exploring its landscape - tagging Lego props to add to my collection, opening treasure chests full of studs and unlocking vehicles or animal mounts dotted around the landscape.
The game's procedurally-generated worlds already offer numerous environments, with towering snowy mountains, cactus-covered deserts and grassy plains filled with trees. Each biome is filled with its own set of things to find: mini-builds of trees and shacks, for example, plus a wandering collection of local minifigures. Once discovered, you can then purchase these using TT Games' familiar in-game currency of studs and unlock them indefinitely for future use. Find a dragon, hand over 10,000 studs and you can call upon your flying mount at any time to quickly soar across the landscape. Find a Lego drilling truck and you can spawn it anywhere to smoothly burrow through a mountainside leaving a perfect tunnel in your wake.
Lego Worlds lets you customise landscapes with a far larger set of tools than Minecraft's basic brick-by-brick approach, but the trade-off is that everything becomes less precise. Ground levels can be squashed, raised, whole areas cleared en masse. Every brick can be prised up, repositioned or replaced. But the fiddly mechanics of doing so will put many off - especially the young audience that Lego Worlds is designed for. Minecraft's beauty is in its simplicity - in the uniform, cuboid blocks that make up its world. Lego Worlds crafts its landscapes from Lego pieces of all shapes and sizes, so much that even preparing a patch of land to build on becomes complicated. As for creating your own designs piece by piece? It is a painstaking affair. There are tools to flatten ground but these do not also delete surface props. There are ways to reshape the terrain completely but one wrong move and you will spend the next five minutes trying to fix your mistake.
It is telling that the game's first screenshots show a Lego town made up entirely from the pre-built house models that come already provided. Select one from the props menu and it is sprayed on to the landscape layer by layer like a 3D print-out. Constructing anything like this manually would take hours, and is currently impossible due to the lack of even basic elements such as doors and windows. One of the biggest hurdles is simply dealing with the fact that the game has no first-person mode, so you are constantly having to check whether your cursor is in the correct position and is correctly highlighting the right area of 3D space. It's almost like Lego's best answer for stopping the spread of dongs is simply to make them too difficult to build in the first place.
It's very early days for Lego Worlds, though, and there are several paths down which it could yet evolve. TT Games could focus on improving its rudimentary Minecraft-style sandbox features to make it a true construction-based rival, or alternatively focus on expanding Lego Worlds' more unique exploration elements. Or again, it could decide to beef up its survival gameplay. But a focus on fun and exploration feels more like TT Games' style, and the inclusion of familiar mechanics such as studs, the upcoming addition of game-modifying Red Bricks, and the playful animations with props suggest that the developer will stick close to what it does best. Another in-development feature glimpsed in the game's current build is the ability to access digital versions of real-life Lego sets, which could presumably be implemented in future via in-box codes.
For the moment then, Lego Worlds is something of a curio - a digital toy to discover and mess about with, but currently little more. Publisher Warner Bros. Interactive has made it clear that Lego Worlds will not graduate from its Steam Early Access status until at least 2016. Over the next year TT Games is set to build on the foundations it has now laid out, its focus shaped by community feedback. A leaning towards pre-built models to favour a world that can be shaped and decorated with props but that isn't designed for fine-tuning seems to fit more with the Lego Worlds' initial strengths and younger demographic. That said, Minecraft has found huge success by providing a family-friendly sandbox that this same demographic can control with ease. Like the first plastic bricks laid down on a new Lego creation, it's still unclear exactly how the project will end up.