Posted Mon, Oct 04, 2010 by borticus
I can still vividly recall a countless number of my childhood's afternoons spent sitting on the floor of my bedroom surrounded by thousands of tiny plastic building blocks strewn about in untidy piles and stowed in bins, bags and boxes. I'd snap together wings, cockpits and laser guns and fly to the stars, or craft fearsome mechanical-looking dragons to do battle against my valiant miniature knights. Pirate ships, castles, race cars, monsters, and endless other creations poured from the imagination of my youthful mind and filled these blocky constructs with a life of their own.
I know I'm not the only one with such memories. You needn't look far in our modern world to hear a tale of a structural engineer or architectural designer who got their inspiration from LEGO building blocks as a kid. Somehow the infinite possibilities these small and seemingly inconsequential bits of plastic held allowed us to reach out to imaginary worlds that other toys of our age had no chance of invoking.
And now it seems that game developers are showing off the results of their own youthful inspirations. Developed by NetDevil and published by Gazillion Games, it is obvious to me that LEGO Universe not only pays tribute to those childhood memories but seeks to create an entirely new set of them for an entirely new generation of kids from ages 3 to 103.
The world of LEGO Universe is extremely kid-friendly. The moment I entered the game I noticed several restrictions put into place to protect younger players. There are chat filters, two-sided friend confirmations, and even a barrier to having a custom avatar name. But despite these restrictions the game never feels tied down by them. The social constructs are easy enough to adapt to if you make the assumption that everyone you meet online is 5 or 6 years old, which, given the marketing strategy this title is employing, may not be far from the truth. The most difficult hurdle to overcome is the chat filter, since each individual word must be on the server's “approved” list in order to appear in a sentence. For a writer accustomed to expressing himself in a number of different ways this was less of a hurdle, but I could see it quickly becoming frustrating for the average gamer. If you’re an adult planning to play this game with friends I highly recommend the use of a third-party voice chat system (such as Ventrilo or TeamSpeak) to overcome this social restriction.
Before you're even given the opportunity interact with other players though, you are faced with a series of customization choices that should immediately delight any fan of LEGO toys. During the creation of your “minifigure,” you are given a rotating display of hair, face and clothing options, many of which can also change color. The interface for this is adorable and even includes small vocal cues from your work-in-progress avatar as you make choices regarding their appearance. Despite the multitude of choices here, don't feel as though you have to get it “just right” before proceeding. Almost every piece of equipment you will find and equip in the game will change your default appearance in one way or another – from headgear, to shirts and pants – so the only real choice to worry about is your facial features. But even those are frequently concealed by ninja scarves, helmets and such. Your name, however, is completely unique and will stay with you for the remainder of your days. If you choose to have a custom name, it will be sent to the “Mythrans” (aka Customer Service) for manual review and approved or denied on a case-by-case basis. You can avoid this review process by selecting your name from the presets available, which can present options along the lines of “FluffyBunnyPants” or “RexTreasureKing” depending on your choices.
Once your minifigure is created you will be treated to a remarkable cut scene explaining the backstory of the LEGO Universe. Here's a spoilerific summary: explorers from across space and time found a source of Imagination – the great power that creates and shapes the LEGO Universe. But through the twisted dreams of one among them, the Imagination became corrupt, and the Maelstrom was born. It is now up to YOU and your fellow adventurers to reclaim the power of Imagination and drive back the Maelstrom, through acts of creation and invention.
I have to stop here and editorialize for a moment, because I feel this story is simply brilliant. It summarizes a conflict and provides a reason for the game world to exist, while at the same time offering players the opportunity to overcome the enemy NOT with direct conflict and combat (though plenty of that exists), but rather by creating things and using their imagination. If that’s not the perfect set-up for a LEGO-based story, then I don't know what is. With such a simple premise, NetDevil has simultaneously reinforced the best aspects of a toy created to inspire with a reason to seek out and embrace that inspiration. I'd like to offer my personal kudos to the team for this marvelous bit of writing.
Do you have what it takes to hold back The Maelstrom?