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LEGO Universe Review

Posted Thu, Nov 11, 2010 by borticus

LEGO LogoBuilding upon the success of single-player titles like LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Batman, NetDevil's LEGO Universe promises a massive online world filled with imagination and mayhem for children and adults. The developers have endeavored to create an online experience that takes the fun and quirkiness of previous LEGO titles and infuses it with the social interaction and limitless possibilities of an MMOG.

So, how'd they do? Is such a feat even possible, or will the addition of an online experience to LEGO Universe somehow interfere with the overall enjoyment?

Cautions

E for EveryoneLEGO Universe is a game marketed toward children and their parents, and every mechanic is developed in a way that allows kids to safely enjoy their online time without fear of inappropriate behavior from other players. It's also not quite as deep or content-rich as many premium MMOGs simply because it is aiming for an audience with a different type of attention span and interests.

Despite this fact, I'm going to be reviewing the game from my own perspective as an adult and veteran MMOG player, similar to the bulk of Ten Ton Hammer’s audience. So, while the LEGO brand definitely spans generations, it may be best to keep in mind that I am not LEGO Universe’s primary target demographic.

Gameplay

75Pretty GoodIt's safe to break this game down into two sub-types of gameplay within the program as a whole: building (which takes place on your private property) and adventuring (which is done everywhere else).

brick bagThere is very little to say against the Building side of this game, which really shouldn't come as a surprise given that it bears the LEGO brand. Sorting through the large number of bricks you'll obtain during your adventures can be quite a task, but NetDevil recently implemented a few sorting options to ease this pain (though they take a little getting used-to). The actual act of snapping together three-dimensional blocks while utilizing a two-dimensional interface represents a unique set of challenges, but there's really not much alternative to this method. Despite these minor inconveniences, the practically infinite amount of content that LEGO Universe’s Brick Build system offers is more than enough to make up for a few lumps. It really does capture the joy and wonder of creating things with your own two hands, even if the results only exist in a virtual space.

Sadly, I can't say anything remotely as nice about the adventuring side of the game. Combat in particular comes up short, with the outcome determined basically by how fast you can click, and how lucky you get with the interface. It probably would have been a lot easier, and ended up making more sense, if NetDevil had implemented some form of standard MMOG “target and hotkey” system, instead of the action-oriented “hit what's in front of you” system they've used. The controls for combat are occasionally unintuitive, and ranged combat is so frustrating that I ditched my guns within hours of first receiving them. When I want to shoot a pirate, I don't want to suddenly turn 90-degrees and fire at a nearby banana tree. That's not how you win battles. Furthermore there's very little feedback on whether or not the tactics you are using are effective in any way – no traditional numbers scrolling up over the bad guys' heads, and no combat log.

shooting gallery

Ultimately the main drawback of adventuring in LEGO U is that there's simply not enough to do. After just two weeks, I felt as though I'd explored almost all of the content available to me, and was probably within just a couple dozen hours of having achieved all I could before the game degenerated into a grind-fest for gear upgrades.

Fortunately, I could always unwind by heading back to one of my properties and building a pirate ship or a fancy floating house.

Graphics

65AverageI had the pleasure of speaking with a NetDevil developer at PAX 2010 when I first got a hands-on glimpse at LEGO Universe. One of the key points in our conversation revolved around keeping the barrier for entry to a game like this very low, and that meant dialing back the graphical requirements of the game to ensure that it would run on systems that are exactly not state-of-the-art.

While I will give NetDevil full marks for achieving this feat and keeping the game crisp and clean looking on even low-end machines, the lack of many modern lighting effects and complicated texture and modeling techniques does stand out in today's world of photo-realistic scenery and avatars. They're able to get away with cutting quite a few corners graphically, since LEGO is by definition blocky-looking. But beyond the avatars and buildings, even the scenery shares a similar two-dimensional look much of the time. It is by no means an eyesore, but at the same time not eye candy either.

aerial view of Nimbus Station

I get the feeling that NetDevil simply doesn't feel that a LEGO experience needs to be graphically rich. In a way I agree with them – after all, that's half the charm of games that fly the LEGO banner – but at the same time, I was disappointed with jerky animations, lackluster environments and rendering issues that would sometimes leave floating objects suspended over strangely misshapen landscapes.

Sound

95OutstandingOne of the first things new players are treated to when they load up LEGO Universe is a cut scene narrated by none other than renowned actor Sir Patrick Stewart. Accompanying this epic introduction is a score that is heroic and inspiring, urging you to pick up your sword/hammer/wrench/flowerpot and slay the nearest Maelstrom critter. The quality of the soundtrack continues through every zone you visit and not once did I feel the need to turn the volume down or off the way I might in other games.

The Maelstrom

Combat sounds and random snapping noises of LEGO bricks getting smashed and reassembled are all handled perfectly – subtle where needed, and overwhelming when necessary. Whether snapping a couple bricks together in Brick Build mode, or doing battle with an enormous maelstrom-infected gorilla, the sounds you are treated to are always appropriate and high quality.

The only detractor is that many elements within the game seem to be missing their sound effects entirely, or simply fail to activate them on a regular basis. What is in the world is excellent and never fails to impress me, but I feel as though a lot more needs to be included.

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