Review: LEGO Universe

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Who doesn’t like LEGOs? That is a rhetorical question – because if you don’t love building stuff with LEGO blocks then perhaps your soul is dead. Over the last half-decade, the folks at LEGO have parlayed that ageless love into some huge sales of a number of video game franchises. Imagine a franchise spawning multiple franchises? That is what we now have – LEGO Star Wars, LEGO Indiana Jones, LEGO Batman, LEGO Harry Potter and soon LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean. Of course, some of these games have been more successful than others, but the immediacy of breaking and rebuilding LEGO pieces remains a constant fascination.

Now they have taken the franchise in a new direction: a subscription-based MMOG (massively multiplayer online game). For me, this brings several questions aside from the core issue of whether or not the game is any good: is it worth the full price knowing there is a subscription involved, is it worth paying a monthly fee to play, and how does it work for the target audience of tweens and young teens.

Technically, LEGO Universe is superb across the board. Visually, if you have ever played a LEGO game you know what to expect – pleasantly detailed 3D graphics wrapped around a fluid world built out of small bricks. Everything shows the LEGO heritage, but is also fully functional and moving just as if it was a normal 3D animated model. The graphics are super-saturated and everything has a bright and cheery feeling. The music and sounds are all well done, and the dialogue is handled through pop-up bubbles and non-voice ‘speech’. There is never any doubt about what someone is telling you, and they will always provide further clues if you get lost.

Performance is also stellar. I had loaded the game up on several computers: my older Macbook Pro 15″ from nearly 3 years ago, my new powerhouse Macbook Pro, a HP Mini5103 netbook and my Alienware Core i7 gaming laptop. Obviously load times were improved on the high-end machines, but the core game ran flawlessly on the older systems as well. The greatest joy was having it work on the netbook. While it is a dual-core Atom system, it still has integrated graphics and 2GB of RAM, so the fact that I could run on that system was a real treat, and speaks highly of how well the developers have done optimizing it for lower-end systems that would be used by kids.

LEGO Universe is ultimately the juxtaposition of two worlds: LEGO and the MMORPG. Since it is a MMORPG, you expect to take on loads of quests of increasing difficulty and complexity, and the ability to gain ever-increasing power and ownership and reknown!

Another core LEGO feature is the ability to break everything down … and build things up. You start by building a rocket to take you to the introductory planet, and to do so you need to complete a number of ‘fetch quests’. See – LEGO meets MMO! On the planet you are given a series of main tasks and can run around finding other things to do all over the place, or simply engage in combat and collecting stuff to help you build your empire. At a certain point you are given the ability to forge your own home as a reward, and have collected enough items to properly populate it with enough niceties to make it worthwhile.

Building takes on three forms: the style found in all LEGO games known as quick-build in which you hold down a key and a unit assembles itself. Modular building requires you to properly place a series of already built-up components in order to construct a larger item such as a vehicle. And custom build allows you to design a new item, even determining if it can be smashed apart and what happens when it does.

Aside from questing there is also plenty of combat and a storyline about your hero vanquishing evil. But to focus on the combat, you start with a single simple weapon and click enemies to death as per usual MMO standards. As you progress you gain new skills and items and combat becomes more spectacular. My only complaint here is that there is no auto-lock, so you have to be careful not to click away from your target or you will end up fighting another creature.

The in-game chat system is tightly controlled and restricted … and is absolutely perfect for a game like this. I imagine MMORPG veterans will complain about it being too limited, but remember the target audience. I contrast this with Disney’s ToonTown, which was much more limited but also aimed at a younger audience. The system in LEGO Universe gives enough tools to be effective but enough limitations so that you aren’t worried about your kids ending up in what sounds like an online session of Modern Warfare 2!

My only other concern with the game is the price. For the initial $40 you get a 30-day trial. When that is up, the game costs $9.99 per month, which decreases if you pre-pay for multiple months (i.e. $49.99 for 6 months and $89.99 for a year). My concern is that the MMO world is increasingly moving to ‘free to play’ models with the revenues coming from in-game purchases. This game will certainly compete with Star Wars Clone Wars Adventures, which is free to download and play on Mac or PC, but also constantly annoys you to become a ‘true Jedi Master’ by becoming a paid member. We had memberships to Club Penguin for one kid and a family membership to ToonTown for a while a few years back, but it is amazing how the landscape has changed since then.

Personally, when I got to the end of my trial period I was a bit sad saying goodbye to LEGO Universe. I think it is great fun in the tradition of the LEGO games I have loved playing for the last six years. My kids both enjoyed it too, but neither could justify the $10 monthly fee. And that is ultimately where my main problem lies – this is a great game, loaded with content … but in an increasingly competitive space the monthly subscription business model seems to make less and less sense. I am giving the game a ‘Buy It’ rating based on the game content itself – suffice to say that if you ever buy an MMORPG you do so with the realization that a monthly fee will be required to play. If you are OK with $10 a month, you will find a huge universe filled with tons to do and a family friendly experience that is an absolute blast!

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Pros:
+ Classic LEGO gameplay
+ Fun story that keeps you engaged
+ True MMO feeling and content
+ Quick chat modes keep it all family friendly
+ Fun combat that is simple and flexible

Cons:
– $10 a month in an increasingly ‘free to play’ world is hard to justify

Game Info:
Platform: PC/Mac
Publisher: Warner Bros.
Developer: NetDevil
Release Date: 10/26/2010
Genre: MMORPG
ESRB Rating: E10+
Players: Unlimited
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

I have loved technology for as long as I can remember - and have been a computer gamer since the PDP-10! Mobile Technology has played a major role in my life - I have used an electronic companion since the HP95LX more than 20 years ago, and have been a 'Laptop First' person since my Compaq LTE Lite 3/20 and Powerbook 170 back in 1991! As an avid gamer and gadget-junkie I was constantly asked for my opinions on new technology, which led to writing small blurbs ... and eventually becoming a reviewer many years ago. My family is my biggest priority in life, and they alternate between loving and tolerating my gaming and gadget hobbies ... but ultimately benefits from the addition of technology to our lives!