So how can a 'for kids' MMO that doesn't descend completely into the twee be done? Is the very nature of the genre defiantly non-child? To test the theory, the game was handed over to a non-gaming member of this scribbler's household. What would she make of it? More on that later, let's go over the basics of Lego Universe first.
As with most MMOs, the plot is largely snooze-worthy, this time involving something called Imagination being the key to survival in the world of the blocks. Your job is to defeat the agents of the Maelstrom (evil) by helping the Nexus (good) by collecting imagination orbs. And, as it's an MMO, do a damn sight more besides.
One thing you'll get with LU is a lot of things to do, most interestingly in the form of mini-games and the real reason anyone wants to play a Lego game: building things with blocks. This is easily the highlight of the game and hours can be lost in your own personal zone of the universe sculpting impressive buildings and creating unique objects.
Once you've built up something you're vaguely proud of, it can be shown off to the world, once it's been approved by the censors. Ah yes, them. This is where Lego hits a really thorny issue, that of balancing the need to protect minors from improper content (what that is is a matter for future debate elsewhere) and just allowing people to play the game without being pestered constantly by the thought police. LU errs more on the latter side of the argument, sadly.
Consider this: attempting to be 'best friends' with someone means you have to identify yourself via the web to a US company. That is, handing over your passport details (or other things) to a games company. Is it just this writer and the person being befriended who find that unsettling and a completely unacceptable request for a game to make? Would you be willing to hand them over? The filters on things like the chat window and what names you can give to your pets are a bit over-protective too.
It's fine to regulate things more thoroughly in a game aimed primarily at younger people, and it's also fine to stop people just creating a huge cock and balls out of Lego – although if they want to, surely that's their right? - but it's too much to ask for your passport details just for becoming friends with someone in-game.
When you're not building things in your own space, you'll be exploring the world, which is split up into different space islands, as it were. Moving about and interacting with things is your usual WSAD affair, so it's completely familiar to anyone who's ever played an MMO before. For those who haven't, there are a few things that may well make Lego Universe a more perplexing place than it should be.
First up, the inventory is horrible and as you're constantly picking up so much stuff, it's very hard to keep track of it or manage it effectively. The map is lacking in detail and isn't very helpful, neither is it easy to keep track of where your friends are if you're trying to play together. It's amazing that, unless it's hidden deep, deep in the interface, there's no option to form a group outside of the instanced challenge zones.
Combat is also a bit muddled with a left click attack that sometimes fires in the direction your character's facing rather than at the enemy you've just targeted.
Having said all that, there's a lot that's good about LU. It's colourful and vibrant, with an absolute ton of things to do, plus the Lego licence allows them to really go to town creating play areas with completely different feels, without being locked into keeping a consistent look to the scenery.
There are also loads of mini-games, with races to beat your friends' times on and the opportunity to construct your own racing cars and duke it out on instanced tracks. Survival challenges task you with doing just that, staying alive long enough to beat your time, and the multitude of environment specific things to do, like in the music area where players can get a jam going if they all build their requisite instruments at the same time.
It's little touches like that that will keep people coming back for more, as the core gameplay is relatively formulaic. Collect 10 of this, destroy 6 of that, trudge for ages back and forth across the maps to give things to him, her and them.
This leads back to the question raised in the first paragraph. As children are the key focus demographic for LU, how will those not versed in the ways of the MMO see the game? The inventory and things like that don't exactly help matters, but there are other areas that just seem lacking in kid-friendliness, like how the pet taming mini-game can be confusing and perhaps too quick-paced for a smaller child.
The test subject mentioned earlier had enough trouble negotiating the tutorial section, let alone making it far into the game proper. How will a child fare if a grown woman gets confused when told to talk to a character who's nowhere near where the indicator says he is? It gets relatively challenging fairly early, so will smaller children last beyond the 'easy' bits?
Those are long term questions really and as with any MMO the proof of quality will lie three months down the line, at least. At the moment, vibrancy and fun are the orders of the day in Lego Universe, it's just whether it's going to be accepted by it's key target audience that's an issue. As an MMO, it's a perfectly good game, but as a kid's MMO, it's not necessarily a glowing success. There are too many fiddly elements that are fine for adults to deal with, but not small, impatient children.
- Loads to do
- Colourful and vibrant world
- Building stuff, while not to Minecraft levels, is great fun
- Is it really for kids?
- Still too much grinding
- Rubbish inventory
The Short Version: For older kids, especially ones versed in MMOs, this will provide some good, colourful times in the long term, but the question of whether younger children will be able to 'get' it remains. If you're a parent, you might need to be spending your time helping the little 'un play it more than you might wish.