LEGO Universe: the good, the bad, the unfulfilling

Hey kids! You’re on the internet now, where LEGO Universe’s restrictive chat filters are not in place. This review uses some words most deem inappropriate for young ears, so if your parents are reading over your shoulder, you might want to wait until they’re out of the room. Or preserve your innocence and go read a watered-down LEGO Universe review at one of the big gaming sites where they’ll gush about it in hopes of securing that sweet advertising deal with LEGO.

I was super excited when I heard that LEGO Universe was coming out this October, to the point that I pre-ordered the game in order to get early access and started playing it literally the minute it was made public. I loved LEGOs growing up and the LEGO Star Wars and other TellTale LEGO franchises offered me many hours of enjoyment, so it sounded like LEGO Universe would be right up my alley. Happily, I was right to be excited: LEGO Universe is a very fun game with obvious potential for growth. Less happily, the game is deeply flawed in enough aspects that I will likely not be paying a subscription fee for ongoing access.

Holy crap, LEGOs are awesome!

My initial impression of LEGO Universe was that it was just as amazing as I had anticipated. After customizing your minifigure (for which there are loads of options, although the only one that really matters is what facial features you choose; you’ll likely be swapping out your pants, arms, and hair for equipment that gives you stat boosts pretty quick), you get tossed straight onto a damaged space ship learning the basics of the gameplay interactions and searching for rocket parts to build your personal escape rocket and get the heck out of dodge.

The gameplay is very similar to the TellTale LEGO games; you have an over-the-shoulder perspective for your minifigure, and you spend a lot of time walking up to stuff and whacking the heck out of it, as well as engaging in quick builds, talking to people, and interacting with various items in the environment. The limited number of possible interactions works really well; you only have to worry about keys for movement, jumping, attacking, and interacting with objects, making the game easy to pick up and play for just about anyone. The control scheme gradually adds a bit of complexity as your gear opens up special moves (like a defensive shield that you activate by hitting a number key and then using the attack key), providing a little more depth and strategy down the road, as well.

The environments are rife with personality and lots of LEGO constructed items (and enemies) you can destroy. When you destroy an enemy or an item, you get a random assortment of coins, LEGO bricks, hearts, armor, and so forth. This ensures that you’ll want to smash just about everything you come across, both to keep your health and armor up and to collect enough bricks and coins to be able to build items on your personal property (no one is allowed to build arbitrary items in public for fear of giant penises and so forth showing up unexpectedly; instead, everything you build that you want to share stays on your property to be more easily approved by the moderators).

In the initial release there are four areas to explore (not counting the ship you first arrive on, which is small enough to be little more than a tutorial), but it’s obvious that NetDevil has a plans for a bunch more themed areas to explore. I imagine that as time progresses, increasingly difficult or hard to get to places will be “discovered” and opened to the public. The profile pages also have some achievements relating to the “world builder’s club” which offers an intriguing glimpse into the possibility of larger, user-developed areas to explore and develop.

Given the diversity of mix-and-match options for minifigures and building offered by a mere four LEGO themes (city, space, pirate, and ninja), it is quite likely that LEGO Universe has a diverse future ahead for its geography and gameplay.

Building your dream-mobile

Running around and smashing things has a lot of appeal, I admit, but as any kid can tell you the true brilliance of LEGOs lies in construction. Before the game was made public, I did a fair amount of thinking (okay, fine, obsessing) over what I should try to build in the game. I didn’t want to start with anything too ambitious, but neither was I interested in building something boring like a house. I finally settled on recreating in the game my favorite LEGO model spaceship, and after a quick trip to my Mom’s attic I discovered that I still had the instruction booklet to help me along.

Of course, finding the right bricks was a problem (I’m still in the process of collecting them all, and it doesn’t look good for a couple of the specialty ones; I will likely need to make substitutions), but after claiming a property of my own by clearing out the Maelstrom-infected denizens I was able to jump into brick mode and start working.

There are two methods for constructing custom items in LEGO Universe. The obvious one, brick mode, is actually the one you’ll use the least early on. To help people get into the spirit of things, the developers provide you with a fair amount of pre-constructed models up front that you can deploy around your property. For instance, the first run of quests provides a choice between House models and Castle models.

When models become boring, though, you can enter brick mode, and construct whatever you like the classic way: brick by brick. This mode is a pretty good time-waster, both because it takes a long time to find the brick you’re looking for and because it’s so open-ended. If you were the type of kid who discarded the instructions and just built whatever came to mind, you’re going to love brick mode. Although nothing particularly impressive has been constructed yet that I’ve found, I anticipate that in the coming months we will see some very interesting custom-built items. (And thanks to the “LEGO owns everything you build in our game” clause in the EULA, maybe we’ll even see some of them end up in the game or—which would be even more awesome—real life.)

Brick mode offers a few really nice aids in building larger creations: first, you can group segments of bricks together, allowing you to construct small pieces and then fit them together without worrying about bricks getting stuck to the wrong areas if you aren’t precise the first try. Second, you can jump in and out of brick mode to construct custom models, allowing you to construct more complex items modularly without worrying about the more fiddly navigation of brick mode. You can even toss these models into your backpack to deal with later, although at the moment it doesn’t appear to be possible to use them in the main game. Perhaps this will be an option down the road; it certainly seems likely given the range of behaviors you can assign to models (including movement, smashing, rebuilding, and more).

The dark side of build mode

If you are anything like me, TellTale-style gameplay plus custom building sounds like LEGO perfection, but it is not without its problems. First and foremost, there is the issue of interacting with built models. One of the first things I did when I claimed my own property was toss out a few castle pieces that I’d acquired from quests. One of these pieces was a gate, and when I decided to head back outside, I walked up to it and hit the interact button. Nothing. Hit the attack button. Nothing. In point of fact, it was impossible to open the hinged gate at all. Since then I’ve acquired all but one level of behaviors (as best I can tell) and none of them offer any capability to do a simple adjustment of a hinged or otherwise mobile model element, either.

The cleverest solution I’ve seen so far was a property where the user had attached a “smash” action to their gate, which then rebuilds itself a moment later. At least there you can get in and out of the castle.

Then there are the custom models. I had created one half of the beginnings of my favorite space ship, saved it as a model, and tossed it in my backpack for safe-keeping. Later, I’d discovered a new brick vendor with some of the bricks I needed, so I went back to my property, dropped the model out, and worked on it a little more. When I tried to exit brick mode, however, I got an error “You don’t have the bricks for this.” What the hell? First off, I’ve never sold or otherwise gotten rid of a brick, so the idea that a model I built a few days ago can’t be completed with the bricks in my collection is ludicrous. Secondly, what am I supposed to do? There was no way to exit build mode without trashing all of my work and returning all the bricks to my backpack.

Now imagine you were working on a much larger project, and suddenly this becomes an excellent reason not to use build mode at all. Hopefully, it is the result of a bug that LEGO will fix in the game engine soon, but in the meantime I am leery of spending time on custom models that I may never be able to complete.

An additional downside to build mode is that it is very difficult to find the bricks you need. The backpack interface is far from ideal for managing bricks, and although there are some filtering options, they are extremely simplistic. Since I am beginning to learn the names of the pieces, it would be very handy if there were a quick search bar where you could filter by name or dimensions. Sadly, the developer evidently didn’t feel this was necessary, making trolling through your collection both when building and when looking through shop-keeper inventories a major pain in the butt.

Hello? Will you be my friend?

I have long had a tortured relationship with MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games, for those not in the know). I want to love them (particularly the RPGs, since I love the idea of a persistent RPG), but I inevitably end up disillusioned with them after just a few days of play. This is because MMOGs are largely balanced with the assumption that you will group up with your fellow gamers after you start to specialize which will relieve the boredom of grinding away through the same old quests and gameplay over and over again, and I never am able to do so. I honestly have no idea how people make lasting friendships in these games. I’ve never been able to get anyone to cooperate with me, much less engage them in conversation.

I was hopeful that LEGO Universe would not be quite as bad, but turns out I was wrong. Not only does no one talk, ever, but even if you want to try and chat you usually cannot without loads of frustration. This is because the LEGO Universe chat filter is based on a whitelist instead of a blacklist.

This means that the only words you can use in chat (or in naming your models, or your property description, or basically anywhere you can enter text public or not) you can only use words that the moderators have approved beforehand.

Excuse me for using a word that would be blocked in the LEGO chat filters, but this is bullshit. LEGO’s whitelist dictionary appears to have been constructed by hand, and is horrifically limiting, particularly when you get words with more than, say, five letters. In trying to describe my peaceful garden property, I discovered that the words “zen”, “peaceful”, “contemplation”, and a slough of other happy, non-negative words were blocked. There is no easy way to appeal this other than taking the time to jump over to the in-game feedback and sending a message to the moderators/support staff.

Later in the main game, I was getting frustrated that I couldn’t find a particular item for a quest, so I decided to try and ask the other players nearby for help. After more than six tries to compose the message, I finally gave up and quit the game in frustration. Even the name of the quest giver was blocked by the onerous chat filter, preventing me from getting to my question even in a roundabout manner.

Another great example is that I wanted to name my triceratops pet “Spike” (because, come on, that’s a great name for a triceratops). I’ve tried this five or six times across the span of several days, and it is always automatically discarded by the chat filter. I’ve written the moderators to request they add “Spike” to their allowed word list, but to no avail. I am trapped instead in a weird world of extreme censorship where rather than disproving a small pool of inappropriate words they have to approve every single word I type.

I hate this, and judging by the fact that absolutely no one has ever said anything more complicated than “hello” or “thanks” in my presence (except for one jack-off who jumped up and down in the middle of the map repeating how he was first to do something or other until I left the area in disgust), I suspect that I am not the only one who finds trying to communicate via chat too onerous to pursue.

I understand that this is a game targeted at kids. But Christ, LEGO. Nervous as it made me, I sent you my god damned driver’s license so you could verify my identity. Could you maybe assume that I (1) am not out to prey on innocent young kids over the internet, and (2) have a decent-sized vocabulary that I’d like to make use of? Crazy thing: kids don’t expand their vocabularies because people only use words they know. They learn new words them because they see them in context.

Don’t help me. Please.

Aside from the impossibility of saying anything not totally inane and simplistic within LEGO Universe, the game is strangely setup to encourage cooperation, even while it squashes any possibility of cooperating with your fellow minifigures flat.

Very soon after exiting the first area of the game, you are prompted to choose a Nexus Force faction to join. Each faction is focused on something different: Sentinels on hand-to-hand combat, Assembly on building things, Venture League on exploring, and Paradox on ranged attacks. Personally, I joined the Paradox because they have the most awesome-looking gear.

However, when I equipped my starting set of gear I discovered that the Paradox is a support class. Their weapon is a ranged weapon, and their special ability is that they can sacrifice some of their own health to provide imagination for the people around them.

That’s fine; I tend to prefer support classes (I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for wizards and priests in role playing games), but it does make traveling around solo a bit difficult, particularly with the larger, nastier enemies who deal a lot of damage. Sacrificing my health for imagination doesn’t do me a lot of good when I’ve got half a dozen dark samurai wailing on my ass, and ranged weapons in LEGO Universe are a major bitch to aim. (I swapped out my ranged wand for a sword pretty quick, but that still leaves me with wimpy armor ill equipped for hand-to-hand combat.)

However, the game is setup to actively discourage working together with anyone. I already mentioned that when you destroy something, you get a bunch of coins, bricks for your collection, and so forth. What I did not mention is that unless you strike the killing blow, you get nothing.

This means that if I am working on taking down a dark spiderling, I’m sitting at two health, and have finally got him where I want him, and some jackass Sentinel comes running by and knocks him once on the head, I get nothing and the second dark spiderling that was creeping up on me kills me in one shot. Or, conversely, if I see a poor Assembly engineer getting taken apart by a dark samurai, I better than to try and help him kill it unless I’m comfortable with stealing his loot (actually, it’s in my interest to let him get killed, because then I can finish off the low-health samurai and take the loot more fairly; the thing would have its health regenerated by the time he got back from rebuilding).

Thanks to this all-or-nothing approach to item drops, the only way that cooperating with another character would work would be if we could somehow coordinate who strikes the killing blow, or if we were working on different goals (say, if my friend needed to construct something in an area with a lot of enemies, I could keep the enemies off his back while he worked, for mutually beneficial results). However, thanks to the godawful chat filters (and the complete lack of voice chat), such coordination would be really hard to pull off without practice and a good sense of shared timing. Otherwise, the support character most of the time gets nothing for his trouble aside from possibly appreciation. Which is worth diddly when it comes time to buy the next level of awesome-looking yet strangely useless Paradox armor.

The stifling of cooperative gameplay wouldn’t matter so much, except for the fact that people who choose support classes (like myself) start to have a really difficult time holding their own later in the game. I am currently at a place where I simply cannot progress because I do not have enough imagination, but none of the armor or weapons that I have access to would help me. My only option, essentially, is to team up and lose out on all the items (assuming I could find someone willing to listen long enough to team up in the first place), or else go on a mad grind fighting low-level enemies and searching for random faction token drops so that I can purchase the next level of class-based equipment. (Which is possibly the most boring waste of my time I can think of.)

Aaaah, bugs!

To top LEGO Universe’s other problems off, there’s a lovely suite of bugs. I don’t know if they are general or specific to the Mac version (which is not really a Mac version, but the Windows version running using TransGaming Cider; I’ve played numerous Cider-based games, and can say pretty definitively that it’s about the shittiest excuse for a port I’ve ever used in all cases). I regularly have to drop out of the game world (by switching minifigures) or quit the client completely to clear up some graphical glitch or other, which is not very conducive to getting into a game.

Odds are the bugs will improve with time, but in the face of the game’s baked-in limitations it’s very discouraging in the short term.

I’m all aloooone, there’s no here besiiiiide meeeee

In the end, though I want to love LEGO Universe and think there’s a huge amount of potential in the game, I am unlikely to use it beyond the free month granted by the initial purchase. After all, what motivation does the game provide me? It borks my custom built models, forcing me to restart from scratch. It actively discourages me from forming any sort of cooperative bonds with other players. The chat filters make it impossible to communicate without endlessly rewritten messages, so I can’t connect to other players outside of the gameplay. I am instead left with the grind of trying to get enough item drops to continue to explore new areas, which gets very old very quickly when you’re on your own.

For people who love LEGOs, I recommend LEGO Universe with reservations. It is certainly worth a month or two of play, although how much enjoyment you will get out of it in the long term will likely depend on how many of your real-world friends are playing it (and thus willing to cooperate out of friendship instead of material in-game motivation).

I’ll be keeping an eye on LEGO Universe in the hopes that they improve the game with future patches, but for the short term it looks like if I want to get my building itch scratched I’d be better off trying Minecraft, which I have been intentionally avoiding in the hopes that LEGO Universe would provide a more polished playfield for creative constructions.

4 responses to “LEGO Universe: the good, the bad, the unfulfilling”

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  1. Loser says:

    Bravo.

  2. Unknown Gamer says:

    This is quite new information cuz after month 1 of horrid chat we’ve found ways to get around the whitelist. Ive become friends with many players and who gets the items is based on who deals the most damage first, not last. I am also Paradox and ive found that each faction has a class that helps the group, and each class does it in a different way. Also each faction has people spending time getting faction tokens.

  3. SeferFantasy says:

    Yo that was a great read man. I agree with the chat-thing being a major problem, and I just couldn’t play Wizards101 due to that very reason(although to be honest, lego universe has more whitelisted words than that game)

    Anyways, I actually like the game…Despite no one ever talking… Sad. Maybe I won’t like this game now that you bring it into perspective…

  4. Jordan says:

    I agree with you 100%, OP. The white-list chat is downright destructive to teamwork and commerce. I think my favorite part was that you can’t type numbers into the chat. I see why they did this (to keep kids form sharing their age or birthdays, etc), but that doesn’t make it any less stupid of an idea. I mean, why spend the time to code up a trade system when you can’t even work out a deal through chat!?

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