If you were born within the last 40 years or so, you're probably familiar with the Lego company's plastic brick-based toys of the same name, whose addictive snap-together properties have brought together children of all ages to build fire stations, spaceships, and castles while being an occasional choking hazard. And if you're familiar with recent Lego-branded video games from developer Traveller's Tales, you'll know that Lego's "mini-figs" (the smiley-faced Lego versions of people) have made video games their second home, embarking on virtual adventures in many different locales. Now, Colorado-based studio NetDevil has partnered with Lego to produce a family-friendly massively multiplayer game called Lego Universe--a game we spent a bit of time watching in motion.
We started our session by creating a new character from a huge selection of different leg styles, torsos (with different apparel options), different hairstyles, and different faces, then diving into adventure. As it happens, Lego Universe will take place during an intergalactic conflict between the forces of imagination and creativity and the forces of chaos and destruction. Chaos has apparently begun to manifest itself in the universe in the form of black holes and strange, infected "darkling" creatures, and your mini-fig has been enlisted to fight the good fight to defend creativity throughout the galaxy. Unfortunately, the spaceship you're travelling in has had a run-in with a nearby black hole, which means you must abandon ship before you crash-land.
This sets up the tutorial area of the game, where you learn the basics of the game's interface and control scheme, including running, jumping (the game will have light platformer elements), performing quests for key characters, solving puzzles using the "quick build" features that the Traveller's Tales games introduced (which lets you rebuild set combinations of bricks into useful envinronmental aids, like springy jumping pads), and dying. You can sort of die in Lego Universe if hit by monsters too many times or by falling into a pit, which will free your "creative spark" (basically, your mini-fig's immortal soul) to fly back to your most recent location, possibly costing you a bit of extra time but never truly killing off your character.
This tutorial area also introduces you to the concept of building "models"--different functional tools your mini-fig can create with the right pieces. Your character's first model is a three-part rocket ship to hop into and escape to safety, and by gathering components from various treasure boxes onboard the spaceship, you can use a simple interface to fill three ghostly component slots with three different rocket parts, completing your ship and making your escape. Later models will include things like drivable vehicles and other constructs to help you on your travels, as well as fixtures for your mini-fig's virtual protperty, such as a seaside dock near a beach house. In all cases, your character's collection will grow over time based on where you've traveled, but NetDevil is consciously avoiding promotion of various real-world Lego playsets--that is, the developer absolutely does not intend for the game to simply be a gigantic advertisement for Lego products.
After escaping to the nearest planet, the lush world of Avant Gardens, you take on new quests and earn your first weapon, a melee item such as a sword or hammer, and engage in combat against possessed darkling settlers and infected robots, whom you can smash into their component blocks. You're also introduced to your character's rudimentary statistics in this area, which are represented visually by a handful of meters in the upper-left screen: hearts (how much health your mini-fig has, reminiscent of the Legend of Zelda games), shields (how much armor you have), and imagination, which effectively acts like magic power (or "mana") from other games and lets you use quick-build items and other abilities. Eventually, you'll be able to pick up ranged weapons, such as pistols, which you'll liberate from pirates, and water pistols, which can be fired at environmental puzzles to trip switches or at Lego skull torches to put out the fire (though the latter will playfully spit water right back at you).
Your character's power will not be tied to any kind of experience-based progression, but rather to the items it currently has equipped. Over time, you'll collect a huge variety of different tool models and apparel items that grant special powers (such as a pirate captain's hat that compels all players in the area to dance a happy jig), and you'll also be able to express your creativity by coming upon "build areas," which appear in various areas and challenge you to build an open-ended goal, in some cases, with limited conditions (for instance, building a Lego bat in a cave build area using whatever pieces you feel will look like a bat).
You'll also be able to expand on your creativity with the aforementioned player property, which will let you take models of real estate fixtures such as boat docks, then make any and all modifications to them. Same goes for pets, which can be tamed using the pet-taming skill, and can be captured from secret pens hidden on different planets (pets primarily seem to include terrestrial animals like Lego buffalo, Lego elephants, and so on), and each pet enjoys a different kind of food, though care and feeding won't be overly burdensome. Above all else, any and all user-created content that can be viewed publicly will be subject to moderation, both through automated tools being built into the game and NetDevil's customer service staff (to make sure no one makes any offensive-looking or otherwise threatening furniture or critters). Otherwise, you'll be free to share your creations with anyone on your Lego.com friends list--in fact, this social network is already up and running on the Lego site and will eventually track all your mini-fig's creations and achievements in a statistics page you can share with the public or show off to your friends.
Lego Universe seems like it's making a lot of smart decisions, the kind you'd hope a developer would make when creating a safe and accessible game for players of all ages. Even though the game's development isn't yet complete, it already has a bright, colorful look that suits the source material extremely well. If you or someone you know might enjoy this family-friendly game, you'll be able to play it when it launches in the second half of 2010.