When Josh called Lego Universe his game of E3 this year, we just assumed he'd gone slightly wrong. But now I've played it, I get it. I'd assumed it would either be a very polished and not terribly interesting MMO by the numbers, or a very rough and glitchy experimental one that allows the kind of creativity Lego itself does. But what I've seen so far looks like the best of both those worlds: freedom to build anything from scratch, cleverly couched in an MMO that's as polished and satisfying as the Lego Star Wars or Lego Harry Potter games. Here's how it works.
The MMO bit has all the basics you'd expect: you take on quests through a curvy web 2.0-style interface, bop ten Stromlings for a reward, grab loot and buy gear from the shop. That part feels very much like an MMO of the Lego Star Wars games: there's no right-clicking corpses to get a menu of their inventory, things just explode in a shower of collectible Lego bricks and health hearts. And there's no clicking on someone to target them, then hitting a number key to execute a skill. You just click, or hit Alt, to swipe in front of you, and you hit what you hit. It's quicker, easier and more satisfying than the WoW model of MMO.
It also charms your goddamn face off from the login screen onwards. The smiling mini-fig by the text entry fields politely covers his eyes when you start typing your password in - though if you take long enough about it, you can spot him trying to peek. The intro features Patrick Stewart sounding the most excited he's been since he beat that Cardassian at counting lights. And character creation just can't fail to make you smile. You compose your character by spinning through the options for hair, eyes, nose, mouth, top, bottom, and the resulting combinations are frequently hilarious. The torso parts even lean with inertia if you spin the selection wheel fast enough. Even the pre-generated options for your name are funny. I made a perpetually terrified blue-haired businessman called Upbeat Garlic Masala.
Because you play this custom Lego mini-figure, you can also customise yourself with new bodyparts and equipment you find. It's your kit that determines your skills, so a certain shield will let you charge and bash people with it. That's partly to keep the controls simple - no 10-skill quickbar to faff with - and partly to let friends play together. If I've been playing for days and am loaded with decent kit, I can hand you a decent sword and you'll be good enough to fight with me through whatever quests I'm on.
Then there are the kinds of construction you can do out in the wider world. The first sizable death bot you smash to brick-bits, you'll notice some of its parts lie trembling on the ground. Hold shift to quick-build them into a turret made from the bot's old gun. That's not the creative bit, since what you can build is predetermined, but it's a fun mechanic to turn the tide of a battle. If you get further into the building side of things with your character, you'll be able to knock up massive, deadly sentries whenever you need them, and other bits of useful kit in the field.
You can also design your own space rocket to travel from region to region, and your own vehicles to race in. But in both cases, it's a case of switching in preset parts you've found. Your imagination isn't really needed until you get your own plot of land. This is a private zone where you can build anything: brick by brick with the pieces you've found as loot, or from bigger prefabs you've been given as quest rewards. You can choose to keep the whole place to yourself, let your friends visit, or open it up to the public - at which point a human moderator will have to check, before letting seven year-olds see it, that it isn't a giant penis crashing into the World Trade Center with a hundred and twenty eight defecating hellhounds spelling out "WHERE IS YOUR GOD NOW?" with their feces on the lawn below.
They're against that kind of thing.
That sandbox mode captures everything I liked about Lego as a kid. But Lego Universe goes a whole dimension further, and it's this that's got both Josh and I so excited. It's essentially a programming language, but one so simple and beautifully presented that eight year old boys are already building incredible things with it. As you progress through the game, you'll sometimes receive Behaviours among your rewards. These are things like 'Move up', 'Say something', 'Rebuild' or 'Follow'. In construction mode, you can click something you've created and drag these colourful Behaviour icons to it, then connect them up.
When the player presses Shift, move up 10, move forward 20, then destroy yourself.
If the player smashes you, wait 20 seconds, then rebuild yourself.
When the player touches you, send the message 'Open' to the portcullis.
When you're sent the message 'Open', move up 25.
Creating these Behaviours is, if anything, even easier than it was for me to write them out. It might be the first time programming has ever been easier done than said. Producer Chris Sherland tells me one player taught his creations to play tag with this, just by setting them all to 'Flee' from a certain creature, and setting that creature to 'Follow' the nearest one of them. If they touch, the roles are switched.
You can set up pieces to spawn enemies, then defend your castle from them. And you can even make enemies yourself, using more intricate sets of Behaviours that have already been chained together in useful sets. If you've made something that looks like a pet, for example, there's a predefined Behaviour set you can give it that'll make it wander around and hop occasionally.
I was about to say it doesn't take much imagination to see how powerful this system is, but of course it does, and that's the point. The whole game is based on the premise that we all have a lot of that knocking around in our heads. And while we don't need much of it to run around and bash things with our friends, knowing that every bit of loot and quest reward gives us more to play with in our personal sandbox is going to make it all the more fun to do so.
Lego Universe is in closed beta, which is about to end. After that, early access for pre-orderers starts on October 12th, and the official release is October 22nd, 26th in Europe - for both PC and Mac. It'll cost £30, £8 a month thereafter, but no microtransactions or anything like that to worry about.