Remember those cozy summer afternoons when you'd pour your tub of LEGO pieces onto the floor, spread them out as wide as you could, and just start building? Sometimes you'd start with a pirate's hideout, other times a space pilot, or skeleton armies, or an average joe cooking burgers in his yard. With just a few bricks and your imagination, you could have hours of fun in miniaturized LEGO worlds.
From the first time I saw LEGO Universe in action, I had high hopes for it (I gave it my best of show at E3 ) and jumping into the beta, I wanted to see it ressurect those same feelings of inspired creativity and boyish excitement that playing with the LEGO bricks used to.
So far, I've been really enjoying my time in LEGO Universe, and the healthy amount of diverse activities that the game directs you towards (I went from designing castles to flying rocket ships to battling skeletons within minutes) keeps you on your toes, never sure what to expect--the key to keeping a kid-friendly game like this from becoming stale.
But I don't want to talk about all that stuff right now. Right now, I want to talk about the two zones I've been cruising through lately: The Gnarled Forest and the Forbidden Valley. The Gnarled Forest is my perfect world--pirates have been marooned in a forest (a pirate's least favorite place), cornered by cursed treasure, angry gorillas, and a first mate monkey with a trigger finger.
Progression in the zone is fairly linear, I started off helping defend pirates from their zombified comrades and using the captain's pistol to blast the cursed treasure chests from afar. The quests were simple, go here-do-this fare, but the world gives you plenty of opportunities to explore different routes to success. At one point, I shattered some rocks and used imagination (a resource collected from interacting with objects in the environment or defeating enemies to construct a Siren mermaid statue that mesmerized nearby zombie pirates, letting me pick them off easily.
With the zombie pirate threat quelled for now, I rushed forward to find a group of pirates pinned behind a rock by gunfire. They begged me to find out who was firing at them and convince them to stop, so I rushed headlong into danger. The stairs and ladders were broken, so I smashed some blocks nearby to construct a launch pad to propel me up, fighting my way through some zombie pirate captains to make it up to the sharpshooter, who ended up being a crazed monkey twirling on a branch firing randomly. Awesome.
I continued through the forest, helping pirates who had lost their clothes, were trapped in a tree, or just wanted some help manning their cannons (which opened up the shooting gallery minigame shown above). Eventually, I earned their respect, which opened up a plot of land on the island for me to build on (instanced) as well as a pirate hook, which would allow me to interact with more items on the island and reach new areas. Oh, and I also tamed a little elephant pet that I named Squeakers that follows me around everywhere now.
Those who side with the ninjas in the great "pirates vs. ninjas" debate might be thoroughly disgusted at this point, but if you're still reading, let me assure you--the Forbidden Valley is just the sort of place you'll love. After cruising into an outlying landing pad on my rocket, I started jumping towards the large gate marking the entryway to the valley. And then I realized that it was blocked by a gigantic robot samurai--not something I wanted to mess with, especially since my character was decked out in full pirate gear.
A cryptic elderly ninja nearby told me that a true ninja will find his own way into the valley. So that's how it's gonna be, grandpa? This pirate isn't one to shirk a challenge, so I went about solving this problem like I do every problem in LEGO Universe--smash things until I have enough imagination to build the bricks into something more useful, like a launch pad in this case. Soon I was flying over the wall, giving the giant robot samurai the finger (mentally at least), on my way into the valley.
The difference between the two zones went beyond just cosmetic: the pirates' areas were all about shooting guns, dealing with treasure, and shooting cannons, while the ninas' areas focused on moving gracefully (at some points playing almost like a platformer) and striking enemies where it hurts the most. Of course the maelstrom (the force of evil unravelling the game's universe apart) has been turning things undead here too, and I had to battle my way through some brutal mounted samurai ghosts, often having to rely on other players to help me kill them, or being satisfied with a 1:1 kill-to-death ratio when battling them.
In the end, my poorly developed ninja instincts kept me from uncovering a way to bypass a forcefield that seems to be blocking my only route forward in the Valley. It didn't help that every time I get close to it, the ghostly samurai would smash me to pieces--which would be an incredibly violent death animation if we were dealing with anything besides tiny plastic pieces. And there's almost no death penalty: a few of your coins fall out where you die, but you instantly respawn nearby and can colect the coins by running back to the location within a few minutes.
Despite this surprising upturn in difficulty (something that should be ironed out before launch), I sincerely enjoyed all of my time in the LEGO Universe beta. The achievements and pet systems offer a lot of "carrots" to chase after. But if LU sounds interesting to you, you'll have be happy playing with real LEGOs until the game goes live on October 22nd--the beta servers shut down earlier this week.