Do your kids like LEGOs? I mean, really like LEGOs?
The eponymous toy company certainly hopes they do. After more than half a century building Scandinavia's most popular non-IKEA export, LEGO has successfully branched out into the gaming universe, carving themselves a comfortable niche with their line of licensed LEGO spin-off games.
LEGO's gaming ventures so far have been received warmly, garnering praise as a series of titles that evoke the toy line's strong suits in ways friendly to both kids and parents. They're Harry Potter smashing comically through a colorful wall in the middle of a Quidditch match, or Batman foiling a plot by Mr. Freeze to cover Gotham City in curiously familiar translucent blue bricks. Harmless fun, these, and never threatening.
Or at least that's how they used to be. Get ready to kiss all that goodwill goodbye: LEGO has now entered the realm of the massively multiplayer game. A deal with the devil (a little too literally here, in the case of developer NetDevil) has led to the creation of LEGO Universe, a pied piper of illicit Internet joys that threatens to make off with our children.
LEGO Universe is an effective introduction to the MMO for children old enough to use a computer but too young to handle class-specific duties in a 40-person endgame raiding party. It offers all the basics of online multiplayer play—persistent avatar creation and advancement, quest-based advancement, player cooperation and competition, etc.—wrapped in the classic LEGO theme and given a DUPLO learning curve.
The storyline, such as it is, is more than a little threadbare, opting to stitch together LEGO's disparate themes with a minimum of effort. Pirates, spacemen, wizards, and basically any other non-licensed theme one would encounter in the LEGO aisle of a toy store are all represented, interacting as though the thoroughly mixed bag they create is something one would see every day.
Unfortunately, players hoping to build customized giant robot exoskeletons for their mini-figure avatars might be in for a long wait. Free-form building is limited to player-owned properties, instanced spaces disconnected from Universe proper where players can use bricks collected from fallen opponents (a grisly proposition, when you think about it) to design their own home structures. Customization here is only limited by imagination and the stock of bricks on hand, but the disconnect between home properties and the rest of Universe cuts back on the potential lent by the franchise.
Free building can be a complicated, sometimes annoyingly clunky task, but not more so than any 3-D modeling application with similar limitations as the Universe toolset. Kids may find Universe bricklaying frustrating when compared to the real thing, but until someone invents a free-floating holographic interface, rest assured that grown-ups playing with AutoCAD often deal with the same headaches.
Had free-form building lived up to its potential, LEGO Universe would be unique enough to present not nearly as great a problem for our youth. As it stands, however, Universe is very much a standard-issue MMO. It's heavy on branded flair, littered with entertaining mini-games, and easily the best choice for parents willing to accept online gaming as an inevitability for their young children. But it's still too heavily influenced by the giants of the genre to be anything but one of their peers.
This makes LEGO Universe the most dangerous thing to come out of gaming since Grand Theft Auto: Bathtub Toaster Stories. Despite an unprecedented amount of child-centric safeguarding (NetDevil goes so far as to require avatar names be submitted for approval), LEGO Universe has the potential to become a gateway drug for MMOs. Wrapping countless hours of fetch quests and loot grinds in a LEGO package is the gaming equivalent of parking a van offering free ice cream and cocaine across the street from an elementary school playground.
If this thing gets legs, it could lead to some really bad places. Think about your own child. Let's call him Jimmy. Normal kid, right? Plays stickball with his friends, collects tadpoles at the creek, sticks baseball cards in the spokes of his bike wheels, the works. One of his little friends introduces him to LEGO Universe, but you don't mind too much. It's one of those games, but it's for kids, right? What could go wrong?
Now imagine little Jimmy after he gets tired of LEGO Universe and has to move on to harder MMOs. It's 3 a.m., and he's locked himself in his bedroom again. He's on his laptop, hopped up on fire-resistance potions and the high that comes from freebasing mid-game content. You tried removing his Internet access, but he figured out how to steal Wi-Fi from the neighbors. When you cut off his allowance, he just started whoring out healer alts for PayPal donations and game-time cards. Soon he'll have an epic mount, and when he gets that, you'll have lost him forever.