Remember the Six Million Dollar Man? For most of you it was a bit before your generation, unless you've gawked at clips of it over on YouTube, but you ought to recognise the catchphrase regardless: "We can rebuild him. We have the technology". Man needs to be rebuilt, is the gist of it. $6m was thrown at the guy and yet I can't help but think Lee Majors would have looked better if he was remade entirely out of Lego.
And with that tenuous link I bring you Lego: Universe, a game that encourages you to think in terms of creation via bits of Lego. Building blocks are a simple idea, but Lego: Universe extends its conceit to an MMO scale and offers something that hints at the Second Life formula. What you have are worlds made of Lego, populated by Lego men and ladies, all of whom are building in-game objects out of Lego. To put it simply, it's a multiplayer game for fans of user-generated content, for kids.
But the game expands into more traditional MMO territory with the addition of missions and combat zones. Even its premise is influenced by both sci-fi and fantasy source material: A cube-shaped planet has been found, home of the Imagination Nexus - a source of pure imagination. But its core has been tampered with, causing the Nexus to mutate into a destructive Maelstrom, and parts of the planet have exploded into pieces and created other, smaller worlds of their own. That brings the many players into the picture, attempting to use their imagination to destroy this force.
And with that I'm shown the first planet, Avant Gardens, a basic green plateau that introduces simple combat in the game. But before any fighting or any block-creations I build my character.
Lego Universe is aimed at kids, so its child-safety policies are stringent from the moment you enter the character creator. Characters can be customised with millions of face, body, and clothing variations, giving you almost complete control of how your character will look. But the first hint of its child-safety system becomes obvious with the naming of your character. Like Second Life and others you will choose from a selection of forenames and surnames generated for you, all of which are inoffensive and bafflingly quirky. "Key-lime Donkeyhat" is an example of the kind of randomly generated nonsense worth a smile. Alternatively you can send in a name of your choosing to go through a moderation process, taking 10 to 15 minutes tops, I'm told.
Generally speaking, moderation is one of the more common themes of the game. Integrated into open-world chat is a blacklist of words and word combinations that can't be said. Type in "Where do you live?" and you'll be told the message won't go through. But to counterbalance this moderated world players can link accounts with a system called Best Friends, allowing them to turn off any moderation when in communication with one another.
Clearly it's built for the younger generation, not the nostalgic Lego player, but it continues to reference the standard conceits of the mature MMO while within its safe, hermetic enclosure. So, true to MMO form, the kids'll get four factions to choose from when they enter Avant Gardens, a permanent decision that represents different play styles. Producer Chris Sherland explains the factions:
"So we have a Build faction, Battle faction, Magical faction and Adventure faction. So those four core factions are loosely based on vertical play themes. Battle, Build, Magic and Adventure. For each one when you join a faction there's a new achievement chain. The magic faction is all about using clairvoyance, powers. The adventure faction is all about collecting every single thing in the world."