Sunday, September 25, 2011

LEGO Universe Online - Free-to-Play? Not really

I was fairly bored this lunchtime, so I thought I'd look into some more MMOs to see what updates I've missed, games that have surfaced and those that have, like many others, gone down the free-to-play route. Generally with free-to-play games, you have a good chunk of the game available to you with the higher-end levels or side levelling paths (such as alternate areas) cut off, along with a number of the game's features such as character slots, chat restrictions and so forth. LEGO Universe opts for a different approach, one I wasn't keen on.

Let's go from the start, shall we? It's a fairly quick and painless install. 20MB launcher download, then I had to download a new patcher (another ~20MB), and then it was about 500-600MB for the game. For me that took about three-quarters of an hour, so if you're on broadband, it'll likely be anywhere from two hours to maybe 20 minutes depending on how good your download speed is, but it could be more or less than those figures. Once that had done, it was into the game, and that's where the problems start. After accepting the licenses and logging in, you get to your minifigure select screen. Free users get just the one slot, which I didn't have a problem with. You then decide on your character's first clothing and hair styles, as well as their face. LEGO Universe opts for a roulette approach to choices, so you spin the wheel around your character to select the item you want. Does it work? Sometimes, sometimes it'll spin the other way, sometimes it'll ignore you - It's brilliant. The choices are fairly limited but, like with all LEGO, most choices are gender-neutral with a few female-specific pieces. You have a limited set of colours to choose from, so a few shades of blue, red, yellow, etc. Despite the limitations, you can make a fairly good looking minifigure that looks as if you've just picked them out of a set. I found, however, that a lot of the choices didn't seem to 'stick' in the overview. You'd select your face, it'd zoom out and your minifigure would have a blank face. The face was still there, of course, but just wasn't showing.

I got free of that with a minifigure based on Zoey from Valve's Left 4 Dead, and went into the next section to choose her name. Like Free Realms and, I believe, Clone Wars Adventures, it opts for a three-part name made out of various words. The spinners take forever to fully scroll through, so you could easily spend ten/twenty minutes coming up with a decent name for your minifigure. Being impatient and also in a funny mood, I opted for LoyalHoneyZombie. It made absolutely no sense, but because there were no proper names to choose from, I thought 'bugger it'.

You're then treated to a cutscene before arriving in the first tutorial area. Here you're told by a Sir Patrick Stewart sound-a-like (I doubt it's him) how to move and control things whilst a couple of minifigures introduce you to basic features of the game such as Imagination (which is used to build things) and smashing objects to find Imagination, life points, armour and coins. Within moments I was reminded of the Traveller's Tales LEGO games due to the way the minifigures moved, down to the controls themselves. I got through those missions with ease and moved onto the next area with no real complaints about the game so far. And, once again, this is where it gets worse.

You arrive in Avant Gardens, the first game area. It's bright and colourful, but there's some horrible purple monsters running around. You scuttle over to the first quest giver, and he tells you to bugger off to someone else. So, you do that - avoiding the enemies to your left, of course - and get your first weapon. Yay! I'll stop there, and describe how the quest pattern develops. Kill enemies, speak to NPC, kill enemies, go to NPC somewhere else, go back to enemies and kill them, go to NPC, get sent to another NPC, kill more enemies in the same place, go to NPC, use item to find a new area (through enemies), go back to NPC (going through enemies!), go back to new area (through enemies), fight enemies in new area, talk to new NPC, go to a different location, kill enemies, go back to new NPC, go back through enemies to another NPC, and so forth. You then get sent to a mountain and - no word of a lie - the quests send you up and down it about four or five times, if not more.

Once you've gone insane from that, you get moved on to the next area which is a vendor and travel hub. The quest sends you to your own private area (kudos to LEGO for giving it to you free) and into the most obtuse fight I've found in an MMO. I'll pause there and explain the combat system. It's closer to, say, Torchlight and Sacred than World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online. You pretty much slash at your enemies (or shoot at them repeatedly) with a few special attacks mixed in for good measure. Whilst it works fine for smaller enemies, you get plonked in front of a big health-sponge of a spider and I can easily see younger players getting frustrated and dying during that fight. I found my attacks did very little to her, and it took me a couple of minutes to get her down. Doing so gave me my own area in which to build, and as I'd chosen the castle-themed rewards, I plonked down a few pieces. It took a few moments to work out how it's done, and I felt it was handled inefficiently. Whereas with LEGO you generally build on a grid, Universe doesn't have that. You're free to build where you see fit, and sometimes it makes it hard to line up pieces. I would have preferred it if you were 'free' of your character to build on a snap-to grid rather than waddling around to put down pieces in a way you hope would work. After bungling together half a castle wall with a few trees in an area that felt much too small, I continued with the game. I went from my build area to the vendor hub and was told to go to a whole new world. I spoke to the NPC, went to the launch pad and was told paying members only.

Just think. I'd played for an hour, two at most, and I'd already worked my way through most of the content on the first world and wasn't able to progress. I was almost at the limit for my coins (the limit is 10k, I had about 7.5k - 8k) and was itching for more content, yet to progress I had to pay £7.50. I was sorely disappointed, because I'd hoped for at least two more zones. I had happily worked through an area littered with references to paid membership (From half-buried treasure chests to adoptable pets), only to be hit by a brick wall.

Is it free-to-play? Only in the way a demo is. It should have been called a trial, because there's just no real free-to-play content there. It's more like World of Warcraft's current demo/trial system. You have up to level 20 to play, and beyond that you need the game. Overall I was very disappointed to find it ended so quickly and abruptly. I expected much more from a free-to-play game, and there's just not enough content there to keep anyone playing for more than an afternoon or so, although a child might manage to make it last a bit longer. I couldn't play the game enough to decide whether it was worth subscribing or not, and I felt as if LEGO had just put out a glorified demo rather than a game.

Unless you're going to pay, give it a miss. Kids are going to be much happier with, say, Sony's two child games (Free Realms & Clone Wars Adventures) or even just a proper game. Adults won't find much unless they pay for it, too.

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