Here's a confession: I suck at Lego. I've always sucked at Lego. Oh sure, I could follow the instructions on kits and sets to the letter to make my very own submarines or castles or what have you, but the moment it came time to build stuff from scratch? It just wasn't happening. I could never quite conceptualize what I envisioned inside my head in a 3D physical space; I could never work out where to start. My friends were building awesome cars and tanks and I was stuck with two square blocks on top of another, looking at their awesome cars and tanks.
Lego Universe manages to completely replicate that feeling in videogame form, which is kind of a triumph in itself.
That's not to say that there isn't a game in Lego Universe; there certainly is. A destructive Maelstrom threatens to obliterate all of Imagination, so heroic minifigures must fight back against this chaotic force. In passing, you'll ally yourself with one of four factions (each specializing in a different facet of MMO gameplay - this is like choosing a character class), venture to various Lego worlds themed after pirates and ninjas and all of that fun stuff, and do quests not unlike those in other MMOs: Collect 5 special bricks, talk to people, kill 6 Stromlings, and find an embarrassed NPC his pants.
As a game, there's no doubt that it's targeted at younger gamers. The MMO trappings have been simplified and pared down, there's practically no quibbling about gear or stats, and combat revolves entirely around clicking your mouse button to swing your sword (or fire your gun, or whatever). For all intents and purposes, it's an "MMO lite." The story is inconsequential and serves as a thinly-veiled vehicle to get you adventuring from world to world, but it's easy for kids to understand in the middle of going "ooh, a dragon."
But that's not the main part of Lego Universe: It's a massively multiplayer building simulator. Every quest you complete rewards you with Lego blocks and pre-built models, and every "minifig" you create has their very own plot of land where you can put those blocks to use. The less brick-savvy among us can just string together the various themed packs to create rudimentary homes and dwellings. Talented Lego users, on the other hand, can create fully-fledged theme parks, castles, and obstacle courses. When you're satisfied with what you've created, you can open it up to the public, letting your fellow Lego Universe players adventure and jump through content you've created - whether it's a confusing maze, a dizzying platform course, or even just a bunch of traps designed to spawn monsters on unsuspecting minifigs.
That's what makes Lego Universe nigh-impossible to actually review: It's digital Lego. How do you review Lego - how do you review the limits of someone's imagination? I schlepped around my minifig's plot trying to build a castle and gave up when I couldn't get the opposing walls to line up no matter how many times I tried to rebuild it. The game lets you give objects different behaviors, too - but I couldn't figure out how to make my castle gate open at my command.
But then I visited some of the most highly-rated player spaces. I saw castles that stretched upwards for hundreds of Lego-feet, ancient-Japan-themed mazes, and sites that took full advantage of the game's trigger functionality. When you ride a plane into the air, type "crash land" into chat and watch it spin and burst into Lego bits, there's no denying that this sort of thing is really, really cool ... as long as it's in the right hands.
There are some clunky controls here and there, and occasionally your actions don't feel tangibly connected to the world. Your movements are floaty, combat moves in jerks and sometimes it can be frustrating to put the right brick in the right place, because it feels that the mouse and camera are working against you. As an introduction to Lego, well, it might just be easier to pick up a set from the shelf at your local toy store (though you won't have to worry about losing pieces under the couch).
But as a shared multiplayer building experience - as a bunch of people playing with Legos together - it's impressive. Even if you're no good at building things with Legos (I'm certainly not) you can still appreciate the skill of people who are - just as you can in real life. If you're good with Lego, you can make cool things. If you aren't, you can go to the worlds made by people who are and check the aforementioned cool things out - and either way, it's a very nifty experience. Lego Universe won't be winning any awards for its gameplay, but maybe it doesn't really need to.
John Funk's minifig looks like Conan O'Brien. It wasn't intentional.