ZAM Examines LEGO Universe's Free-to-Play Option

LEGO Universe recently went free-to-play... well, partially at least. Staff Writer Paul "LockeColeMA" Cleveland explores how much you can do for free and checks out the new leveling system.

Show of hands: who among you did not play with LEGOs as a kid? In that case, I'm sorry... but you have the opportunity to make up for your loss now that LEGO Universe has gone free-to-play! Well... kind of. I had to a chance to see exactly what “F2P” meant in the LEGO-verse; and a chance to see what it did not mean as well. More after the jump!

In October 2010, LEGO Universe was released as a standard subscription game. For $10 per month, players could find themselves with their own minifigures exploring several different areas as they unraveled the evil mystery of the Maelstrom that was destroying Imagination. Yes, it sounds goofy as heck, but the developers knew their target audience: young kids as well as nostalgic 20- and 30-somethings. And LEGO Universe made good on that promise, offering both a standard MMO experience with a basic stat and gear system, as well as models and pieces used to customize several plots the player could unlock.

However, the game fell into a few standard MMO traps. First, the MMO aspect was both limited (players advanced through gear alone, not a leveling system) and grindy (said gear took quite a long time to acquire and then upgrade to the highest tier). Instead of staying strictly with the standard retail and subscription plan, the LEGO Group last month changed to what they call a “free-to-play” option for the game and introduced a leveling system based on the “Universe Points” that previously just denoted how many quests a player completed. Anyone can now create an account and download LEGO Universe for free... but many of the features remain limited to members who pay the $10 monthly subscription fee.

Free-to-Play Features

Just how many features are limited? Enough that, upon playing the game for around 4-5 hours, I came abruptly to the end of the content I could play for free. Looking at the above chart, I would estimate around 80% of the game is limited to paying members, and LEGO Universe takes no little pains to make it known. First you can make one character, with three others greyed out in the background. That's OK though, since many F2P games have a similar feature. While the LEGO Universe site claims F2P gives you two worlds, the only ones I found were the introductory Venture Explorer ship area and Avant Gardens. The Venture Explorer Ship tutorial “zone” may take you as long as 15 minutes to complete, assuming you're feeling especially sluggish or remake your character several times; the majority of the F2P content takes place in Avant Gardens.

Luckily, as newbie zones go, Avant Gardens is a pretty good one. The storyline is simple enough: the Maelstrom is a bunch of destructive energy that loves to mess with creations of Imagination (the power used to turn normal LEGO blocks into structures and creatures). As a newly minted minifigure, the player must prove him/herself to the LEGO forces through a series of quests. Many of these quests involve destroying Maelstrom LEGO creations like stromlings or corrupted turrets; the latter can then be quickly rebuilt into helpful iterations that blast nearby enemies. The enemies drop health and armor restoring tokens, as well as coin for NPC purchases, equipment and blocks for building.

Combat is pretty easy; instead of juggling stat points like strength and agility in other MMOs, minifigs have a general attack stat for their weapon (showing +1 or +2 for example), and either health, armor or imagination on their armor. Armor takes the place of some health, so having 4 health and 3 armor effectively means you can take 7 hits before breaking apart and needing to be reconstructed. This also means that most armor is cosmetic; I received just as much armor and health from a breastplate as I did from a card shark shirt. This allows players to differentiate their appearance early on, which I found a plus over many other MMOs.

But again, the paid membership is constantly presented to the player. Oh look, a shiny golden treasure chest half buried in the dirt! I wonder what's in it... oh, members only. Hey, a LEGO dog with which I can interact... oh, pets can only be used by members. Wow, a ninja! And he can teach me spinjitzu... if I sign up and pay. F2P characters also can't talk in groups, unlock more than one property for free building or play more than a couple of mini-games. Yikes!

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