Hands On with the Gnarled Forest
I’ve had the pleasure of previewing NetDevil’s upcoming MMO LEGO Universe as it makes its way through the beta process. This week the developer has given the go ahead to talk about the Gnarled Forest, one of the game’s many themed “islands” set inside the LEGO Universe. For those unfamiliar with the gist of LU’s story, the game is set amid a chaotic time during the LEGO people’s existence. One of four explorers on a search for the source of Pure Imagination (yes, I’m singing the Willy Wonka song too) gets sucked into the source upon its discovery, causing a dark Maelstrom of chaos energy to be unleashed upon the entire LEGO Universe. Your role in all this is as a Minifigure called to arms to defend the Universe from the invading forces of the Maelstrom and to find a way to halt its onslaught.
Make sense? Good. Because if you ask me, in a game that’s all about the possibilities of imagination and the creative process of building mixed with the action, puzzle-solving, and exploration that the LEGO brand games have become known for, the fact that there’s a story at all is kind of an achievement. When LEGO Universe was announced way back when I didn’t know what to expect. But having spent some time with the title now, I find that NetDevil has done an admirable job of setting up a universe with some semblance of lore and purpose behind all the adventures you’re going to be sent on.
The game’s world is broken up into islands that you’ll travel to and from using your own custom-built rocket ship. One such island is the Gnarled Forest: a pirate themed jungle filled with angry gorillas, violent swashbucklers, caged ninjas, trigger-happy monkeys, and oodles of stuff to break and collect. If you’ve ever played any of Traveller’s Tales LEGO games, you have an idea of how LEGO Universe works from a controls perspective. There aren’t hotkeys and targeting like you may be used to, and instead the game handles more like an action title. The left-mouse (or the control key if you’d prefer) serve as your attack button, spacebar will jump and double-jump in midair for an added boost of height, and that’s pretty much it. It’s simple enough for anyone to pick up and be able to play, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find your minifigure getting busted from time to time. Luckily, there’s only a small monetary fee for dying in LU and you respawn nearby… or rather “rebuild.”
Landing upon Gnarled Forest finds you at the entrance to the jungle, an NPC awaiting your arrival to send you on your first quest. It’s important to note that quests in LU aren’t always of the typical variety. The game’s LEGO-based mechanics give it an edge that many other games aren’t afforded, in that your character can be tasked with building different structures to accomplish different tasks. One such mission in the Gnarled Forest has you hunting out a piece of a mermaid statue, then using your “Imagination” (think mana/energy) to build it and distract the Stromling Pirates who are infected with the dark energy of the Maelstrom.
That doesn’t mean the entire game will be void of kill or collect quests, but more often than not players will find themselves interacting with the environment to complete tasks, rather than just mindlessly killing enemies. There’s a strong emphasis on platforming in LEGO Universe, and one mission in Gnarled Forest has you first collect bananas from nearby trees, and then bound your way along a series of cliffs to deliver the fruit to ninja prisoners so they won’t starve. You have to time your jumps just right and figure out just how to get to each holding cell, which can be a tricky process. The main facets of LU’s gameplay are definitely a mix of action, platforming, and puzzle-solving and often all three at once. In this way it almost plays like a persistent online version of the best Traveller’s Tales games, and I mean this entirely as a compliment to NetDevil. There are tons of achievements to unlock, items, weapons and armor to collect. It’s in the collection and unlocking of these items that your minifigure will progress through the game, not by traditional levels.
It’s worth mentioning that after the initial tutorial stages, players will be asked to choose a faction to ally themselves with, a choice that cannot be undone. There are four to choose from, and each faction has two distinct paths to venture down. For instance I allied myself with the faction that’s sort of the anti-heroes of the game. With them I can either become a warrior who wields the power of the Maelstrom in combat, or a sorcerer who bends the dark energy to his will. This will undoubtedly add to the replayability of the game as players will want to start new minifigures to find out what each path has to offer in terms of both gear and abilities.
I only have a few complaints to level at the Gnarled Forest experience. Keeping in mind that this is beta, and there are several months to go before the game’s launched I couldn’t help but notice that my character’s first gun, offered to him for picking the warrior path, had both a terrible range on its projectile and was very hard to hit anything with. I’d have my character pointing right at a pirate, and when I left-clicked he’d immediately turn to face a nearby object and shoot it instead. Next thing I knew I was dead and “rebuilding” myself.
There are also obviously some enemy balancing issues going on. In Gnarled Forest the Stromling Pirates are relatively easy to take out, but can put up a fight. They’re like the lowest level enemies in the area. Meanwhile their higher-grade counterparts, the Stromling Admirals, can destroy a minifigure in one shot of their guns, which makes these guys pretty frustrating opponents. One good way to take them out that I discovered was to shoot the explosive chests that litter the area where many of them wander, but to do this my gun would need to be working properly… and it didn’t.
Before I wrap this impressions piece up, it’s worth mentioning that despite the frustrations I had in combating the Admirals, I still rather enjoyed myself in the Gnarled Forest. There are an incredible amount of things to do and see in the space of the island, not to mention the addictive collection of pets (sea turtles anyone?), flags, achievements, and golden bricks to keep you busy. There’s also a shooting gallery mini-game that has you manning a cannon and firing into an onslaught of Maelstrom-infected submarines and pirate frigates to see what player can get the highest score, as well as a way to unlock more achievements and collect LEGO bricks for your private stash.
In all, the Gnarled Forest is a richly detailed exploration of the Piratical LEGO world, and while the island itself seems a bit small at times, there’s no shortage of things to do and the focus is firmly on having fun. I’m anxious to see what other islands there are to explore in the world, and to see just how much of their own imaginations NetDevil has crammed into this game.