|System: PC, PS3||Review Rating Legend|
|Dev: Sony Online (SOE)||1.0 - 1.9 = Avoid||4.0 - 4.4 = Great|
|Pub: Sony Online (SOE)||2.0 - 2.4 = Poor||4.5 - 4.9 = Must Buy|
|Release: Apr. 29, 2009||2.5 - 2.9 = Average||5.0 = The Best|
|Players: MMO||3.0 - 3.4 = Fair|
|ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+||3.5 - 3.9 = Good|
by Nathan Meunier
The allure and addictive nature of massive online games like World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online is extremely potent for scores upon scores of players, but there are only a handful of truly all-ages games available in the genre. While simultaneously grooming younger gamers for the big league MMORPGs later in life and offering an online world suitable for all manner of players, Sony Online Entertainments newly launched, kid-friendly Free Realms lets gamers of all ages mingle in an exotic and playful fantasy world. Without paying a single dime, theres a staggering amount of exploration, quests, and games to enjoy in these virtual hills and valleys.
Over a million users signed up for Free Realms shortly following its official PC launch (the PS3 version is still being worked on). Though not all players are kids, dont be surprised to find the servers more heavily packed and the world more densely populated during after school hours. The opportunities for social networking and player interaction are plentiful via chat features, duel opportunities, and mini-games. However, shyer players can still get a lot out of the game through interactions with the numerous NPCs populating the world until theyre more comfortable, and a handy feature lets parents control and limit social interaction options for their kids if deemed necessary.
In creating a character, you can choose to play as a human or fairy (with male and female variants of both), and there are a reasonable number of options for further customizing your appearance and outfit. A brief tutorial phase introduces the basic concepts and leads you through a few missions before letting you roam freely about the world. At present, the expansively mapped landscape in Free Realms includes eight major town-like regions with different inhabitants, quests, and visual themes (with several more in the works). Youll find snowy mountaintops populated with yeti and other cold-weather folks, a sunny beach resort located near the ocean, a jungle town full of cheerful inhabitants, haunted swamps, tucked away fortresses, and other interesting locales to frequent. Each area is uniquely designed both visually and in terms of the gameplay options available. Additionally, the world map is easy to navigate (dots represent hotspots for battles, quests, mini-games, friend locations, and warp spots), and each themed realm features a cool popup animation when you hover the cursor over it.
A large portion of the gameplay in Free Realms centers on its various jobs (character classes) that can be unlocked through quests and switched out on the fly by changing outfits. As you roam around and talk to different characters, theyll ask you to take on a broad range of quests. While there are general missions that dont fall under any job category, many of them follow a specific career path. Some require you to have unlocked a specific job and provide you with special experience to level up your character. For example, combat-focused jobs (of which there are six in all) like the brawler and ninja let you gain experience through battling missions. Playing as a chef lets you hunt down ingredients and cook various recipes to provide boosts elsewhere in the game. Blacksmiths and miners can forge important items and gather crucial resources, respectively. Other jobs let you dabble in being a pet trainer, a postal worker, a kart driver, a treasure hunter, a card game dueler, and more. Fifteen character jobs are available at the moment, but it appears more will be offered in the future. Four of the fifteen classes can only be opened up if you pay the nominal monthly subscription fee for optional membership. You can switch between unlocked jobs at any time, and completing missions lets you earn experience to level up your jobs, gaining access to special abilities that can be pumped up through stardust earned along the way.