One of gaming's darkest and most persuasive arts is that of the success sound: the abstract audio cue that tells you instantaneously, yes, well done, you did it, you got another one, yes, yes, more. These sounds are utterly pleasurable and addictive: think of Sonic's tinkling rings, or LittleBigPlanet's popping bubbles; of Peggle's explosion into Ode to Joy, of Zelda's chest-opening fanfares and chimes, or of the monolithic, bass-heavy surge of a World of Warcraft level-up. Guitar Hero is just an exercise in making sure the success sound never stops.
Free Realms, Sony Online Entertainment's new casual MMO, is a symphony of scarily brilliant success sounds. It's a non-stop barrage of them. A constant sugar-rush of perfectly tuneful bubble-wrap pops, jangling coins and jaunty jingles follows you as you run about its colourful cartoon world, racing, fighting, collecting, exploring, crafting, organising, training, shopping - but above all, succeeding, and being rewarded. Free Realms never stops tickling the pleasure centres of your brain or handing you sweets. But like tickling, and sweets, it can get a bit much after a while.
Free Realms is essentially 'My First MMO'. It's aimed at the teens and tweens who flock to virtual worlds like Club Penguin but it's carefully crafted not to exclude their parents or older players. Its non-specific modern-fantasy world sports all the ruthlessly focus-tested familial bonhomie of an animated film by Dreamworks or Disney. The gameplay, too, edges cautiously from casual mini-games and makework quests into a great introduction to proper MMORPG combat, not to mention tower defence, trading cards, chess and a devastatingly addictive tile-matching game.
The game is free to play through the Free Realms website, with SOE making its money through the sale of in-game items and "membership", a five-dollar monthly sub. The latter's main draw is five more "jobs" (character classes, essentially), alongside leaderboard rankings, two additional character slots - although a single character can switch between all the jobs in the game - and plenty of exclusive quests and items.
SOE is the first really big player to move into the free-to-play market - just beating EA to the punch, which launches Battlefield Heroes soon and has just freed up Battleforge - and boy does it show. Free Realms' technology, polish and professionalism are astounding. It dramatically raises the quality bar for free-to-play games - in fact, in some areas, user interface especially, it does so for all MMOs, not least SOE's own output. This is the most important and confident game to come out of SOE since EverQuest changed the landscape of online gaming 10 years ago.
You can start with the staggering ease of use. After a minimal initial download and installation - just a few dozen megabytes - Free Realms launches from the website in a minute or so, and feeds the game content to you through constant streaming. Yes, the website you launch the game from is a little slow, and the servers, all currently based in the US, lag occasionally. And yes, you do find yourself looking at a fair few loading screens as you hop between locations and gameplay styles in-game. But considering how large and graphically lush the game is, it's incredible, and a blessed liberation from a life of patching. It's the future.
It's not like you're being delivered a glorified Flash game either. Free Realms' visuals aren't cutting-edge, taking their cues mostly from WOW's enthusiastic cartooning - but it is a very good-looking game, with rich, glowing colours, sparking effects, a great sense of solidity and a luscious soft-focus sheen.
The technology is hugely impressive and the presentation is first-class too, especially the bright interface with its chunky buttons, which somehow manages to be animated, simple and quick. Simple touches - like cutting to a close-up of the faces of NPCs when you talk to them - help make the standard MMO interactions so much more engaging.
There's an excellent range of preset communications and emotes for slow typists and the terminally shy. There's a "new items" filter for your inventory, which should be made compulsory in every RPG immediately. Every barrier to entry in online gaming has been carefully lowered or tidied away, and most usability issues have been solved. All MMO developers should watch and learn from what SOE has done here.
The clean-cut artwork is hard to fault, although it can be hard to truly love too, since it's beset in many areas - if not all - by a generic blandness, a sense that everything in the game has been designed to be appealing to absolutely everybody. Nonetheless, you'd have to be a sociopath to find this cheerful fairytale blend of Shrek, Harry Potter and WOW anything but a pleasant place to escape to.
But what do you do actually do here? That's the pressing question in Free Realms, and the answer isn't exactly straightforward, because you do everything... And nothing.
Free Realms is broad, oh so broad, and it is shallow. You can do every quest and mini-game in the game and pursue every job up to the maximum level of 20 on a single character (membership allowing), and that is a huge amount of content by anyone's standards. You can flit between the game's many activities at will - and you will, because even the best of them are simple and repetitive, and get quite boring quite quickly.
Each job has its own quest line, but this won't be enough to level up in that job alone without submitting to a fair amount of grinding. General questing, on the other hand, occasionally leads you into combat - which is always instanced for you or your party - or other mini-games, but for the most part is no more than fetch-and-carry errand-running, with a large number of timed quests that simply ask you to run around picking things up off the floor.
Everything objective is clearly marked by the obsequiously helpful mapping system, dotted lines on the ground ensuring you never get lost as you follow the breadcrumbs, earning currency, treasure tickets (for randomly-assigned loot), items for your completist "collection" and exploration experience for the umbrella Adventurer job. It's compulsive, up to a point, but it's often flavourless and dull.
The jobs are where you'll find the meat in Free Realms - well, some of them. Some are much more developed than others. Kart Driver and Demolition Derby Driver aren't developed at all, as they don't level yet, and it's just as well because the sluggish handling of these Mario Kart-inspired modes is virtually unplayable on a keyboard. Pet Trainer - which you'll have to buy your own pet from the item store to use properly - is a boring grind of teaching the same trick over and over again to level up, although the pets themselves have endearingly enthusiastic AI and, at least, do more than just follow you around. Postman, combining mini-games and footraces, is also rather weak.
The Miner and Chef crafting jobs are superb, however, making the best use (alongside the members-only Blacksmith) of Free Realms' excellent tile-matching game, a riff on Bejeweled that allows you to draw long, snaking lines of over three matching tiles to collect or eradicate them as the job demands. Chef and Miner add a series of point-click-and-draw against-the clock mini-games for making your items, and they even have complete sets of equipment to collect along the advancement path, with meaningful performance bonuses for the mini-games attached. Free Realms generally does loot very well - i.e. there's lots of it, it keeps coming and it looks cool.
The Card Duelist job I can't comment on with any degree of authority, other than to note that SOE's work in this area - with its EverQuest and Star Wars Galaxies spin-offs - is respected by those in the know. Which leaves the combat jobs.
Free Realms' combat is a loose, click-happy affair, blending ultra-simple MMO skills - only a maximum of five for each job at present - with plenty of enemies and a need to hammer away at your basic attack, Diablo-style. It's punchy and enjoyable, and the combat scenarios, from simple maps to mini-dungeons and full-blown labyrinths, are well-made and varied - although there aren't enough of them that you won't see some several times over, even levelling just the one job.
The problem is more the odd distribution of jobs across the free game and membership, and the fact that the simple combat engine doesn't allow for a lot of variety. Only Brawler and Ninja are available to free players, and these are both classes that basically involve running up to things and bashing them. Members-only jobs are Warrior (running up and bashing, with some light tanking), Medic (running up and bashing, with some light healing), Wizard (shooting and bashing) and Archer (shooting).
They all work well enough, but Brawler - presented first - is the obvious template for all the others. It's noticeable that the furthest removed, Archer and Wizard, work least well. Furthermore, restricting the only healing class to paying players seems an odd move, given how important (and usually underpopulated) healing classes are. But you'll be doing a lot of your playing solo, anyway, and so spending plenty of in-game cash on the rather expensive health potions.
They're also available from the StationCash real-money item shop, along with cosmetic gear, pets, karts, and a small number of pieces of genuinely desirable and useful high-level job equipment that can be used from level 1. Priced at a pound or two each, these might be hard to resist, especially those weapons and tools that come with a permanent buff to the rate you gather cash or experience, designed to ease the pain of grinding (which are better value than the usual limited-time XP potions, at least). The same might be true of the base attraction of carrying a sword that's on fire, or a hammer with fuming exhaust pipes. It's not the cheapest item shop we've seen, but it is a well-judged one.
Playing Free Realms you'll experience a strange blend of obsessive compulsion - the need to collect and master familiar from any MMO - and attention deficit disorder, because the game's myriad treats and attractions are all so tempting, but so fleeting. There's nothing that really lingers in the mind here, but does that matter, when there's always something else to do? Probably not. It's been enough for two million people already.
So the game's only real problems are a lack of a sense of community - due partly to the fact you can switch servers at will, partly to the young audience, partly to the understandable lack of a general chat channel - and some threadbare patchiness in the jobs and questing. Much of this can be fixed in time by SOE and we're quite sure it will be, so assured is Free Realms' debut. In the meantime, it's an effortlessly light and addictive indulgence - just don't expect it to nourish you.
7 / 10