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.