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.