For the past few weeks I’ve been heavily playing Sony’s new MMORPG offering, Free Realms. I’ve been working on a review for here for a while, but had refrained on posting it until I had confirmation that the NDA was lifted. Tonight, while wandering through the forums, I read that they lifted the NDA on April 22nd, although they really didn’t make a lot of noise about it. I also found out that they are now going to launch on this Tuesday the 28th, after just under two weeks of a single round of closed beta. I was stunned, and can only imagine that the people behind the Vanguard launch are making the decisions. That said, what follows is a review from the prospective of both a long time gamer who has played nearly every MMORPG that has come down the pike, including beta testing launched and shelved products, and also a father of a pair of pre-teens, who are clearly this game’s target market. If you’re not interested in the long breakdown, here’s a one sentence summary:
Ever wonder what the child of ToonTown and Everquest would be? Wonder no more.
First off, the name. Free Realms is meant to designate that you have no required tasks. This is loosely true. If you want you can spend all day making food one day, and then the next raising your pet. Ah, but wait, you can’t raise your pet, because that’s where it isn’t free. Free Realms has a monthly “member” charge, akin to your typical monthly fee for MMORPGs, of $4.99. This is fairly reasonable I think, but I did not pay to try these items in beta (yes, if you wanted to test these items IN BETA, you had to pay). As far as I know, only a few people tested these as the pay-to-play option only went up a few days ago, and crashed constantly. The content is roughly 60% free, 40% member, per Sony, but I would say it would be much closer to 50/50, or perhaps reversing the 60/40 split. Besides the member option, there are numerous member items you can buy via micro transactions that increase your character’s ability, change its look, buy a pet, or accelerate the exp. The exp, let’s talk about that next, in fact.
In Free Realms, there are assortments of skills you can learn, from Pet Training to Chef to Ninja. Sadly, Sony has reverted to its Everquest roots here and made these have heavy duty grinding to level up. The combat “jobs” like Ninja and Brawler make sense, in a way, in that you get experience or “stars” by killing monsters. I’m totally ok with that. But if you want to mine ore, you have to play a Bejeweled clone for 5-8 minutes for *1* star per bonus item collected in it (which appear randomly). This was lowered recently, to extreme backlash, with comments of “we will raise it”, as it takes several hundred stars to increase your level by one. Nothing yet though. The Bejeweled clone model is used by Blacksmith and Chef as well, making it very annoying very quickly. The Chef job also requires massive amounts of clicking to hit timed events, making it carpal-tunnel unfriendly. Posts complaining of this in Sony’s forums were met with “learn to play” type posts, or people suggesting that other players buy multiple mice so that they can click them simultaneously to get faster times. *boggle*
The member only jobs, such as Wizard, Blacksmith, Warrior, and others have gone largely untested. The promise was made to the beta folks that a “Free Agent program”, or free membership, would be offered to some to test these out. It never arrived, and with the launch on Tuesday, seems unlikely. There are dozens of bugs I myself have submitted that I still see, and I have no idea how all of them will be fixed plus these jobs released. Sure, you can say with an MMORPG you are constantly tuning, but you also dearly want to present the best you can at launch in order to continue.
Game play aside, let me now talk about this from the perspective of a parent. The game is clearly marketed at the pre-teen community, with a semi-aggressive yet inconsistent word filter that migrates young players from the click-to-talk interface of ToonTown to the world of normal MMORPGs. The cartoony models focus on looks, and try to market to both girls and boys with pets and clothes for the female player and a card game for the boys. The card game is incredibly expensive compared to others on the market, giving 3 cards for $10. Any other game you can find that has an online component has at least 10-15 cards for $10. The way this is pitched is that it is not just cards, but you also get an in-game item that has nothing to do with the cards (usually a pet) as well, but I see this getting changed very quickly as it is unreasonably expensive.
The game is fairly pacifistic, with the vast majority of the jobs being non-combat related. They are all very heavy in the grind mentality though, which does not seem like a long term struggle. I could not see either of my kids deciding to play another 500 rounds of Bejeweled just to get a level in miner (which is how many rounds it currently takes, by the way), as you just vendor the ore. The combat jobs, the ones that were open, are decent, but one job, the Ninja has so few quests that you must chain kill for hours to gain a level. Again, typical for the industry for mainstream games, but with this audience, you want to focus on things that keep their attention. The combat itself is fairly boring, and mob AI is lackluster, so much so that I nearly dozed off in several instances. One nice thing about the combat is that in the main game world you will never be attacked, ever. So you can explore all over, and the world is quite beautiful, without ever having to worry about dying. Dying itself is glossed over and called “knocked out” which I must say is appreciated. ToonTown has a similar mechanic, and I’ve always appreciated that difference. No corpse runs here.
So in summary, while I enjoyed many parts of the Free Realms game, based on it launching on Tuesday I cannot recommend it. It is simply not ready. There are many pros of the game I simply did not mention (maybe I’ll write up some more tomorrow) and many cons as well. The game needs at least another month of beta, and much more testing, especially on what they are going to charge for, the member items. If I was a new player, and ended up paying for the member services, I would expect to get them. Without them being tested, in bulk not just internally, they will have bugs. Game-ending bugs? No one knows yet, but this sudden launch, which is apparently not even the developer’s wishes by the tones of their posts, may likely be one of the worst business decisions made by Sony in recent times. This is a very deep but unforgiving demographic they are targeting, one that has many many free options out there. They must market a superior product if they wish to succeed.