Toontown Online impressions

Disney's upcoming online game will let kids adopt toon characters and play in as safe an online environment as possible.

Today, we got a demo of Disney Online's upcoming massively multiplayer online game, Toontown Online. Normally, one wouldn't associate Disney's family-oriented brand name with the massively multiplayer genre, which is known for more violent and mature content. However, Disney has created an online game that is built on many of the basic principles of role-playing games but is designed to be mild enough that parents and children can play it together.

The premise of the game is that Toontown is under siege by an evil group of business robots called the cogs. These robots were created by Scrooge McDuck to help Toontown, but they've gone haywire and are changing the landscape of Toontown by replacing its colorful, fun buildings with dull, monochromatic skyscrapers. The cogs' weakness is that they can't take a joke, so they can be defeated with cartoon gags such as squirting them with a seltzer bottle, throwing a pie at them, or dropping pianos or other heavy objects on them. It's up to the player-controlled toons to combat the cogs in an effort to take over the cog-controlled buildings and keep Toontown colorful.

Players start out by creating a cartoon animal (limited for now to a dog, cat, mouse, horse, rabbit, or duck) as their online avatar, customizing the animal's color, clothing, and appearance. Players can then move their toons around the world using the keyboard arrow keys and perform various actions using the mouse.

Disney is so concerned about preventing the use of vulgar language in the game that even character names are strictly regulated. You can choose to create your character's name using lists of cartoonlike first names and surnames (the name we chose was "Professor Bongo Spacklegloop"), or you can request to use any name of your choosing by submitting it to Disney Online for approval.

Toontown Online separates itself from other online games with its specialized communication systems, called "speed chat" and "secret friends." These chat methods sacrifice convenience in favor of making certain all the communication in the game is free from vulgarity and safe for children. Speed chat is simply a drop-down menu that contains commonly used phrases. Using speed chat, players can express emotion in a variety of ways and also convey common in-game needs and requests to other players. The messages appear as cartoon speech bubbles above each player's online avatar. Secret friends is the only manner in which communication with a keyboard in Toontown Online is possible. If two players decide they want to be able to communicate freely with one another, they can exchange their secret codes outside of the game, such as through e-mail or over the phone. Once the code is activated by the account owner, then a peer-to-peer line of keyboard communication is opened between the characters in the game. This method ensures that parents (presumably the account owners) have control over who their children are talking to in the game.

The combat system in Toontown Online is turn-based, and players can initiate battles simply by walking up to a wandering cog in the enemy-filled areas of Toontown. Players can even join battles already in progress. There are seven categories of gags that players can use while in battle with cogs: throws, squirts, drops, traps, lures, sound, and toon up. Throws, squirts, and drops are standard attacks that can be initiated on single cogs, and players will be able to throw pies and cakes, squirt seltzer bottles and water pistols, and drop anvils and pianos. Sound gags like foghorns are area-effect attacks that can damage an entire party of cogs. Traps and lures are two-part attacks--players must first set a trap, like a bottomless pit, in front of a cog while in battle, and then use some type of lure (a dollar bill on a fishing pole, for example) in the next turn to get the cog to step into the trap. Many of these traps do more damage than the standard attacks. Finally, the toon up category includes items that players can use to "heal" themselves. As players use each type of gag in battle, they earn experience points in those categories. By using certain items enough times, more-powerful gags will be unlocked.

Gags are single-use items that must be purchased using the game's currency, jelly beans. Players can earn jelly beans in the game's cog-free playgrounds by engaging in minigames reminiscent of those in Mario Party. Up to four players can participate in a minigame at once, and cooperating with other players in the minigames can earn bonus jelly beans for the entire team.

Toons do not die in Toontown Online. The game's health system is actually a happiness meter. As players battle with cogs, the cogs' attacks make toons progressively sadder. If players don't run away from battle before their happiness meter is emptied, then they'll be zapped to a safe playground area and lose all the gags they were carrying. In the playground areas, toons can slowly replenish their happiness meters or participate in events such as fishing to more quickly regain their happiness. Players can also complete quests for NPC toons in order to increase the size of their happiness meter, gain the ability to carry more gags, and unlock new types of gags.

From our experience, Toontown Online is a fun and simple massively multiplayer online game. Since it is impossible to act in a negative or vulgar fashion in the game, and free-chat partners must be screened first, Toontown Online is quite possibly the safest game of this type for children. Its combat system is simple to pick up, and Disney fans of all ages should be attracted to the game's themes and the cameo appearances by Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse.

A preview version of Toontown Online is currently available, and interested players can get a free three-day trial of the game at the Toontown Online Web site. After the free trial, the game will cost $9.95 for the first month and $7.95 per month after that.

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