CES '08: Free Realms Updated Hands-On

Sony Online Entertainment shows off its free-to-download PC RPG for the younger set, and we've got an updated look.


LAS VEGAS--OK, we spoke too soon. In our last preview of Sony Online Entertainment's Free Realms--an upcoming free-to-download PC game for the younger crowd--we said that our initial preview would likely be the last preview of the game on the site, as Sony was planning on hyping the game through viral methods such as seeding message boards and depending on the ever-important word of mouth. Here we are in 2008, and SOE is turning to more traditional methods of hyping its game, such as, you know, showing it off. We had a chance to see a long-form video of where Free Realms is heading during a recent meeting with SOE folks in town for the 2008 Consumer Electronics Show.

As the video demonstrated, Free Realms will combine role playing, minigames, and MMO-style socializing elements into a package that is aimed at game fans of all ages. The heart of the game, however, seems to be role-playing. At the start, you'll create a character from two races--human or fairy (it seems more races will be added to the game later on--and, after choosing your character's gender, you'll be able to customize his or her appearance.

Once you've got your in-game avatar looking cool...well, the world of Free Realms is your oyster. The game doesn't seem to have much in the way of restrictions. For example, you'll have full access to all locations in the world right away, and there will be ample opportunities for exploration thanks to a progression system that rewards players for doing more than just the kiddie equivalent of killing rats. As producers explained, there will actually be four methods of progression in the game: combat, building, pet raising, and minigames. All four methods were demonstrated briefly in the video.

Since combat is perhaps the most familiar, we'll start there. You'll be able to take on non-player characters in combat when the time is right. When duking it out, you'll have a number of skills you can choose from; at one point, the main character, who was dressed as a ninja, was able to throw shuriken and smoke bombs at a swarm of bats simply by pointing and clicking with the mouse. Once battle is complete, the player can then earn points that can be put back into those same skills, increasing their effectiveness.

Quests look to be commonplace in Free Realms and run the gamut from the mundane (such as delivering mail on behalf of a tired penguin mailman) to defeating monsters or making objects. In the latter case, that's where minigames play a role. The game will include tons of flash-based minigames that will be easy to lean and quick to play. In one, the main character was supposed to create tools for a group of underground miners, by combining pickaxes with strips of leather as they ran down an assembly line. The variety of the minigames will likely be a key component for younger players to get into the game, so we expect to see plenty more of this kind when the game is released.

It's that broad appeal that seems to be one of the hallmarks of Free Realms; it's clear the developer is aiming to make the game as appealing to girls as it will be to boys. For example, one of the other main paths for progression will be finding and raising a pet, such as a cat or dog. You'll be able to interact with your pet--you can give him or her some food or even a quick pat on the head. There's also gardening, where you can plant and tend to flowers for your character's home; hence the building aspect of the game.

Access to Free Realms will come in two flavors: the ad-supported free version that players can download at any time, and the subscription service, which will get rid of those pesky (but no doubt family-friendly) advertisements that will pepper your browser's real estate. The other, potentially more lucrative system that will be supporting Free Realms will be found in the game's economy, where you'll be able to buy new equipment, items, and outfits for your characters with real-world cash. No word yet on how much items will cost, but it seems the developer will have to strike the right balance between making things that are both enticing and affordable to the (mostly) youngish crowd that will likely make up the majority of Free Realms' population.

A role-playing experience at its core, Free Realms is all about your created character's interaction with the gameworld and with the other characters traveling in it. The chat functionality and Facebook-like profile page will likely play a big role here. If the game manages to capture the same tween set that it seems to be aiming for, Free Realms will be off to a good start when it's released later this year. Will SOE remain coy about Free Realms details, or continue with the updated information on the game? We're hoping for the latter. Either way, stay tuned as new information for this game becomes available.

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