It used to be a bad thing. You didn't want to talk about them in public. Those MMORPGs and the images they elicited – unwashed, antisocial, and unhip addicts – meant you'd never tell anyone you played Everquest, unless you weren't with it; unless you enjoyed the shame. That changed with World of Warcraft, which made MMO discussion acceptable at the water cooler and invited hundreds of copycats to jump on the formerly taboo wagon.
FreeRealms is a hybrid of two MMO types that have boomed, as it's free to play and thrives on the most loaded term in the genre: "micro-transactions." Of course, you don't have to spend a cent to progress, and advertisers will occasionally sponsor items, making them free. That doesn't mean your in-game experience will be slathered with advertising; it'll be discreetly displayed on infrequent loading screens and some menus. Also, soloing your way through the entire game is possible, much like WoW, and without the raiding at the end. It's aiming at a casual experience for monthly fee-haters, those who enjoy short bursts of gameplay, and those WoW lovers who yearn to flirt with another MMO on the side.
The latter group will be right at home with FreeRealms's appearance. If Don Bluth and Blizzard designed a game together, it'd look a lot like this. The expressive and cleanly animated characters reminded me of the stylish Titan A.E., while the simplistic scenery was up WoW's alley. Truthfully, for a free game with a modest memory footprint, its graphics engine isn't half bad. Don't know what to say about those big-headed fairy people, though. Their mock super-deformed style deeply disturbs.
What's easier to accept is the lack of malicious PvP, which lets everyone confidently enter battlefields. By locating and activating a "no entry" barrier, players will start up one of two things: a puzzle or a fight. Both are accessed via the same means and can be beaten with only one person. Losing won't take any items or currency away, and you'll be free to try again, further emphasizing that this is for the lightweight MMO crowd.
Delving deeper into its social networking aspects, FreeRealms has an impressive roster of options. Level differences are mostly irrelevant; you'll be able to fight enemies alongside an experienced adventurer and enjoy the spoils together. If you're the same job, one of you can change to any class on the fly. And if you want to show off your accomplishments, FR has a user Web page system, complete with the option to put up screen shots and videos from the game.
Since there won't be any retail release, anyone interested in FreeRealms will only need to register and download a proprietary client when it shows up. We don't know when, but if Sony Online has their way, it'll be here soon. Don't tell WoW about this newfound fancy of yours, though. You should show your lovers a little more respect than that.