You may have heard there's kart racing in this game. That fact may or may not turn you off to playing, but know this: it's all very optional, just like real life. For instance, you may not want to put a chef's hat on and cook mystery meat surprise -- and you don't have to!
You can, also. If, you know, you'd like to do that.
I won't make this all about the game's graphics, music, etc. Suffice it to say, the production quality is very high, and the game downloads and installs while you create your character via your browser. By the time you finish, everything is ready to go.
Thankfully, Sony Online Entertainment has seen fit to supply manly character creation options fiva mutton chops, biker 'staches and great big bushy beards for human males. Now you too can look like writer strike era Conan O'Brien! Wear it proudly.
You can also become a Card Battling Ninja Wizard who mines a little on the side. This is just one of your many potential -- and in my case, self appointed -- titles.
But there's much more to Free Realms than a long list of jobs. The game essentially presents three columns of play.
Column A is where you'll find combat with jobs like Brawler, Ninja, Wizard and Archer. Combat is standard, but also enjoyable. I get the feeling that party play is probably much more fun, and recommend bringing a friend or loved one along for the ride.
Column B on the other hand contains the crafting work where a healthy variety of mini-games reign supreme. These are things like cooking, gathering, mining and smelting. If you're a fan of Popcap Games (and frankly, who hasn't ridden the white Bejeweled/Peggle dragon?) you'll find something to like here.
Finally there's Column C, which I like to call the everything else area. Here is where wholly separate experiences such as pet training, kart racing and card battling take place. Beyond jobs, there are strategically placed virtual boardgames littered about the game world as well -- though I've yet to try them and I get the feeling they weren't activated in beta.
Everything is designed to be within a couple click's reach and sometimes it can be a little overwhelming -- even for a seasoned MMO veteran. My best advice is to just go with the flow and do whatever you like. Don't worry about zones, because there really aren't any. Even mobs are instanced for your exploration pleasure.
I won't get too deep into the Card Battler job -- keep your eyes open for a feature like that in the near future -- but I will say it's very layered. Even if you've got a Magic the Gathering box full of decks stored somewhere you'll find enough challenging strategy here to add a new wrinkle to that cortex of yours. Plus, as an additional bonus, once you've done the short quest to attain the Card Battler job, you can swiftly jump into PvP battles via the user interface whenver you like.
But the greatest strength of Free Realms is how open it is about everything. You don't have to raise a kitty, drive a cute little cart and cook soup before you battle with cards or bust out your ninja blade. Then again, you could do any of those things in any order before acquiring that first deck, too. It's really all up to you.
Plus a lot of the game is free. Granted Wizard, Archer, Blacksmith, Medic and Warrior are part of the 4.99 a month membership fee. Also, I'd note that currently there's no freebie pets for the Pet Trainer class. Then again, if you're a working adult these prices shouldn't really be much of a monetary issue.
I like to think of Free Realms a little like how I view the better Dreamworks animated films. It's not quite Pixar, but anybody will be able to find something, or many things, to enjoy. It's just a matter of whether or not you let yourself try.