FreeJack is a new MMORPG brought to us by Gamerkraft. It's based on parkour, a sport that pits human against pavement -- a ballet performed upon rooftops and railways. Well, that's the theory, at least. In reality, parkour is sometimes very cumbersome to watch. If you are ever fortunate enough to catch a televised parkour competition, you'll see that there is almost no fluidity involved at all. Instead, players perform flips and spins on a perfectly laid-out track. It feels clunky, especially when the runner pauses to set up a killer move.
FreeJack, I had hoped, would give back some of that fluid movement to the sport. After all, a fall in a video game does not end your life -- greater risks can be taken. When we picture parkour in our heads, we see superhero-like movements, leaping between buildings, or balancing on wires. In most ways, FreeJack delivers this experience. It also features some really cool graphics, fantastic customization and great social systems.
But in the middle of all that fun, the game can just stop you and make you feel more human than ever.
First of all, the story mode in FreeJack is really fun. I like the little cutscenes, and the characters are beyond outrageous. I love when a game owns its wackiness and runs with it. Basically, you start out as a newbie runner who needs to prove herself to the local gangs. Yet while the level of challenge climbs slowly, suddenly you'll find yourself being hammered by oncoming traffic. I was astounded at how the game could carry you along on such thrill rides, only to stop you dead in your tracks. A superhuman with the ability to climb walls would not be stopped by a simple pedestrian, nor would she completely collapse if she missed a very basic move.
I think the issues arise from many sources, but generally the confusion sets in when the difficulty is so suddenly ramped up that you have no idea where to go or what to do. There I was, listening to my mentor, completing training mission after training mission. While I trained, I also enjoyed the first two story quests. Suddenly, though, I was asked to run at such a higher level of performance that I literally had to log out in frustration. I went to the forums, asking for help. Most players were helpful -- in game as well -- but they essentially told me to finish the training missions and to learn the appropriate moves.
I tried the missions again and hit the same wall. It was as though the game forgot that I was new and further confused me by not thoroughly explaining what to do. Still, there were players who seemed to have it down. For every complaint on the forums, those expert players had conquered everything. I pictured those kids in the arcade, running in place on the dance-based video game pads -- those kids are insane. They play it for hours and hours, developing the coordination of a (video-game-playing) ninja. I've been a drummer for most of my life and an artist as well. I think I have some degree of coordination -- but something about this game made me feel like a complete putz at times.
So much of the game does flow, though, and feels so fun. If you are lucky enough to have a good race, the world zooms past and you find yourself responding perfectly to the digital environment. But why, then, do you have to stop dead in your tracks when you smack a fat pedestrian, or when you miss a simple leap? The animations are fantastic, but they often miss connecting to one another. I might slide around a corner, but when I come back to a running position I'll be facing the wrong direction. Sometimes the game bugs out, and I find myself in a permanent slide.
Fortunately, there are plenty of things to do while you wait for the racing to be smoothed out. The customization is awesome. I will admit, with no shame whatsoever, that I enjoy playing virtual dress-up with my characters. In fact, ask even a hardcore raider about looking good, and she will tell you that looks are important in an MMORPG. I am not sure if it is because of the "demo" state of the game, but I had tons of money to throw at the cash shop. I outfitted my character with new hair, glasses -- even a kitty backpack. Despite starting out with a pre-set character, I was able to make her look completely unique.
The housing system is fun; you get an instanced apartment that can be decorated just how you like it. I love how everything in FreeJack, including the furniture and items, feels chunky and solid. Many MMORGPs have amazing-looking realistic graphics, but the world doesn't fit together. FreeJack feels like one world and one art style. It's colorful, young and sharp.
In the meanwhile, I will continue to race fellow players. I wonder if the match-up system takes into account the level of your opponents? After I lost several times, almost every victor told me that I should go back, train more, and level up. But losing wasn't frustrating -- the odd layouts and clunky moves were. The races just need to take different levels into consideration, or they need to allow for more choices for race-hosting. For example, let me delete the annoying pedestrians or at least lessen the dead stop that happens when even minor mistakes are made.
Will FreeJack stay on my hard drive? It honestly frustrated me too much. If you are the type who enjoys hardcore racing and competition (and has the patience to become really good at a game that requires such repetition), then you'll love FreeJack. While I do think that the game just needs some more time in the oven -- some smoothing out -- it is just in a "multiplayer demo" state with open beta not arriving until October. I'm hoping that the devs consider different levels of ability before it opens to all. If they tweak the tracks, fix the few but game-stopping bugs, and ramp the difficulty up at a slower pace, I will return in a heartbeat. The game is just too wild to ignore.
Now, go log in! Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. We meet each Tuesday and Friday night at 9 p.m. EDT (6 p.m. PDT); the column will run on the following Sunday. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email, or follow me on Twitter or Raptr!