OTHER STUFF TO DO:
You can explore a wonderfully designed world. The career that isn't on the list is Adventurer. This "career" levels up when you gather all the exploring widgets. It's a reward for those of us who proudly fly the "pixel whore" flag, people who will die if they can't wriggle under shrubs and behind trees and under bridges:
This career also levels up when you complete collections. Various things in the world sparkle. When you click on them they vanish, and you get a randomly generated item that belongs to one of a million collections. At this time I have 127 collections of things like buttons, water samples, dolls, caterpillars, and fossils with funny names. The closest thing to griefing this game has is getting to a sparkling thing and clicking it before the person who was CLEARLY heading for it can do so. Not that I am bitter.
As I said in my first impressions column, travel is fantastic. Once you've discovered a warpstone, you can click them on your map and instantly fly to it as often as you want. This makes exploring lots of fun, without making you feel like you've wasted any time. If you're lost, off the beaten track, or miles from a destination, one click and you're back.
You can quest. Your active quest has green dots leading you around by the nose, and at the end of the quest, the final NPC is lit by a shaft of light from heaven. Some of the quests are career specific, and send you to fighting instances. Others are your standard "fetch five flowers" things, but they usually seem as though they're geared to help you explore the zones and discover new things to do, as opposed to having sprung from the keyboard of someone who was told to produce thirty quests for Zone X by Friday.
You can... play tile matching games that aren't related to any careers. /sigh
Finally, you can waste years of time playing Tower Defense. I got peed on in the comments for my first impressions column for saying it was like Command and Conquer. In my defense, I suck at Command and Conquer, and I played it like "place this object, and when I have generated enough currency, upgrade this object to repel the enemy." You know, like Tower Defense.
There are multiple variations of the tower game. Penguin themes ("My Fish! Mine!"), garden themes ("Crop Dusting"), and more. There are leader boards. There are different difficulty sessions. The Free Realms people KNOW this stuff is like crack, because the ticket rewards consist of one single ticket, whereas most quests give out fistfuls of them. I don't even want to talk about it anymore, or I'll log back in.
Short version: Don't think of this as an MMO. Think of this as a casual games portal with an MMO-flavored framing device.
ITEMS AND REWARDS
If you are a member, there is no reason to ever spend a dime on microtransactions, which is ironic given that accessing the microtransaction stuff requires a membership. One unit of Station Cash is worth one penny.
The non-combat careers are the gold sinks in Free Realms, and you cannot advance without paying gold. However, gold from quests and combat is so plentiful that despite a crafting habit of a shameful size, I have more than 30K gold pieces on my main character. Gear, potions, and "orbs" drop with enough frequency to keep you well equipped, and the results of the Chef career make excellent boosts to combat skills.
Even if that weren't enough, lots of things in the game reward you with treasure tickets. You take those to the "Royal Vault" and trade them in for randomly generated items in particular level ranges. These items sell for tons of gold, assuming you can't use them.
The microtransaction items struck me as ridiculously overpriced, anyway. Why pay six dollars for anything, let alone a strictly cosmetic item, when five dollars a month gets you access to all the gold you need to buy every item you could ever want in the game? I grasp that this is all aimed at ten year old girls from Club Penguin, who are not known for their ability to defer gratification or resist anything with glitter on it. And it probably makes a ton of money from that demographic. But it's still silly.
Short version: Shell out for the membership if you're an adult who wants full access to all the gameplay. Shell out for the microtransaction stuff if you are the parent of a spoiled tween that you lack the fortitude to overrule.
Smooth, easy, painless. Totally self-explanatory. All the bits do what you'd think they should do. The only annoying things: You can't see your crafting recipes when you're shopping, and the "you have X many of this item" feature only works sporadically. Oh, and you can't sort your quest journal by zone, topic, or anything. Quest whores will be annoyed by this.
Short version: Maybe I'm just broken after years of MMOs, but this counts as a complete win.
WHAT'S NOT TO LIKE?
Well, nothing, really. There are minor annoyances - oh, EQ pathing suckage, how I missed you, not - but there's much more good stuff than bad. The animations are priceless, the NPC scripting is often pure genius and always hilarious, and as discussed the visual design is impeccable.
This is aimed at kids (my notes say "this game is even more enjoyable if you skitter around like a methed up four year old"), and enjoys the side benefit of being really, really attractive to people who love casual games. I stand by my original opinion that, should this game be discovered by hordes of Bejeweled players, the designers are going to get bonuses that will enable them to buy their very own Lear jets, which will make it easy to travel to their very own island paradise.
But it's not an MMO. There is no effort towards coagulating the players into a community. The server selection process alone rules that out - the game used to say "You're going to Server X!" but still offer you the chance to push big buttons to play on any of the servers that you wanted. That was recently changed to "You're going to Server X!" and the option to change that appears in a small drop down menu. As a result, servers are very stable, and the load is spread evenly no matter how many people are logged in. But you never see the same faces.
Chat is either completely silent, or filled with the kind of "typing" people do on cell phones. I am too old, and too bitter, to even want to talk to people who say "ne1 h8 Brtny Sprs!!!?!!!?!" without irony.
The game has completely erased my Minesweeper habit, along with my Spider Solitaire habit. I have not spent a nickel while traveling on crappy airport novels since installing Free Realms, nor have I watched any television.
Free Realms is a new kind of game, wonderfully executed. But it hasn't replaced my MMOs, and I found myself missing the connections, the chat, the sense of doing something Big with people from all over the world.
Short version: Don't miss this title if you're into casual games, virtual playground design, or twelve. But if you're a hardcore MMO person (or into sandbox games), this is not your product. It cannot be graded on the same scale you'd use for a traditional MMO. And that's okay. Believe me, Sony doesn't care that you don't like it. There are millions of people in the casual/entry level niche that this game has all to itself.