'Free Realms' offers world of family-friendly fun

Adventuring through forests, fighting hobgoblins and searching for treasure — it's all in a day's work in Free Realms, the latest massively multiplayer online role-playing game that supports thousands of simultaneous players.

But unlike subscription-based computer games such as World of Warcraft or Age of Conan,Sony Online Entertainment's latest fantasy world is free to play in and is suitable for most players 10 and older.

The download-only Free Realms installs quickly and immediately lets you create and name your character before exploring a vast 3-D world by using the mouse or W-A-S-D keys. A computer-controlled character will greet you in the village to show you around, introduce you to a few colorful residents and teach you how to use items such as your quest log, map and optional virtual trading card game.

Played from a third-person perspective, this game also lets you create a pet as a companion and complete "collections" by finding related items and storing them in your inventory. Free Realms is made up of eight distinct environments including a seaside, villages, forests, snow-capped mountains and an ominous netherworld.

There are nearly 500 quests available at launch in Free Realms— such as searching for someone's missing sister in a nearby cave — which you can play solo or in many cases, alongside a friend. On that note, some parents might not want their kids communicating with other online players, so chat can be disabled if desired, along with other parental control options. Older players can stay connected with a social networking page that lets you see what your friends are up to or double-click their avatars to find and join them in the game.

Along with performing missions, game play is made up primarily of taking on jobs (ranging from ninja to chef, miner to demolition derby driver); engaging in simple combat against hoards of hobgoblins and other creatures; and playing more than a dozen minigames peppered throughout the huge map, including ones influenced by games such as Mario Kart,Tower Defense,Bejeweled and Cooking Mama.

Similar to Disney's popular Club Penguin and other online game worlds, Free Realms is free to play but a premium account also exists ($4.99 a month) that unlocks additional features such as access to more jobs and quests, leaderboard rankings and the ability to play up to three characters on one account. The game also offers "micro transaction" purchases, such as paying a dollar here or there for items and other goodies, if you like.

Despite one instance when the game was down for maintenance, Sony Online Entertainment's Free Realms is an extraordinary online adventure that is sure to please tweens and teens looking for a fun and free fantasy world.

Contact Saltzman at gnstech@gannett.com.