New game review - REAL LIFE

REAL LIFE: The full review

Volumes have already been written about real life, the most accessible and most widely accepted massively multiplayer online role-playing game to date. Featuring believable characters, plenty of lasting appeal, and a lot of challenge and variety, real life is absolutely recommendable to those who've grown weary of all the cookie-cutter games that have tried to emulate its popularity--or to just about anyone, really.

Real life is densely populated and features a wide variety of places to explore and activities to engage in.

Real life isn't above reproach. In one of the stranger design decisions in the game, for some reason you have no choice in determining your character's initial starting location, appearance, or gender, which are chosen for you seemingly at random. However, over the course of your character's life, you have tremendous opportunity to customize and define a truly unique appearance for yourself--not only can you fine-tune your hairstyle and hair color, but you can also purchase and wear a seemingly infinite variety of clothing and influence your body type using various in-game mechanisms. For example, if your character exercises frequently, you will appear fit and muscular. You may also choose from a huge variety of tattoos and body piercings, and later you can even pay for cosmetic surgery, though this is expensive and there's a small chance that the operation will backfire. At any rate, real life offers a truly remarkable amount of variety in determining your character's outward appearance, and this depth isn't only skin deep. The only problem is you're relegated to playing as a human character, though the game does randomly choose one of several different races for you (which have little bearing on gameplay and mostly just affect appearances and your standing with certain factions).

The gameplay itself is extremely open-ended, though it's structured in such a way that you'll have a fairly clear path to follow when you're just starting out. Real life features a great system whereby newbie players will automatically be guided along through the early levels by one or more "parent" characters who elect to take newbie characters under their wing. This is a great system, as these older, more-experienced characters reap their own benefits from doing a good job of guiding the newbie character along. The system does have some problems, though--sometimes you'll encounter "griefer" parents who shirk their responsibilities or, even worse, seem content to harass newbie players. Such a situation could, in theory, irreparably damage your experience in real life. Fortunately, chances of this are relatively slim, as a harsh punitive system is in place to prevent the vast majority of players from experiencing or engaging in this sort of behavior.

Starting out in real life can admittedly be boring, but the experience becomes much more interesting and open-ended once you get past the learning curve.

Typically, a character will learn of the numerous viable career paths available by undergoing schooling. This can be a long and tedious process, equivalent to the sort of "level treadmill" monotony that characterizes almost all MMORPGs. Nevertheless, many players do manage to enjoy themselves in this phase, especially if they band together--real life definitely rewards players who join groups, though soloing is certainly an option as well. At any rate, through the schooling process, as you engage in various activities, you eventually settle on a career path, and this is when you can start making a good amount of money and really taking matters into your own hands.

There are a few known exploits for making money, but generally the game's financial system is well balanced, complex, and rewarding for those who put forth proportionally more effort. You can use money to acquire new and better clothing, your own custom housing (a tremendous variety of options are available here as well), and new means of transportation ranging from bicycles to automobiles and beyond, and you can even employ other players and some non-player characters to do your bidding. Most notably, certain actions in real life are necessary and yet require a considerable amount of expertise to perform, or are simply boring. Additionally, even if you do have expertise in a field, that doesn't mean you can perform a given task for yourself--in this way, real life encourages and even forces player interaction, so those who prefer to go solo might find themselves in a bind at times. For example, even if your character specializes in dentistry, that doesn't mean you can perform a root-canal operation on yourself. Fortunately, dentistry is one of many lucrative professions in real life, and its practitioners can easily afford to pay for the various required maintenance tasks, freeing up their own free time for more-interesting activities.

One issue with real life is that it gives you very little specific feedback on character advancement. To give a couple of examples, a highly proficient player might receive a sudden pay raise or might become a champion boxer, but there's no clear way to tell exactly how smart or how strong you really are. Cleverly, there are in-game ways of at least getting a sense of these and other key attributes. You may attempt to lift weights to roughly determine how your strength compares with that of other characters. Various tests are available to gauge your overall intellect and expertise and knowledge in a variety of fields, though annoyingly, you need to pay a considerable fee to take some of these--and if you fail, often you aren't allowed to retake the exam for a while, or sometimes at all.

Players can learn to operate a variety of different vehicles, and they can choose from a great variety of professions.

The game's player-run economy and well-balanced career system are extremely well done, but similar to what's found in other games. On the other hand, a particularly innovative aspect of real life is the way it forces you to gain certification to use certain objects. This feels much less contrived than the level caps or class restrictions found in other games (there are no "levels" or "experience points" per se in real life), and it also prevents players who "twink" money from their parents from automatically getting access to all the best facilities and equipment--though it's certainly true that players of good parentage have an inherent and arguably unfair advantage. Nevertheless, it's standard practice to have to qualify for certain professions, to engage in certain activities, to use certain equipment, and so forth. This system is quite modular. For example, even if you've become certified to drive a motorcycle, that doesn't automatically qualify you to drive an automobile.

This example is evidence of some of the amazing depth offered by real life--there are so many different options and viable decisions for a character to make that it's just about impossible for any one character to see everything and visit all the colorful and sometimes dangerous locations. Unlike in other MMORPGs, combat actually isn't a major factor for most players in real life, though players are bound to engage in a few skirmishes early in their lives. Interestingly, though, real life does offer an amazingly intricate combat system, featuring complex hand-to-hand and ranged combat options that a character may learn and even specialize in.

Combat-oriented characters lead exciting but sometimes short lives in real life.

That being the case, you'd think more players would be drawn to combat in real life, and in some territories, they are. However, the PVE (player vs. environment) aspect of real life is relatively unpopular, and the PVP (player vs. player) portion, while interesting, is far too risky for most of the population. That's on account of the game's very strict death penalty and punitive system--you may freely attempt to harm or kill any other player at any time, but you will then likely be heavily punished by the game's player-run authorities. The punitive system has loopholes and other problems, allowing certain players to elude punishment and continue to engage in various player-killing activities. But for the most part, real life does a good enough job of making the punishment fit the crime, as it were, so in most regions there's a relative sense of order.

Player death is a serious issue in real life, and cause for continued debate among players, who often direct unanswerable questions on the subject to the game's developers, who are apparently (and understandably) so busy that they generally keep silent. In short, players who die--at the hands of other players, by the occasional environmental hazard, or when their account expires--are essentially removed from the gameworld and apparently cannot return at all. This further discourages players from engaging in PVP combat, but it does help real life's rapidly growing player population from getting too out of hand (though eventually there will be a need for additional servers).

Player groups can achieve incredible success in ways you wouldn't expect, and that helps keep real life fresh and interesting.

Real life looks incredible, to say the least. To be sure, certain areas appear drab and colorless, even unpleasantly so. But some of the outdoor environments and even some of the player-made urban settings are truly a sight to behold, and various environmental and weather effects only add to the charm. The character models, meanwhile, are as impressive and detailed as they are varied. Some are incredibly striking and beautiful, while others appear hideously ugly--it's great that you can more or less decide for yourself on which side of the spectrum you wish to be. Real life also features some of the most believable ambient effects and footstep sounds to date, and it offers an incredible variety of music for good measure. In one of the game's best touches, players can actually compose, conduct, and perform their own music, and this is viable either for solo players or for groups. Especially skilled musicians go on to become some of the wealthiest and most popular characters around. The music career path is more complex and challenging than you'd expect, and it's another one of real life's really impressive and well-implemented features. One of the coolest experiences in the game is in traveling to different regions and listening to how different the music sounds for that territory. For that matter, architecture and even player languages differ depending on region.

Real life can occasionally feel like a chore. Some players legitimately dislike it, despite having attempted and even excelled at numerous career paths. Others externalize their frustrations by harming other players or, in some cases, even harming themselves. These players do have access to various support forums, and often end up whiling away the time by engaging in various available minigames or other competitive activities. Socializing is always an option, and as with other online RPGs, real life is certainly at its most rewarding when you manage to find and consort with other like-minded companions. At any rate, it's hard to fault the game for lack of content or viable activities, and even when certain players try to subvert the system or harm others, it still makes for some exciting and spontaneous events for other players who happen to be in the area or just hear of the event. Beyond that, real life can indeed be very time-consuming, and some of the less exciting moments, such as when your character is tired or injured, can be annoyingly so.

It's also true that real life is constantly being refined. Some players argue that many of the numerous changes constantly being made are for the worse--for example, players running once-profitable tobacco companies, as well as the players who are addicted to using popular tobacco products, often complain that the tobacco business is being "nerfed" for no good reason. But either way, it's good to know that players are able to actively improve certain features that require finer tuning. This keeps the developers free to focus on bigger issues.

Ultimately, if you take a step back and look at the big picture, you'll see that real life is an impressive and exciting experience, despite its occasional and sometimes noticeable problems. It says a lot for real life that, even with these issues, it's still very highly recommendable. Simply put, those missing out on real life are doing just that.