I'm not exactly familiar with the show, but when I got an email alert about a new MMO based on the series, I had to check it out. Was I about to head into a world of thousands of player-made platypus characters? I feared the worst but was pleasantly surprised.
Agent Alert is browser-based, and registration is quick, so kids can get into the game right away. It's entirely free-to-play, so there's no worries about an unsupervised child accidentally spending thousands on pixelated perks.
Once you enter the game, you can select from a variety of looks to create your own robot, and then you pull a slot-machine style handle until you get the combination of names you like. But character creation isn't merely about looks; you also have to spend points in a variety of skills, like strength, speed, and smarts. After that, you're off to collect information and battle enemy robots that are threatening the town of Danville.
The core of the game is all about battling robots. There's no home to decorate, no pets to follow you around, and no outfits to collect and swap in and out. Frankly, I'm glad Disney didn't go that route because it's a tired and overdone model, and practically every kid-oriented MMO uses it.
When you spot an enemy robot, you are thrown to a selection screen where you choose other player robots to join your team. You can choose robots of your level or lower for free, or you can spend cogs (currency dropped by vanquished robots) to choose higher-level robots. After you pick your teammates, you then have to choose which gadgets to use during the battle. Gadgets give bonuses in each of the character skills, so if you're low in strength, a hammer will give you a better chance at winning a round against the enemy. You're allowed to bring a certain number of gadgets, and each round, one is randomly selected for you to use either on yourself or on a teammate. You need to knock out the robots before using up all of your gadgets or getting knocked out yourself.
If you lose a round during the battle, you have the option to use one of your three powerups. Powerups are basically little minigames, like tile matching or dropping items to stack them up. If you complete the challenge successfully, you'll get a boost that helps you win that round. When you win, you earn cogs, which can be used to buy blueprints for better gadgets. Those cogs are also used to build the new gadgets: Gold ones are the building materials, while silver enables you to cut down on the time required to finish the build. In addition to the cogs, you work toward leveling up and gaining more skill points to spend on your character.
Technically, Agent Alert is not a traditional MMO. When you're moving around town, you don't get to see or interact with other players' robots. The only way you know there are other players in the world is through pop-up messages that announce whenever a player wins a battle or a mission. However, every time you battle, you have to pick other robots to join your team, and each of these robots was created by another player. At one point, I briefly logged out, only to find that my robot had been chosen several times while I was gone. You can also add friends, but the only way to do that is to give someone your "Share Code," which is a personal code located on your agent card. Since you can't chat with other players, players are generally going to add real-life friends by exchanging codes. Once you add a friend, you can always choose his robot for battles, and you can also send each other gifts.
While Agent Alert blurs the lines of what an MMO should be, I think it's worth noting how it chose to deal with the issue of child safety, something that's a tricky problem for MMO studios to solve. Disney basically made a multiplayer game and cut away all the features that allow the potential for danger to kids. Yes, you battle with other players and friends, but you can't shout obscenities or make rude gestures. The only things you see are what you do in game, so while you can technically team up with friends and other players, you don't really interact other than through gift exchanges.
Overall, Agent Alert isn't really a complex, deep game, but considering that it's entirely free-to-play, I think it's nicely done. This probably isn't a game that kids will stick with for the long haul, but then again, kids generally move from game to game rather quickly (the same can be said for many adults, actually!). The battles are fun and are actually a nice change from the usual clickfest so common in MMOs today. Fans of the show will enjoy Danville, and there are several recognizable characters that players will see and hear from along the way. It might not be an MMO in the strictest sense, but it's completely free-to-play, safe from the dangers of the internet, and a fun diversion from the cookie-cutter features that plague more traditional MMOs.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.