There’s recently been something of a gold rush for free browser-based, kid-friendly online games, particularly from cable networks like Nickelodeon and Disney. Cartoon Network enters that mix dramatically with “FusionFall,” a “World of Warcraft”-lite game that’s the first one to approach the quality, playability and potential for mass appeal of its older-skewing brethren. Though the tastes of pre-teen boys are as fickle online as on the air, “FusionFall” is sure to grab its target aud’s attention and, if it’s well supported and marketed, could even turn into a solid business of its own.
It’s evident Cartoon Network spared no muscle in creating this free, kid-friendly Web-based extension to its on-air lineup. Rather than try to mash together or directly reproduce the stylistically variant worlds in its various shows (as Nickelodeon does with its far-less-gamelike “Nicktropolis”), “FusionFall” is a wholly original, story-driven world in which everyone from the Powerpuff Girls to Dexter to Samurai Jack is reimagined as sincere, anime-inspired heroes who look cool but maintain many of their trademark quirks. The Kids Next Door see their treehouse fort translated as a surreal floating island, for instance, while obnoxious bugger Eddy (minus cohorts Ed and Edd) assigns missions from a cardboard fortress that helps fend off the monsters.
As in most massively multiplayer online (MMO) games based on licenses, players create unique characters, in this case kids armed with time-traveling powers and laser blasters. They get missions from Cartoon Network icons, who pump kids’ egos by stressing how much the future of the world depends on them. Players can collect miniature versions of TV personalities, called “nanos,” which offer players unique abilities.
Where “FusionFall” differs from the traditional run-and-quest MMOs it otherwise resembles is the incorporation of action elements, often requiring the player to jump floating platforms, ride zip lines or use gadgets to traverse the environment. These would benefit by being more intuitive; the learning curve alongside the 3-D view and keyboard-mouse scheme feels challenging at first. But overall, it’s a clever, subtle way to break up the long town-to-town jogs that missions often require.
The rest of the gameplay is fairly linear and mission based. Initially players arrive in a futuristic area and are tasked with several quests involving assembling a time machine. If they want to continue to the present or past, however, they have to become paying subscribers. “FusionFall” manages to walk this always precarious line between encouraging subscriptions and annoying nonpaying players fairly deftly, offering a considerable amount of free content without any advertising. Nonetheless, it’s designed smoothly enough that many kids are sure to bug their parents for a credit card in order to enjoy more content and pick up the “nanos” and other collectibles.
Navigation in general could be a little more intuitive, but the learning curve is all-ages-appropriate. Similarly, combat requires nothing more complex than aiming with the mouse and clicking away — which gets tedious, so it’s good that missions only occasionally require players to slay beasts with clever, toonish names like “Painsaw” and “Verminator.”
Game’s weakest element comes in the “multiplayer” part of the MMO formula. Though the already well-populated gameworld is enjoyable, social utilities for chat, grouping up and listing buddies are minimal and feel like distractions since they necessitate pausing the gameplay. Unlike the many online games that strongly encourage teaming up and making friends, there’s no reason to communicate with other players in “FusionFall.” Though opening up those avenues to kids can be tricky, Cartoon Network plays things so safe that it’s to the detriment of an otherwise innovative videogame.