MapleStory, the free, massively multi-player online game, makes itself hard to judge. On one hand, it is free, and there is nothing really “wrong” or broken with the game play. The overall look is bright and colorful, and plenty of help is offered from in-game dialog boxes and non-playing characters.

But once you dig a little deeper and put some hours into the game, you realize why it is free – it’s doubtful that many would be willing to pay monthly or yearly subscription fees for such a basic game that also has some obvious flaws. If you’re not investing money in MapleStory, you can accept its flaws a bit more readily than something you pay $10 to $20 per month for.

The game is charming at the start, but there is little depth to the gameplay, and the flaws mount and mount. If you’re curious about the genre on the whole and want to try it out a bit, then MapleStory might suffice, but repeated and long-term playing exposes its limitations. Staying with the game relies entirely on your desire to find other people to play with.

Before even getting started with MapleStory, plot out a couple hours. The initial download, whether you use the automatic installation software or a manual download, is more than a gigabyte. On my cable Internet connection, this took about two hours, and the slowdown seemed to be on Nexon’s end.

Alas, completing the download and making sure your computer is within the minimum system requirements is no guarantee of being able to play. I initially set out to play MapleStory on my desktop, which is a sturdy, old Dell. It worked fine when I played it for a few months in early 2007, but a new anti-cheating game guard prevented the game from running this time. A pop-up message said software I was running could be conflicting with the game guard, but closing a variety of programs and running an anti-virus and spyware scan had no effect. Similar searching on game forums for possible remedies revealed 1) a lot of guessing about the problem and 2) many people in the same situation.

Fortunately, I do have a second computer, a Hewlett Packard Pavilion laptop, and the game installed and played on it without a problem. Once you get MapleStory installed and running, it does so quite well. There are short loads between areas, varying from five to 15 seconds, and very little slowdown despite many objects, characters and items on a screen.

After creating a Nexon account through MapleStory, you can create a character. A little bit of customization is allowed – gender, hairstyle, basic top and bottom – but nothing extraordinary. All characters start out as a warrior-type, with either a small club, hand axe or sword. Depending on whether you would like to become a magician, warrior, thief or archer, you can change between levels 8 and 12. There are slight differences between combat style and equipment depending on the class. Magicians, archers and thieves use more of a long-range arsenal, while warriors have greater health and strength, and fight face-to-face with axes and swords. All the equipment changes your character’s appearance, which is a cute little feature when you’re fighting with some of the wackier equipment, like a giant rose.

Once you pick a server and channel to play on, your character begins on a sort of Tutorial Island. The game holds holds your hand as it explains how to play, how to take quests and where to go for now. Movement is done via the arrow keys or number pad, and the default attack and jump buttons are CTRL and ALT respectively. However, these actions can all be mapped to different buttons, and you can setup a variety of helpful shortcuts – i.e. use a healing potion whenever you press H.

Characters move from left to right, slashing at a variety of colorful, “I can’t believe they’re so cute!” monsters, such as tree stumps, hopping mushrooms, and worst of all, pigs. Damage is taken solely by touching enemies, as none of the ones I encountered had ranged attacks. Typically, you can jam on the attack key fast enough to prevent one monster from ever hurting you, but the game spices things up by seldom having just one on the screen. More often, you’ll be trying to frantically finish off the mushroom in front of you before the one reviving behind you can creep up and damage you.

I’m hiding out on a ladder while regaining health; a frequent occurence because otherwise one of those darn pigs will steamroll over me.

This is fine and dandy for the initial stages as you work your way past the beginner class and gain levels and money for better equipment. But after a week of playing, gaining a single level is a monumental task that can take an entire day. Combat isn’t really hard; it is just a tedious balancing act of finding an area with a decent enemy revival rate that is close enough to a town to buy equipment and sell items at. Worse, if you die, a percentage of your earned experience is taken away. A whole night’s work can be negated in a few moments of weakness.

Also at this point, some of MapleStory’s smaller issues really add up. Jumping is always an adventure because your character can barely do it, yet you’ll be expected to jump across six small islands above a pit of monsters to make it across a screen. Monsters will frequently knock you off ledges, low enough that you can’t just jump back up. You will learn to hate the pigs, who despite being pigs, move much quicker and jump higher than your character. Every enemy drops plenty of items, but most of them are worthless, especially the chocolate. Journey across MapleStory and you will see acres of chocolate dumped or left behind by other players. Hershey and Mars executives would be ashamed at the sight.

MapleStory provides the basics of an online role playing game, and little else. For example, there are quests, but no overall plot or goal that characters strive for. Prepare for plenty of Monty Python style fetch quests for tree branches and snail shells, for which you get token items, meso (coins) and experience in return. None of the in-game dialog elicits much more than a small chuckle, and the lack of any real story or character development hurts any lasting interest in MapleStory.

There is a seemingly vibrant community of millions, according to 2006 estimates, but not much in the way of actual cooperation between players. From observing other players, the community is what you would expect of a free game – teenage boys and girls. Pretty much all typing is in lowercase, with plenty of LOLs, and if you’re playing as a woman, except lots and lots of attention, whether you’d like it or not. By that, I don’t mean persistent stalking, but other players sure will say “hello” a lot. Most of the conversation between players consists of asking for money or offering trades. There is a curse word filter, which players have no problems bypassing. You can join guilds, pair up with other players and even get married, but the game is fully playable solo as well. Players fighting monsters together split the resulting experience and items.

There isn’t much guidance from a central “administration,” except to encourage you to spend real money on the game. Currency is split between in-game mesos and real-life cash, the latter of which is used to buy a variety of special items, such as appearance modifiers and pets. Trading one form of currency for the other (such as auctioning mesos off on eBay) is against the rules, although I’m not sure if there are any in-game mechanisms to prevent it from happening. More annoyingly, most of the things that can be purchased with real money eventually expire, which seems a bit unfair.

The previously-mentioned game guard is meant to stop cheaters, but there is plenty of less than reputable playing going on anyway. For example, classes with long-range weapons frequently leech experience by attacking monsters right before they die. There is little stopping an annoying player from following you around like a little sister from stage to stage, stealing your experience. This happened to at least two women in towns, who I saw telling other players to go away. There is no quick fix to the problem, except to switch over to another channel or server. Another popular tactic is to leave the game on overnight with the attack key weighted down. As long as you aren’t fighting tough enemies, you should be able to easily survive.

In the end, MapleStory provides the sort of experience you would expect for a free online game. While it is initially charming, there isn’t a whole lot of depth to the game. Constant advertisements from Nexon to shell out cash for items and infantile messages from other players also sap the enjoyment. There are better hack-and-slash games out there, and there are better social opportunities as well. If you’re unsure about the world of online gaming, then MapleStory provides an opportunity to dip your toe in the waters for free, but you’ll probably want to dry off quickly or do further wading elsewhere.