You might be wondering, at this point, just how publisher Frogster's going to make any money out of Runes of Magic. The answer is diamonds. Lots and lots of diamonds. With diamonds, purchased with real world cash, you pay for in-game items designed to give you a leg up in the levelling process. Examples include potions that increase by 30 per cent the experience collected in combat for all members of a group, or portal runes that transport you around the world, or clothes racks for storing armour in your customisable house (every character has a residence, kept spic and span by a sexy anime-style maid), or even a war horse, available to rent for seven or 30 day periods.
While the idea of buying advantage with your own cash will give many players the fear, it's important to note that in Runes of Magic you can't buy powerful armour or weapons. Only subsidiary items are available. In that way, you should never come up against another player in a PvP situation (restricted to duels at the moment) who's got the edge because he's considerably wealthier than you. And, really, if you have the time and inclination, there's no reason to spend any money at all. The Phirius Tokens system allows you to cash in rewards from a number of area specific daily quests for many of the items that you'd otherwise have to pay for with diamonds. Because Frogster seems to have made such effort to make the game fully playable without the need to spend a penny, it seems unclear at this stage why anyone would.
Instead, the appeal, as the game's title suggests, is in runes. Customisation is the order of the day here. Weapons and armour have slots in which you're able to fix runes that grant statistical bonuses. You can do this for absolutely everything, and it doesn't stop there. You can strip powers from new objects into a rune and attach it to your existing armour. You can even combine runes to form more powerful ones. In this way, it'll be a rare sight indeed to see two players with identical gear, unlike WoW.
For me, Runes of Magic is impressive for a free MMO, perhaps even the best, but predictably it's nowhere near as good as its subscription-based rivals, WoW and Warhammer Online. It doesn't do anything particularly ground breaking, and in parts it's shoddy - music will inadvertently cut out for no apparent reason, the text sometimes makes no sense, betraying its Taiwanese origins perhaps, and the graphics won't knock anyone's socks off, but it's free, and, by all accounts, popular. The English-speaking PvP server tested is heavily populated, with LFG requests popping up in world chat every five seconds. The game world, Taborea, isn't particularly big, but that's much preferable to having a massive game world with content spread too thin. Runes of Magic's 50 levels should keep players entertained throughout the grind, and the promise of regular free updates with new game content bodes well for the future.
For MMORPG newcomers, though, Runes of Magic will be utterly bewildering. There's little in the way of explanation, the game isn't particularly user friendly and it clearly assumes a degree of knowledge on how these games work. You have to imagine that Frogster's missed a trick here: there's bound to be one or two people who've been put off by MMORRPGs in the past because of the regular fees. Runes of Magic doesn't explain itself well enough to appeal to them.
From whatever angle you enter Runes of Magic's virtual world, don't expect it to blow you away. But it works. Dave summed it up well: "So, what do you think?" "It makes me want to play Warcraft". "Yeah."