You’re a young wizard being trained in the ways of magic at the Ravenwood School of Magical Arts under the watchful eye of headmaster Ambrose. As you learn to harness mystical powers, you’ll be tasked with saving the school from the evil Malistaire Drake. Sound like Harry Potter? Well, it is a lot like Harry Potter, at least up to a point. Wizard101 is an online game for kids that has many of the trappings of an adult MMORPG built around an unusual card-based combat system, and it has been capturing the imagination of people of all ages.
Many elements of larger online RPGs are present in Wizard101. After creating a character you’ll find yourself tackling a series of quests in an effort to collect gold, equipment, and of course, the experience points needed to increase your level. The world has public areas, instances, mini-games, and even PvP arenas.
Graphics and Interface
As you would expect, the graphics are cute, colorful, cartoonish, and easy on hardware. Although it’s a long way from Harry Potter, the art direction is bang on and the animation is excellent. There are some remarkably elaborate spell effects which are a joy to watch, even if they do get a little repetitive after a while. The GUI is robust yet minimal, giving you just what you need as you need it. The map and navigational aids also fullfill their purpose in a simple and efficient way.
Outside of combat, movement and camera controls closely mimick those of mainstream titles like World of Warcraft or EQ2. The initial download is relatively small and the game streams new areas to you as you encounter them, allowing you to play areas you already have as they download.
Keeping It Clean
Parents will naturally be concerned about the chat system in the game, and several mechanisms are in place to ensure that chat is child safe. The system can be limited entirely to preset phrases, although that can make it a little difficult to communicate. Alternatively, players on your friends list can be granted additional chat priviledges that allow you to speak more freely.
Combat is where Wizard101 starts to make major departures from the norm. As you approach an enemy you are snapped into a ring where combatants take turns casting spells at each other by choosing cards from their decks. Character movement is actually suspended during these exchanges. Spells are based on a deck of cards selected beforehand, from which 7 are drawn each round. Players have less than a minute to play a card or they pass their turn, so you’re not stuck in limbo if someone leaves their keyboard for half an hour.
There are 7 different types of magic in the game, and your card collection grows along with your character. Although it lacks the depth of something like Magic: The Gathering, it’s a well-realized concept that makes a powerful impression right from the start.
Your camera automatically jumps around to give you a good view of the animations that represent your spells, which is a wonderful visual experience. However, as I mentioned earlier, you’re going to see them over and over again. They do take a while, especially at the higher levels as the fights grow longer, and I’m sure some people would rather skip them if they could; a minor flaw in this otherwise admirable combat system.
While there are no grouping or guild features in Wizard101, players can freely join engagements underway in the public parts of the world. As more young wizards enter a combat ring, additional enemies also join, up to a limit of 4 on 4. Everyone in a battle gets credit for kills, and rewards are doled out automatically, so there are no disputes over loot. As well, there are now arenas with rankings and rewards in place for those who want to work their magic against other players.
Wisps and Mini-games
Another way in which Wizard101 differs from the average RPG is that health and mana don’t regenerate automatically. You have several ways to deal with this. Running around catching wisps while out of combat is one option, although it’s not particularly entertaining, especially if there are lots of other players around doing the same thing. If you have potions you’re good to go again in an instant. Your health does slowly recover in town, and you can also play mini-games for mana. The various mini-games are reminiscient of casual titles like Bejeweled or Tetris.
Limits on the Free Trial
You can download and play Wizard101 free of charge, and unlike most online game trials, there is no time limit. At around level 10, however, you will find yourself running out of things to do. If you want to explore further, you can purchase a monthly subscription that gives you access to everything, or you can purchase zones in the game one at time as you need them, which is quite unusual. It gives you ample time to decide if you want to spend money on it.
The Bottom Line
Although Wizard101 has a few shortcomings, it’s a charming idea that has been beautifully executed and lovingly polished. They’ve taken a chance with the collectible card inspired combat, but there does seem to be an audience for it, and thanks to a solid tactical element, there are plenty of parents playing along. It’s refreshing to see a game that concentrates on doing a few things well, rather than trying to be everything to everyone. Wizard101 is not only a game your entire family might enjoy, it’s a title that a lot of games designed for adults could learn something from.