Given that my last two blog entries were apparently narrowminded and unfair, it's time to move onto a safer area - trialing existing MMOs. I'd heard about Wizard101 launching with a free play version and something in it called to me to at least give it a shot. I'm glad I did because Wizard101 was a fun breath of fresh air that makes me wonder some of the other MMO developers seem to be struggling in making games that are, you know, fun.
The easiest way to describe Wizard101 is TownTown by way of Harry Potter and Magic: The Gathering. It's been designed as child friendly with a hero wizard theme and combat is done via a spell deck system. Even if you know nothing of the above properties, the tutorial is very friendly and thorough (although I did wish the more advanced combat lesson you get from the Arena contact had come a touch earlier) and playing starts out easy before slowly unfolding the depth of strategy that the combat system has.
Character creation sees you answer a number of questions and have a school of magic suggested to you (out of Ice, Storm, Life, Death, Fire, Myth and Balance - there is an online version of these questions if you want to try it out) or you can just choose your preferred school. All spells from that school are awarded free as you reach the appropriate levels - levelling up gives you access to training points that can be used to buy powers from other schools. Cosmetic customisation is really limited to just face and hair, because as soon as you get equipment your default clothes will be covered (hopefully by something in a matching colour scheme and / or designed to not make you look like a junior pimp).
Pimp hat? Check. Pimp cane? Check.
Quests are handed out in the standard MMO way, with most distances being fairly easy to cover and quests generally don't take long to complete (although there are some "Find <hidden item>" that span several zones are are meant to take longer).
Combat is turn based, seeing opponents choose from spell cards to case on themselves, on opponents or on friends. In general, you select a card and a target and once all parties have readied an action, the round starts. As spells are cast you see an animated sequence play out that shows the effect of the spell - generally an attack in the early stages, since that's the majority of the cards you will have.
As you level up, you get access to more powerful monsters as well as cards that can debuff your opponent or buff you, deepening the choices you have to make. Do you cast an ice spell debuff on your opponent so the next time they get hit by an ice spell they take extra damage? Or should you cast shields on yourself? Or should you just use small monsters to nickle and dime your opponent to death? Or save up and cast the bigger monsters in your arsenal? Tactics and strategy matter, especially against some of the tougher enemies.
Although turn based, other players can easily join in on your combat - if they enter the combat circle they will be sent to an available position and will wait until the next round starts. Of course, this might see another wandering monster join in fighting against the both of you - combat can be up to 4 opponents on each side.
Given that Wizard101 has been designed with children in mind, you are restricted to using pre-designed sayings in chat (typed chat opens up when you subscribe) and your character name is made by you selecting from three different lists. Things are pretty silent in the starting areas of Wizard101, but given that players will often leap into combat with you at the drop of a hat and there are loads of players around, it is very hard to feel lonely.
Even wizards wear hoodies.
The reality of Wizard101 is that you will spend most of your time running from quest to contact to quest, fighting monsters in order to achieve quest objectives. Given that the combat is fun (although some of the animations can get a bit boring after seeing them repeatedly) and the game well paced enough that you'll get a new spell to add to your deck pretty regularly, I found myself really enjoying Wizard101. There are gripes - having a spell Fizzle (i.e. fail to cast) that ends up costing you the fight is a special kind of frustration - but they are minor.
The overly cutesy graphics may put some off while others might not want to play a "kid's game" or a "card game", but Wizard101 was one of the few games I've trialled and after a few sessions was ready to hand over my credit card details. I actually hated running out of quests I could do (I've got more quests, but they are in zones the free trial doesn't allow access to) at lvl 9 - I really wanted to get to lvl 10 and get access to a few more spell cards!
As a bit of trivia, Wizard101 is developed by KingsIsle Entertainment, some of whom are ex-Wolfpack (so ex-Shadowbane). It's interesting to think that these guys have gone from Play2Crush to this kind of cute, cuddly IP, but a number of very nice design features and very slick game mechanics show that there are some very experienced people behind this title. I also have to be impressed by the size of the trial area - there is plenty to do and the fact that there are dozens more areas available for paying subscribers means that paying $10 a month to play certainly appears to be good value.