I've been playing graphical MMORPGs since the original Neverwinter Nights, hosted by AOL, in 1992. Through the years, I've played most of the major MMORPG releases and plenty of free-to-play offerings. I've gamed with friends, but never family - until now. On Christmas Eve, I noticed my thirteen-year old niece playing what looked like an MMORPG. She showed me Wizard 101. I jumped at the chance to play an online game with a family member, and installed the game that night. Despite being geared toward a younger crowd, this game has some depth and a palpable "fun" factor for all ages.
Wizard 101 is self-described as an "online Wizard school adventure with collectible card magic..." Well, being a former Magic the Gathering addict as well, I became even more intrigued.
The download and install are free and quite simple - pretty much the easiest install for a game you'll face these days. Once in the game, you choose your character's primary school of magic from Fire, Ice, Storm, Myth, Life, Death or Balance. Either answer the questions to have your magic school selected for you, or skip the questions and simply pick what you want. After that, you pick your appearance from some limited options. Then, you are presented with a brief tutorial (skippable, if you prefer) which covers movement, questing, chatting, and combat. Once all of that is finished, it's on the Wizard City!
The headmaster wizard, Merle Ambrose, gives you your first quest directing you to the newbie zone - Unicorn Way. Merle is a cross between Gandalf, Dumbledore, and Elminster - but he serves his purpose as mentor and quest launching pad.
You'll notice a spellbook and a compass in the lower right of your screen. The spellbook is everything - inventory, help system, magic deck configuration, title management, system settings, world map, etc. Don't worry about the spellbook quite yet. If you click on the compass, all the zone exits and places of interest will be displayed around the edges of the screen. Clicking the M key (or getting there through your spellbook) will also bring up the zone and world maps. Your first quest will also have arrows on the ground, directing you towards the quest goal. All of this makes for an easy introduction to younger kids or newcomers to the genre.
By this time, you'll notice non-player character portraits filling up the right side of your screen. These serve as further tips & interface help - click on them to get the text. Experienced players can disable the tips in the system settings.
The newbie zone is usually quite full of players, so you'll notice battles happening on the street. You can easily join in and cooperatively slay beasties by simply walking near the battle. Everything happens right in the game world, and other players can view your battle and the spells you cast - which are all animated quite colorfully and smoothly.
Staying on the sidewalk will keep you safe from monster attacks, if you need to get to a particular destination. You may also notice floating red and blue wisps. As you cast spells and take damage, your health and mana globes will be reduced - use the wisps to replenish them while in the adventuring zone (red for health, blue for mana). There are other ways to recover health and mana, but simply collecting these wisps in the beginning is the fastest and easiest.
As you defeat enemies, you are rewarded with the usual MMORPG fare of experience and gold. Of course, you will also find items. These items can be examined and equipped by pressing B or using your spellbook to access your backpack. At first, the items will be simple and add to your health or defenses against certain types of attacks (Fire, Ice, Storm, etc). If you want to sell items, there is a merchant right in the entrance to Unicorn Way, so you don't have far to go. To sell items, click on the "Sell" tab at the top of the screen and then click on the type of item (hat, robe, boots, etc). Yeah, it's not the slickest vendor interface, but it gets the job done.
Combat is by far the best aspect of Wizard 101 - especially if you come from a card-gaming background. Etherlords, for the PC, was one of the first computer games to borrow directly from Magic: The Gathering. Then, some time later, Magic came officially to the computer world. Just like Magic and Etherlords, you have an array of spells which starts off small and builds as you progress through the game. You construct your "deck" from these spells and "draw" several cards each round of combat. You and your friends have 30 seconds to select a spell and then the combat round plays out. The monsters and players all attack in what seems like a random order, and then it is time for the next round. As mentioned in the MMORPG.COM review here (http://www.mmorpg.com/gamelist.cfm/game/362/view/reviews/loadReview/66), group battles are fun, engaging, and even offer a fair amount of tactical options.
Once you reach level 2, return to Merle Ambrose's house to get another quest called "Enrollment." This will take you through the Ravenwood school and you will get some nice experience and a useful spell from your primary magic school. After that, accept all the quests you can find (a yellow exclamation mark denotes a quest-giver). Some of the quests will lead you into "interior" rooms to face a boss. Unfortunately, you must defeat these bosses without the help of a friend, which is disappointing since the boss fights are quite fun. Atlantica Online (another turn-based MMORPG) has the same limitation, and I'm not a fan of being forced to solo the more interesting battles and quest-ends.
Complete Unicorn Way quests until you are level 5. Once you hit level 5, open your map and click on the little "bed" icon - this will return you to Ravenwood school. Find your trainer and learn the level 5 spell for your school. If you want, you can also use your "training points" to learn a level 1 spell from another school (and a level 5 spell if you choose the same secondary school). Since these spells will behave much like spells you already have, there's really no need to do this quite yet. Also, you cannot undo your training point choices just yet - but the developers have promised that functionality in the near future.
After you complete all Unicorn Way quests, you should be around level 5. Merle Ambrose will give you a "Potion" and a title - "Hero of the Unicorn Way." When the potion is full (completely purple with a stopper), you can click on it to replenish your health and mana! Once used, you can play mini-games to refill the potion for free. At this time, you will also notice that some quests lead you into "Premium" zones, which you do not have access to unless you pay for access or buy a monthly subscription.
Here ends day one in Wizard City!
Wizard 101 offers much more than a passing glance would reveal. However, the kid-centric themes, limited MMORPG features, and turn-based nature of the battles may not appeal to some hardened MMORPG veterans. Trying the game is free, so there is little to lose if you think you might be interested. You may find yourself pleasantly surprised!