Okay, the gloves are off for this one. I'm a big Wizard 101 fan, and I continue to play & enjoy my time in the Spiral. However, there are some glaring holes in the Interface, Shopping & Loot systems. Some of these pitfalls can be navigated, and some are just part of the experience. Hopefully, you'll find some useful tips below!
Wizard 101 does several things right: your view is not cluttered with windows, bars, or a massive radar. Aside from a few unobtrusive icons around the corners of your screen, the main view is dominated by the 3D world and your character - bravo! This is no small feat for a modern MMORPG.
The compass may be toggled to display the zone exits around the corners of the screen. However, since the game world is not particularly large or complex - you won't need this for long. It's a solid feature for the younger crowd, though.
Your friends list may be activated by clicking on the little "hands shaking" icon in the upper right hand corner of the screen. The April 2009 patch added the ability to set some friends as "best friends." Toggle the star to achieve this. These "best friends" appear at the top of the friends list. My largest complaint about the friends list is you must be standing next to a player to add them as a friend. I see why this is necessary (duplicate names are allowed), and I think the purpose of the "true friend" code is to allow you to add friends offline - however, I've never gotten the true friend code to work. Anyway - the best feature of the friends list is the ability to warp right to them! This is a fantastic time-saver with only marginal abuse potential. Kings Isle gets a golden star for this one.
Chat is accomplished with free text (hit "enter" to bring up the chat window) or with the text menus which are reached by clicking on the speech bubble icon in the upper left of the screen. Note: players under 13 years old cannot see your free text chat. The free text is heavily filtered (as you type, which is nice). The biggest problem is you cannot send numbers through free text chat - I guess the devs didn't want people relaying their age or address... probably a good thing!
To access the main interface, click on the book in the lower right of your screen or one of the shortcut keys such as "C" for Character or "B" for Backpack. The bookmarks along the right of the "interface book" take you to different sections of the interface.
The Character tab lists all vital information about your character: Health, Mana, Experience, Power Pip Chance, Bonus Accuracy, Titles, PvP Rank, etc. Next we have the Backpack tab where your items are stored. Use the icons along the top to only view items from a certain slot. All equipped items will have a little fist next to their name. After that is the Spell Deck tab - read my previous article on basic deckbuilding for information on that aspect of the game.
The next tab contains the info on all of your current quests. This section scrolls, so look for the little arrows on the right and left to scroll through your active quests if you have more than four. Some quests will even have smaller arrows next to the icon of your "target" - this means you may have to visit multiple NPCs, locations or defeat multiple monster types. With a recent patch, you may also "track" one quest. Quest tracking will show an arrow which usually points in the right direction. More importantly, your current progress will be displayed right above your experience bar.
The Map tab shows your current location (you can zoom out). Also, you can use the Bed icon to return to your dorm in Ravenwood or the House icon to return to the "start" of your current world (ie - in Wizard City, you are transported to a location right outside of Merle's house). You may activate the House or Bed once every 60 seconds. The Question Mark tab is the help section - if you are new to Wizard City, it may be worth a look. The next tab is the Realm tab where you can check on the player populations and switch servers. The last tab of note is the Options tab where you can adjust your graphical, audio, and interface settings.
The recent addition of a Shared Bank between your characters is a welcome addition. Now, you don't have to sell that great robe you found for another magic school - save it for an alt! However, some items are marked as "No Trade", and cannot be placed in the shared bank. Gold is also restricted from trade. You access the shared bank from your dorm room.
So, that's pretty much everything! As you can tell, there's less going on than in most MMORPGs. The two big systems absent from Wizard 101: Grouping and Guilding. While Guilding can be missed in a game geared towards a younger crowd, the lack of a Grouping option is sometimes painful. If I wasn't in the same room as my wife, I don't know how we'd logistically stay together and remain organized. Sure, we can warp to each other's fights if we get separated, but some form of rudimentary Grouping system would be a welcome addition.
My main complaint with the interface is the lack of a world radar. Ever since Wing Commander, radar has been a useful tool in a 3D game interface. One of the biggest problems with "grouping" in Wizard 101 is the frustration to try to stay together. A simple radar with locational dots for your friends would be an excellent addition.
Gear and treasure cards may be purchased with Gold in most Wizard 101 shops. Gear can also be purchased in specialized shops with Crowns (bought with real-world cash) or in the arena shop with Arena Tickets (gained by participating in PvP matches). You may also purchase a color change in any of your gear with gold (another gold star to Wizard 101 for adding this).
Even with all of these options, the shopping experience is quite shallow in Wizard 101. There is no auction house, so everything is somewhat static. If you enjoy browsing five-hundred Frosted Axes of Cupcake Doom on an auction house, looking for a bargain - you may be disappointed. Also, since there is no Crafting in Wizard 101, there isn't a need to visit a vendor or hunt for rare materials. However, recent patches have added some variety to the Crown shops, and the devs have mentioned that they'd like to rotate and keep that selection fresh.
Until the April 2009 patch, the PvP reward gear was less than stellar. Now, however, there are some interesting items for sale from Diego. Hopefully, this trend continues and we see more items in the PvP shop (like player housing fluff, as mentioned by the housing preview).
Shopping Tip: Some of the best gear can be purchased with gold, which is slow to accumulate in Wizard 101. These items make a huge impact on your power level (though not quite as much as before the early 2009 nerf). You can significantly (up to ~50%) reduce the cost of these items by playing with the colors before you purchase! Of course, you can recolor these items later by visiting the paint shop in Wizard City.
Here lies my largest disappointment with Wizard 101. Perhaps I like loot too much, I don't know. One thing is certain, however - there is little depth or randomization in Wizard 101's loot/drop system.
Most of the best gear is purchasable with gold or crowns, so the whole RPG standby of delving into a difficult dungeon in hopes of glittering rewards is almost absent. This may be changing, however - as a patch in early 2009 nerfed most of the high-end crown and shop gear. Perhaps the dungeon-dive will make an appearance in Wizard 101?
Despite my disappointment with the current loot system, I must praise Wizard 101 on its art direction. Of course - the mythical creatures are presented with great attention to detail and folklore. Also, some of the loot you do gain from boss fights is fun and interesting. My wife and I took down an iron golem boss in Marleybone (iron golems have a big furnace belly), and I received a fire staff with a miniature furnace on the top. Good stuff.
Loot Tip: The best dropped loot comes from bosses, so target them for all your extraneous loot needs.
Don't expect to find deep social, crafting, shopping, or loot systems in Wizard 101. While that may sound like a death sentence, Wizard 101 is still vastly entertaining. The released and upcoming features are impressive in their scope. Wizard 101 remains a breath of fresh air amongst the recent crop of MMORPGs.