While my wife and I are not just compatible but nearly identical in many of our personality traits and likes, we’re quite different when it comes to video gaming. Me, I’m the casual-hardcore guy who has two MMO subscriptions, multiple box games I’m trying to get through, and I’m always on the prowl for more. She’s Ms. Flash Games, much preferring Peggle and Desktop Tower Defense to anything with huge depth and complexity.
It’s not that I’ve ever faulted her for this, because quite a few people are like her — they just don’t thrive on a game requiring tons and tons of knowledge how to play right, they just want to jump in the action and have fun. Unfortunately, this means it’s always been tough for us to find games to play together, although it’s been a priority in my recreational life for some time now, because I don’t want gaming to be an isolationist activity — I would rather do something together that draws us closer.
So the other night I subscribed two accounts under Wizard 101’s family plan ($6.95/mo per family member), tossed out the idea to her (“Honey, you like Harry Potter, right? And World of Warcraft? And Bejeweled? Then why not give this a try…”), and she took the bait. Hours later, we were both entranced with this “family” MMO, which has hit the right tone in bridging the gap between a serious gamer and a casual one.
It’s kind of funny — Wizard 101 pretty much came out of nowhere to be a hefty competitor in the MMO scene. I was in the beta for a bit, liked it, but was too busy elsewhere to really invest time in it. Yet since its launch, Wizard 101’s gained a lot of fans not just in its intended kiddy audience, but also adults who took a shine to the Harry Potterish theme, the deck-building strategies, and the ease of entry and play. Several prominent bloggers have given their time and enthusiasm to the game, and I suggest checking out their posts: West Karana, The Common Sense Gamer, Mystic Worlds, Hudson’s Hideout and Stylish Corpse. If adults who claim to be “serious gamers” have shown this much love for a supposed little kid’s game, then it might warrant a closer look.
In many ways, Wizard 101 puts other MMOs to shame with its ease of entry and tutorial system. No need to buy a box — you just create an account, download a small file, and as you start to play the game it continues to load the rest of it in the background. You step into the shoes of a young wizard at Ravenwood, a magic school in no way associated with Hogwarts, under the tutelage of some crusty old wizard who is certainly in no way associated with Albus Dumbledoor. Aw, heck, let’s just get past the pretense — Wizard 101 is Harry Potter, just without any direct copyright infringement. The world isn’t graphically intense, but it is stylishly pleasing — very cartoony, colorful and vibrant.
Your wizard chooses a primary school of magic (Life, Death, Storm, Myth, Balance, Fire, Ice) in which they get their spells free, but can also buy into secondary schools with training points that are awarded at certain intervals. You are granted spells that come in the form of cards, each easy to understand with icons standing in for actual words. Your “spelldeck” can be filled up with cards in any fashion you like, except that you can’t put more than three of any one card in your deck. Then, you go out and fight.
The combat system actually struck me as hilarious once I realized what it actually was. Instead of real-time combat (a la World of Warcraft), Wizard 101 elected to create dynamic turn-based combat that’s identical at the core as any RPG from the 80’s and 90’s. You choose a spell, they choose a spell, you cast, they cast, rinse and repeat. There’s a lot of strategy that comes into play as you build your decks, save up “pips” in earlier rounds that let you cast more powerful spells later in combat, and protect or heal allies as they come along.
My wife (a fire/ice wizard) and I (life/death) are attempting to play and level together as much as possible, since Wizard 101 is a very linear game, and doesn’t really allow for much lower level characters to pal around with higher level ones. This is where the game shows its limitations — as a MMO, Wizard 101 lacks or restrains certain features due to its high priority on keeping it a very family friendly title. We can’t trade or sell anything between players other than disposable “Treasure Cards”. Text chat, even when enabled for over-13 years old characters, filters about half of the English language in an attempt to keep things clean (I couldn’t type “smealt” although I could type “smelled”, for some reason). There’s no remapping of keys or moving around the UI other than the chat box. You can’t form a party, which is the biggest blow to teaming up with friends, and is something I don’t understand. Happily, the game does allow you to keep a friends list and quickly teleport to wherever your friends are at, so my wife and I use this often as we separate and rejoin for various purposes.
Because it is very linear and dependent on additional content and updates, like the upcoming expansion, to keep the story going, Wizard 101 isn’t an infinite adventure like many other MMOs, but for what it is, it has broad appeal, even to a crusty old gamer like myself. Now, if you’ll excuse me, my wife is pulling at my shirt to get me to log back in.