I was predisposed to like the new Wizard 101 game. It’s not exactly a secret that I love Harry Potter, and the game promises to be a wizard school MMOPRG. The game is adorable from the first loading screen. They’ve got a Wizard 101 gallery on the website, but it doesn’t do justice to the fantastic sketch drawings and handwritten notes, or the cheery game characters.
I was asked not to post screenshots, (edit 8/25: that’s changed, my W101 pictures are here) as the game’s still in beta, so you’re just going to have to believe me that one teacher is a qipao-clad animated cow. And there’s an attack leprechaun! Even the menu screens are draw like classroom doodles. If I could post just one screenshot, it would be the stick figure cartoons on the map and in the margins… a girl and a boy who are always getting into mischief. Also, I would put a pair of glasses on the girl!
The Wizard 101 quests are flavored with mixed-up fairy tales and subtle puns for adult players. While the quests themselves are the usual fare of “kill 5 baddies” or “return this item to an NPC”, they’re mixed with a Fairground of minigames. The minigames are quick casual games, a bit like the puzzle games in Neopets. The point of the Fairgrounds is to recharge your mana and make a few coins, but I really liked Potion Motion. (Ok, I should come clean about this. If I’m talking on the phone, I’m probably playing a casual game at the same time. Thus, Neopets.)
Usable items don’t give a visual sign on mouseover, which made it hard to tell if I could open doors or pick things up. I got a bit frustrated as I tried to pick up items that were just part of the scenery. Games have changed… when I was a wee lass, we pocketed everything not nailed down! You can, however, tell whether you can enter a building based on the color of the windows. If they’re dark, no one’s home. If they’re yellow, come on in! Bluish lights indicate an errand for you inside, usually the location of your quest or battle.
Combat is animated magical attacks, in turns between players and bad guys. The villains disappear when they’re thwarted, players are teleported home to recoup. I think the bloodless combat caters to tween girls, without going the annoying all-pink route.
The combat system is based on learning spells and adding them to your deck, collectible card game style. When I’ve played card games, I can never remember what all the little symbols describing the card mean. Icons are just the nature of squeezing a complicated system on to a card, so I’m frustrated that this computer game doesn’t allow you to click the icons and find out what they mean. There is a help section for looking up the icons when you’re not actually in combat, but Wizard 101 seems to be missing what makes computer games superior to card games, it seems like a huge oversight not to have clickable card info, or info that pops up on mouseover.
Maybe the plan is to branch out into a collectible card game. Some of the some of the “gold” cards as random rewards really seem like specials in sealed packs.
The game is intended for tweens, and I was a little annoyed by all the safety controls. Users must be over 13 to even have access to chat. Also, you can’t pick your own name, there’s a spinner that chooses a first name and a two-part last name (something like Starspinner or Whitethorn). You can set the spinner to your favorite combination, but there’s no chance to make up your own name. While it does eliminate the players running around cleverly named “YOURMOMSUCKS”, it’s billed as a safety feature, forbidding kids to use their real names and identifying information, and I think it’s taking ‘net safety a bit too far.
In general, I think internet safety programs are a waste of time, they’re treating the symptom and not the disease. Sadly, there are bad people who’ll hurt children. Kids should learn general safety rules, like not telling strangers their address and what time Mommy isn’t home, and then be reminded to apply those rules in the game as well. There are potential problems with wee ones playing online and innocently telling the wrong person their address, but a chat filter can’t substitute for good parents teaching their kids about stranger safety and making sure those rules are followed. I haven’t seen a chat filter that you can’t get around if you’re really determined to swear, you could probably get around this one as well.
I’ll stop here before getting into my usual rant about how game companies shouldn’t be expected to parent. Occupational hazard of being a twentysomething gamergirl, I guess!
If you’ll excuse me, I have to go cast some spells now.